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Rebecca Wragg Sykes on the objects that reveal the Neanderthal mind

Cognitive archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes says we can learn something about the minds of Neanderthals by studying the stuff they left behind, from painted shells to stalagmite circles. We might even find hints about why they went extinct

Humans 27 September 2022

New Scientist Default Image

Nabil Nezzar

DID Neanderthals think like us? We used to assume that our closest ancient human relatives, who lived in Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years, were concerned only with survival. But in the past few decades we have discovered various things they made that had no clear practical purpose: a shell coloured with red pigment, a deer bone engraved with chevrons and a ring of stalagmites assembled deep inside a cave.

Archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes, honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool, UK, and author of Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art, is fascinated by these artistic – or what she calls aesthetic – objects. She spoke to New Scientist about whether they bring us closer to understanding how Neanderthals thought about the world, and what clues they offer to the species’ mysterious disappearance.

Colin Barras: How can we get inside the Neanderthal mind?

Rebecca Wragg Sykes: Clearly, there are no Neanderthal texts, so we can’t hear descriptions of what they were thinking about the world around them in their own voices. But there is a mass of information in the material they left behind. In a sense, what we can do with those artefacts is limited only by our imagination.

How we can glean information from these artefacts?

One way is to study their technology through a technique called refitting – basically, putting things back together, looking at the sequences they used for knapping, the process of flaking stone blocks to make tools. It’s “slow archaeology”: you excavate meticulously and collect even the tiniest objects. Then you try, piece by piece, to fit those fragments back together. It …