Study suggests Neanderthals could speak like modern humans

Kebara 2 hyoid bone suggests similar linguistic abilities.

Whether or not Neanderthals could speak like modern humans has been the subject of a long-running debate. For a long time, it was believed that they did not. Based on the analysis of Neanderthal specimen from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, it was claimed that the Neanderthal larynx was positioned high in the throat, like a chimpanzee (or a modern human baby), making it impossible for Neanderthals to produce the modern range of vocalisations (d’Errico, et al., 2003).

However, the hyoid bone of Kebara 2, a fossil Neanderthal from Mt. Carmel in Israel, has provided new evidence. The hyoid is a small U-shaped bone that lies between the root of the tongue and the larynx, anchoring the muscles required for speech. The Kebara 2 hyoid is within the modern range in form. Furthermore, by analysis of patterns of muscle attachment, researchers were able to show that the placement of the larynx was similar to that of a modern human, low in the throat (Arensburg, et al., 1989; Arensburg, et al., 1990).

3d modelling work has supported these conclusions. Data from a number of Neanderthal skulls was used to reconstruct the vocal tract. The estimated hyoid position fell within the modern range and acoustic analysis shows that Neanderthals were able to make the quantal vowel sounds (/a/, /i/ and /u/) that are present in all modern human languages. The Neanderthal /i/ and /u/ sounds are within the modern range; /a/ falls just outside (Barney, et al., 2012).

The latest study follows on from this work and used X-ray microtomography to map the internal structure of the Kebara 2 hyoid. It was found that this, too, was within the modern range. Mechanical modelling showed that the micro-biomechanical performance of the hyoid under the loadings it would experience when in use was very similar to that of modern humans. Thus the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn’t just resemble a modern hyoid both externally and internally, it was used in a very similar way (D’Anastasio, et al., 2013).
These results show that from a biomechanical point of view, Neanderthals were fully capable of modern speech. It leaves unresolved the issue as to whether or not they possessed the cognitive abilities, but there is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that their subsistence strategies and other behaviours were far more advanced than previously believed.


1. d’Errico, F. et al., Archaeological Evidence for the Emergence of Language, Symbolism, and Music — An Alternative Multidisciplinary Perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 17 (1), 1-70 (2003).

2. Arensburg, B., Tillier, A., Vandermeersch, B., Duday, H. & Rak, Y., A middle Palaeolithic human hyoid bone. Nature 338, 758–760 (1989).

3. Arensburg, B., Schepartz, L., Tillier, A., Vandermeersch, B. & Rak, Y., A reappraisal of the anatomical basis for speech in Middle Palaeolithic hominids. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 83 (2), 137-146 (1990).

4. Barney, A., Martelli, S., Serrurier, A. & Steele, J., Articulatory capacity of Neanderthals, a very recent and human-like fossil hominin. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 367, 88–102 (2012).

5. D’Anastasio, R. et al., Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implications for Speech in Neanderthals. PLoS One 8 (12) (2013).


530,000 years old Spanish hominins were closely related to Denisovans

Mystery of Sima de los Huesos ‘proto-Neanderthal’ mitochondrial genome.

Sima de los Huesos – ‘the Pit of Bones’ –  is a small muddy chamber lying at the bottom of a 13 m (43 ft.) chimney, lying deep within the Cueva Mayor system of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca of northern Spain. Human remains dating to the Middle Pleistocene were first discovered there in 1976, and systematic excavation has been in progress since 1984. Investigation of the cramped site has proved to be long and difficult – it is located more than 500 m (⅓ mile) from the mouth of the Cueva Mayor and is hard to access, necessitating at times crawling on the stomach. To date, over 2,000 fragmentary hominin fossils have been recovered, including three skulls. In total, the remains are thought to represent at least 32 individuals of both sexes. Many of the remains are of adolescents and young adults, though, the pattern of mortality was probably quite normal for the time, and a similar peak in adolescence has been found at a site at Krapina in Croatia. There is no evidence for violence and the deaths could simply be the result of hunting accidents and childbirth complications. Hunting accidents were probably not uncommon among inexperienced young hunters and women likely fell pregnant soon after commencing menstruation (Pettitt, 2005).
Uranium-series dating suggests that the remains are least 530,000 years old (Bischoff, et al., 2007), and display a mixture of Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthal features. For this reason, the  Sima de los Huesos hominins are often described as ‘proto-Neanderthal’ (Klein, 2009), although it has also been argued that they were a species distinct from both Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis rather than an intermediate between the two (Tattersall, 2002).

In a newly-published study, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have reported the sequencing of the almost-complete mitochondrial genome of one of the Sima de los Huesos hominins. The mitochondrial DNA was extracted from a thigh bone. An estimated age of 400,000 years was obtained by comparison with other, younger ancient DNA sequences dated by direct means. This is rather more recent than the uranium series dates for the site, but still by far the oldest hominin DNA ever recovered. The previous record-holder was no more than 100,000 years old.

Given the geographical location of the Sima de los Huesos and the apparent affinities of the hominins to Neanderthals, it was expected that the material would show affinity to genetic sequences obtained from later Neanderthal remains. Instead, it more closely resembled ancestral Denisovan mitochondrial DNA (Meyer, et al., 2013).

The Denisovan genome, first identified Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, has been found in the modern populations of New Guinea and Island Southeast Asia, implying that the Denisovan range had once extended from the deciduous forests of Siberia to the tropics. This is a wider ecological and geographic region than any other hominin species, with the exception of modern humans (Reich, et al., 2011); but could their range have extended all the way to Europe?

It is likelier that the Sima de los Huesos hominins were the common ancestors of both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. Mitochondrial lineages originally present in both lineages subsequently disappeared from the Neanderthals, but persisted in the Denisovans. They could have been lost from the Neanderthal line as a result of a population bottleneck of the type known to have affected later Neanderthal populations (Dalén, et al., 2012).


1. Pettitt, P., in The Human Past, edited by Scarre, C. (Thames & Hudson, London, 2005), pp. 124-173.

2. Bischoff, J. et al., High-resolution U-series dates from the Sima de los Huesos hominids yields 600 +/-66 kyrs: implications for the evolution of the early Neanderthal lineage. Journal of Archaeological Science 34, 763-770 (2007).

3. Klein, R., The Human Career, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2009).

4. Tattersall, I., in The Speciation of Modern Homo sapiens, edited by Crow, T. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002), pp. 49-59.

5. Meyer, M. et al., A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos. Nature (Published online) (2013).

6. Reich, D. et al., Denisova Admixture and the First Modern Human Dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania. American Journal of Human Genetics 89, 1-13 (2011).

7. Dalén, L. et al., Partial genetic turnover in neandertals: continuity in the east and population replacement in the west. Molecular Biology and Evolution 29 (8), 1893-1897 (2012).

The Denisovans

In 2008, a distal manual phalanx of from a hominin little finger was recovered from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. The cave is named for a hermit called Dionisij (Denis) who is supposed to have lived there in eighteenth century, but if this is true he was only the latest in a long line of inhabitants. In April 2010, it was reported that the phalanx had belonged to a hitherto-unknown human species (Krause, et al., 2010).

The small bone was dated by stratigraphic methods and found to be in the region of 30,000 to 48,000 years old. It was believed to have belonged to a child aged between five and seven years old, but other than that no morphological classification could be made. Due to the cool, dry climate, it proved to be possible to extract DNA from the bone, isolate mtDNA fragments, and sequence the entire mitochondrial genome. As we inherit our mtDNA solely from our mothers, this led to the find being dubbed X Woman, despite being a juvenile of unknown gender.

At the time in question, Neanderthals, identified as such by their mtDNA, were living less than 100 km (60 miles) away. The presence of an Upper Palaeolithic industry at Siberian sites such as Kara-Bom and Denisova itself has been taken as evidence for the appearance of modern humans in the Altai before 40,000 years ago. The expectation, therefore, was that the mitochondrial DNA from the bone would match that of either Neanderthals or modern humans, but neither turned out to be the case. Instead, sequencing revealed that X Woman had last shared a common ancestor with Neanderthals and modern humans about a million years ago.

X Woman clearly wasn’t a Neanderthal or a modern human, but what was she (if indeed she was a ‘she’)? One possibility was Homo heidelbergensis, the presumptive common ancestor of the Neanderthals and modern humans, but this species probably appeared no earlier than 600,000 years ago, and was too recent to be associated with X Woman’s ancestors. On the other hand, one million years ago was too recent for X Woman to be a late-surviving descendant of the first wave of Homo erectus to reach Southeast Asia and China.

Towards the end of 2010, it was reported that X Woman’s nuclear genome had been sequenced (Reich, et al., 2010). It turned out that X-Woman lacked a Y-chromosome and therefore was indeed female. The discovery of an upper molar tooth from a young adult was also reported. The sequencing of mtDNA from the tooth confirmed that it belonged to a different individual to the phalanx. For this reason, the term ‘X-Woman’ was dropped in favour of ‘Denisovan’.

The nuclear data allowed more detailed estimates to be made regarding the relatedness of Denisovans, Neanderthals and modern humans. It was found that the Denisovans diverged from Neanderthals 640,000 years ago, and from present-day Africans 804,000 years ago. This meant that the Denisovans were more closely related to the Neanderthals than to modern humans, and may thus be considered a sister group of the former. The most remarkable finding was that 4.8 percent of the nuclear genome of present-day New Guineans derives from Denisovans, greater than the Neanderthal contribution of 2.5 percent (Reich, et al., 2010). The implication was that the Denisovan range had once extended from the deciduous forests of Siberia to the tropics. This is a wider ecological and geographic region than any other hominin with the exception of modern humans (Reich, et al., 2011). Overall, the data was consistent with a scenario in which modern humans, on leaving Africa, interbred with Neanderthals and then, at some subsequent point, the ancestors of present-day New Guineans interbred with Denisovans.

Follow-up studies confirmed the presence of Denisovan genetic material in some other modern populations of island Southeast Asia, and also in Aboriginal Australians, Fijians and Polynesians. Significantly, though, it was absent from mainland populations. The only logical explanation is that the present-day population of Mainland Southeast Asia are descended from a second group of migrants that arrived after the Denisovans had become extinct (Reich, et al., 2011; Skoglund & Jakobsson, 2011; Meyer, et al., 2012).

Interbreeding with Denisovans might have boosted the immune systems of some modern populations. The human leucocyte antigen (HLA) helps the immune system to recognise and combat pathogens. There are three genes known as HLA-A, HLA-B and HLA-C, and it believed that a number of variants of these genes are of Denisovan origin. These variants could have conferred immunity to pathogens to which the incoming modern population had not been previously exposed, and given a survival to those acquiring them from the Denisovans. It is possible that the modern immune system has thus been shaped by ‘importing’ advantageous genes from archaic populations throughout Eurasia (Abi-Rached, et al., 2011).

It has been suggested, on the basis of allele comparison, that the Denisovans were dark-skinned, with brown eyes and hair (Meyer, et al., 2012). Other than that, and beyond their genetic impact on modern populations, we still know very little about them. The Middle Pleistocene fossil record of Southeast and East Asia is very sparse and the Denisova tooth, probably a third or possibly second left upper molar, fails to support a connection with any of the few remains that have been found. The tooth is fairly large, lying within the size range of Homo erectus and Homo habilis. It is above the size range typical for Neanderthals, early modern humans, and the very few third upper molars that have been recovered from other late archaic hominins in the region. The tooth shares no derived morphological features with Neanderthals or modern humans, hinting at the distinctiveness of the Denisovans (Reich, et al., 2010). On the other hand, the report failed to note that some early modern human teeth are also very large, such as those associated with the 35,000-year-old lower jawbone from Peştera cu Oase in Romania (Trinkaus, et al., 2003; Trinkaus, et al., 2003). Size alone probably does not tell us very much (Hawks, 2010).

Recently, it has been suggested that the Denisovans interbred with yet another archaic human species. Given that the Denisovans and Neanderthals diverged from one another after they diverged from modern humans, one would expect the two species to be equally genetically distinct from our own species. However, this is not the case; the Denisovans are more genetically distinct than the Neanderthals. It turns out that scattered fragments amounting to around one percent of their genome is much older than the rest of it. This is best explained by the Denisovans interbreeding with an as yet unidentified human species, possibly Homo heidelbergensis or Homo erectus. We do not yet have genetic material from either species, so this cannot be confirmed  (Marshall, 2013).

At all events, it is now clear that the view of modern humans entirely replacing archaic populations is not correct, either in or out of Africa. There is certainly an element of truth to the multiregional model. It is, however, only an element. The range of morphological variation between modern and archaic humans is greater than that in any existing primate species. We should not think of Denisovans and Neanderthals as simply variant forms of Homo sapiens (Stringer, 2012).

Abi-Rached, L. et al., 2011. The Shaping of Modern Human Immune Systems by Multiregional Admixture with Archaic Humans. Science, 25 August.
Hawks, J., 2010. The Denisova genome FAQ. [Online]
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[Accessed 14 November 2011].
Krause, J. et al., 2010. The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from southern Siberia. Nature, 8 April, Volume 464, pp. 894-897.
Marshall, M., 2013. Mystery human species emerges from Denisovan genome. [Online]
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[Accessed 21 November 2013].
Meyer, M. et al., 2012. A High-Coverage Genome Sequence from an Archaic Denisovan Individual. Science, 30 August.
Reich, D. et al., 2010. Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature, 23/30 December, Volume 468, pp. 1053-1060.
Reich, D. et al., 2011. Denisova Admixture and the First Modern Human Dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 7 October, Volume 89, pp. 1-13.
Skoglund, P. & Jakobsson, M., 2011. Archaic human ancestry in East Asia. PNAS.
Stringer, C., 2012. What makes a modern human. Nature, 3 May, Volume 485, pp. 33-35.
Trinkaus, E. et al., 2003. Early modern human cranial remains from the Pestera cu Oase, Romania. Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 45, p. 245–253.
Trinkaus, E. et al., 2003. An early modern human from Peştera cu Oase, Romania. PNAS, 30 September, 100(20), p. 11231–11236.

Projectile weapons invented almost 280,000 years ago, by pre-modern humans

Study suggests Ethiopian Rift stone points were used as hafted javelin tips.

The invention of projectile weaponry was clearly an important advance for early humans, enabling large mammals or enemies to be killed or wounded at a distance, without the dangers of a confrontation at close quarters.

The earliest humans probably hunted to an extent, but unequivocal evidence for the hunting of large mammals does not appear in the archaeological record until the Middle Pleistocene. In 1995, four wooden spears were discovered at an open cast mine near the town of Schöningen in Germany. The 400,000-year-old weapons were found with the carcasses of the horses they had been used to kill: the earliest-known association of hunting weapon with quarry. Each spear was over 2 m (6 ft. 6 in.) long, sharpened at both ends, and scraped smooth with stone tools (Thieme, 1997). However, these were unlikely to have been projectile weapons. They are closer in thickness to ethnographically-recorded thrusting spears rather than throwing spears, and if thrown would have had a killing radius of less than 8 m (26 ft.) (Shea, 2006).

Even earlier are the 500,000-year-old stone points from the site of Kathu Pan 1 (KP 1) in South Africa. Some exhibit fractures to their ends, bases and edges that are consistent with a short-ranged weapon striking a target – but not with use for cutting or scraping. The points are shaped near the base in a way that suggests that they were hafted to wooden spears. Experiments with replicas of the KP 1 points, made from similar raw materials, suggest that they made effective spear tips. This makes them the earliest-known multi-component tools; however, they were thrusting spears rather than projectile weapons (Wilkins, et al., 2012).

Throwing spears or javelins were once thought to be a technology unique to modern humans. However, a newly-published study suggests that they predate the emergence of Homo sapiens by 80,000 years. The Gademotta Formation is an archaeological site located on the flanks of an ancient volcanic caldera in the Ethiopian Rift. Investigations since 2010 have yielded over two hundred intact or fragmentary stone points, nearly all of which made from locally-available obsidian. Obsidian is a naturally-occurring volcanic glass that is well-suited to the production of implements with a sharp cutting edge. Argon-argon dating suggests that the oldest of the artefacts are 279,000 years old. Many of the points were found to bear fracture patterns on their tips consistent with impact damage arising from their use as hafted javelin tips, rather than as thrusting weapons (Sahle, et al., 2013).

The pre-modern humans living in Africa at this time are commonly referred to as Homo heidelbergensis. It is commonly supposed that they lacked the cognitive abilities of modern humans (Klein & Edgar, 2002), but the emerging view is that the sophistication of Middle Pleistocene humans has been severely underestimated. The Gademotta projectile tips are an important piece of evidence in this new picture.


1. Thieme, H., Lower Paleolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807-810 (1997).

2. Shea, J., The origins of lithic projectile point technology: evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 33, 823-846 (2006).

3. Wilkins, J., Schoville, B., Brown, K. & Chazan, M., Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology. Science 338, 942-946 (2012).

4. Sahle, Y. et al., Earliest Stone-Tipped Projectiles from the Ethiopian Rift Date to.279,000 Years Ago. PLoS One 8 (11) (2013).

5. Klein, R. & Edgar, B., The Dawn of Human Culture (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY, 2002).

Mesolithic hunter-gatherers persisted in Central Europe for 2,000 years after arrival of farmers

Study indicates that foragers maintained way of life alongside farming communities.

Farming spread across Europe from Southwest Asia between 6500 and 4000 BC, but interactions between the indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and incoming Neolithic farmers are poorly understood. The general view is that hunter-gathering disappeared soon after the arrival of agriculture, but whether the hunter-gatherers took up farming themselves or simply died out remains uncertain.

In order to investigate relationships between foragers and farmers, researchers examined Mesolithic and Neolithic samples from Blätterhöhle, a cave site near Hagen in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany (Bollongino, et al., 2013). The cave contained the remains of around 450 Neolithic and Mesolithic individuals. It is likely that it was a burial ground, and that these individuals were deposited there deliberately. Radiocarbon dating has revealed two phases of occupation: a Mesolithic occupation from 9210 to 8340 BC, and a Late Neolithic occupation from 3986 to 2918 BC.

Stable isotope analysis and ancient mitochondrial DNA extraction was carried out on the bones and teeth of 29 individuals. Isotopic ratios of sulphur, nitrogen and carbon in human remains can provide an insight into the diet of an individual while they were alive. Mitochondrial DNA can trace maternal ancestry.

Of the 29 individuals sampled, 25 yielded usable mitochondrial DNA; five from the Mesolithic occupation and 20 from the Late Neolithic occupation. The five Mesolithic-era individuals all belonged to mitochondrial haplogroup U, in common with other pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherers of central, eastern and northern Europe. More unexpectedly, twelve of the Neolithic-era individuals also belonged to haplogroup U. This haplogroup is rare among Late Neolithic farmers, and suggests a surprising persistence of Mesolithic maternal ancestry. The remaining eight individuals belonged to typical Neolithic haplogroups.

Stable isotope analysis indicated the existence of three distinct groups. The first, comprising the Mesolithic-era individuals, subsisted on a diet of wild foods typical of that found at other inland Mesolithic sites. The second group comprised Late Neolithic individuals with a diet of domesticated animals typical of German Neolithic sites. The third group was also from the Late Neolithic, but diet was unusual: low in plant and animal protein and high in freshwater fish.

The members of this third group all belonged to mitochondrial haplogroup U, whereas members of the contemporary second group were a mixture of Mesolithic and Neolithic haplogroups. Thus it appears that a group of fisher-foragers were living alongside a group of farmers in the fourth millennium BC, which is around 2,000 years after agriculture reached central Europe. That both groups used the Blätterhöhle cave site at the same time indicates that they were near-neighbours.

Ethnographic data shows that such communities do live side by side, commonly exchanging food; for example cereals for fish. While forager women do marry into farming communities, the reverse is very rare as women from farming communities regard it as marrying down. The mitochondrial results are consistent with the ethnographic picture: no Neolithic haplogroups were found among the fisher-foragers; but the Mesolithic haplogroup U was present among the farmers.

It is unclear just how prevalent such forager communities were in Late Neolithic Europe, but the Blätterhöhle results are the strongest indication yet that such genetically-distinct communities persisted long after the arrival of farming. The ultimate fate of these communities remains uncertain. The authors of the study suggest that some groups may have eventually changed over to farming, although it has been suggested that incoming farmers would rapidly appropriate all the prime farmland, making such a switch problematic (Bellwood, 2005).


1. Bollongino, R. et al., 2000 Years of Parallel Societies in Stone Age Central Europe. Science 342, 479-481 (2013).

2. Bellwood, P., First Farmers (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2005).

First came the temple, then the city

What was the purpose of 11,000 year old monument at Göbekli Tepe?

Located on a limestone ridge 15 km (9 miles) from the town of Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey is a site unlike any other known in the early Neolithic world of Southwest Asia. Göbekli Tepe is thought to be the world’s oldest temple. It comprises a series of stone circles that draw superficial comparison to Stonehenge, but it predates the well-known Salisbury Plain monument by seven millennia.

Göbekli Tepe was noted as far back as the early 1960s, but was largely ignored for thirty years. Not until 1994 was it visited by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who believed that the site was Neolithic. He began excavating there the following year, and work has been ongoing ever since.

At the lowest level of the site, Layer III, Schmidt discovered series of semi-submerged circular or oval enclosures. Each comprises a dry-stone wall, into which up to twelve T-shaped limestone pillars are set, often joined to one another by stone benches. At the centre of each enclosure are two more pillars, which tend to be larger than the surrounding ones. The pillars range in height from 3 to 5 m (10 to 16 ft.) and weigh up to 10 tonnes. They were quarried from limestone plateaus close to the site, where a number of incomplete pillars remain in situ. One weighs over 50 tonnes, larger than any of the finished pillars so far excavated. Currently, four enclosures, designated A to D, are undergoing excavation, but geomagnetic surveys suggest that least twenty exist. Many of the pillars are carved with bas-reliefs of animals, including snakes, wild boar, foxes, lions, aurochs, wild sheep, gazelle, onager, birds, various insects, spiders, and scorpions. Where sexual characteristics are present, they are always male. The images are large, often life-size, and semi-naturalistic in style. Some pillars exhibit pairs of human arms and hands, suggesting that they represent stylised anthropomorphic beings. However, it is unclear as to whether they represent gods, shamans, ancestors, or even demons. There are also a number of mysterious abstract symbols that have been interpreted as pictograms (Schmidt, 1995; Schmidt, 1998; Schmidt, 2000; Schmidt, 2003; Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

Pictograms are graphic symbols used to convey meaning, often by pictorial resemblance to a physical object. They are widely used in present-day road and other public signage to denote traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, speed cameras, etc. If the Göbekli Tepe symbols were indeed pictograms, then the origins of writing may extend back into the early Neolithic, thousands of years before the appearance of writing systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphic script.

No traces of houses have been found and there is little doubt that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre, possibly the first of its kind anywhere in the world (Schmidt, 1998). Unlike Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe lacked a mixed farming economy. This overturned the conventional wisdom that such major projects could only be realised by fully-established farming communities. “First came the temple, then the city”, as Schmidt put it. How are we to interpret this temple?

One possibility is that the animals depicted in the various enclosures are totemic. It could be that the site was frequented by a number of groups, each of which identified itself with a different animal or animals and travelled to the site to perform rituals in its own particular enclosure (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). Another possibility is that Göbekli Tepe was associated with shamanistic practices (Lewis-Williams & Pearce, 2005).

A project on the scale of Göbekli Tepe would have required a large number of labourers and craftsmen. Coordinating the activities of all these people, to say nothing of providing them all with food and shelter, would have been a major undertaking. It should also be remembered that unlike the builders of Stonehenge, the Göbekli Tepe people were still not yet full agriculturalists. Such an undertaking was almost certainly beyond the capabilities of a few shamans and their communities. Instead, it seems likely that the monument was constructed by a hierarchical, stratified society, with powerful rulers. The shamans might have had more in common with priests (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). The link between rulers and religion, so prevalent in later times, might have already started to take shape.

The totemic and shamanistic explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and if the totemic view is correct, then it possible that animals depicted in each enclosure could provide clues as to the origins of particular groups. For example, wild boar depictions predominate in Enclosure C. This suggests a group originating from the north, where pigs account for up to 40 percent of the animal remains found at PPNA sites. Combinations of wild boar with aurochs and cranes, as seen in Enclosure D, suggest an ecotone of steppe and river valley, such as along most water courses in the Euphrates and Tigris drainage regions (Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

Eventually, the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe complex were filled in and buried with debris. Animal remains and stone artefacts mixed in with the soil suggest that the filling material came from a typical late PPNA settlement refuse dump. The settlement has not been found, but the amount of debris involved suggests that it was not far away. Subsequently, a far less impressive complex was constructed over the first, comprising rectangular pits with smaller pillars, averaging about 1.5 m (5 ft.) (Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

Establishing a chronology for the site is difficult. Plant remains from the settlement debris have been dated to around 9000 BC (Kromer & Schmidt, 1998), but this does not tell us when the site was first occupied. Assuming that the debris accumulated while the Layer III site was in use, the first occupation of the site would be no later than this date. Based on dates for soil overlaying the filling debris, the Layer III complex was probably buried around 8000 BC (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). Dates for carbonates formed on the stone walls as a result of their burial suggest it could have been no later than 7700 BC (Pustovoytov, 2002).

Just why the Layer III complex was buried and the Layer II complex built over it is not known. A possible clue comes from the site of Nevali Çori, 30 km (18 miles) away. Unfortunately, this site was submerged following the construction of the Atatürk Dam. Prior to flooding, the site was excavated between 1983 and 1991 by Harold Hauptmann from the University of Heidelberg. The site was first occupied around 8500 BC, at the start of the PPNB, and occupation spanned three phases before final abandonment around 7600 BC ( Ex Oriente eV Scientific Society, 2011). It comprised some 29 rectangular multi-roomed houses and a ‘cult building’ – marking a shift from circular houses to the rectangular constructions that have largely characterised human dwellings ever since. The cult building dates to the site’s second and third phases. It was approximately square, measuring 13.9 by 13.5 m (45 ft. 7 in. by 45 ft. 4 in.), and was cut about 3 m (10 ft.) into the slope behind it. Access was via two downward steps. A stone bench ran all the way around the interior, broken by pillars similar to those at Göbekli Tepe and again surrounding a central pair, although they resembled the Hebrew letter ד (daleth) rather than the letter T (Peters & Schmidt, 2004; Lewis-Williams & Pearce, 2005). There is clearly a connection between the two sites, and possibly the shift to rectangular architecture is why Göbekli Tepe was filled in and rebuilt along rectangular lines.


1. Schmidt, K., Investigations in the early Meospotamian Neolithic: Göbekli Tepe and Gürcütepe. Neo-Lithics (2/95), 9-10 (1995).

2. Schmidt, K., Beyond Daily Bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic Ritual from Göbekli Tepe. Neo-Lithics (2/98), 1-5 (1998).

3. Schmidt, K., Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. Paléorient 26 (1), 45-54 (2000).

4. Schmidt, K., The 2003 Campaign at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey). Neo-Lithics (2/03), 3-8 (2003).

5. Peters, J. & Schmidt, K., Animals in the symbolic world of Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey: a preliminary assessment. Anthropozoologica 39 (1), 179-218 (2004).

6. Lewis-Williams, D. & Pearce, D., Inside the Neolithic Mind (Thames & Hudson, London, 2005).

7. Kromer, B. & Schmidt, K., Two Radiocarbon Dates from Göbekli Tepe, South Eastern Turkey. Neo-Lithics (3/98), 8-9 (1998).

8. Pustovoytov, K., 14 C Dating of Pedogenic Carbonate Coatings on Wall Stones at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey). Neo-Lithics (2/02), 3-4 (2002).

9. Ex Oriente eV Scientific Society, PPND – the platform for Neolithic Radiocarbon Dates, Available at (2011).

Did Neanderthals invent tool used by present-day leather-workers?

Specialist bone tool predates arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe.

Two sites in the Dordogne Valley in southern France have yielded four nearly identical deer rib fragments with smoothed edges. These have been interpreted as being a type of tool known as a lissoir (French ‘to make smooth’) used for preparing animal hides. The lissoir is used by present-day leather-workers to make hides softer, tougher and more waterproof. No other known artefact from the Middle or Upper Palaeolithic could be used for such a task. To manufacture such an implement, it is necessary to polish and grind rib fragments to a predetermined size and shape.

A date of 51,500 years old has been obtained for one of the artefacts using optically stimulated luminescence, making these tools the earliest-known specialised bone tools in Europe. Crucially, this date is around 5,000 years before modern humans reached Europe, implying that the tools were manufactured by Neanderthals. This is further proof of Neanderthal sophistication: they clearly knew how to exploit the specific properties of bone both for shaping and for use as a tool.

Even if there were some long-range interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans at this early stage, there is no evidence that the latter used such tools until much later. The Dordogne implements are therefore likely to be of independent Neanderthal invention.

Furthermore, it is entirely possible that modern humans did not reinvent the lissoir but learned about it from the Neanderthals. When present-day leather-workers use such a tool, they could actually be using a Neanderthal invention.


1. Soressi, M. et al., Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe. PNAS 110 (35), 14186-14190 (2013).