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Tidy Cavemen: Neanderthals Organized Their Shelters

Archeologists excavate Neanderthal levels at Riparo Bombrini in northwest Italy.
CREDIT: Fabio Negrino

New research suggests that Neanderthals kept a tidy home. During excavations at a cave in Italy where a group of our closest known extinct relatives once lived, scientists say they found a strategically placed hearth and separate spaces for butchering and tool-making.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that Neanderthals made tools, buried their dead, used fire and maybe even adorned themselves with feathers, bucking our ancient cousins' reputation as stocky brutes. The new findings add to that growing list of intelligent behaviors similar to those of humans. 

"There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans," study researcher Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, said in a statement. "But we found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere, but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space." [Image Gallery: Our Closest Human Ancestor]

Riel-Salvatore and colleagues discovered that Neanderthals may have been rather domestically inclined while the scientists were digging at Riparo Bombrini, a collapsed rock shelter on the coast of northwest Italy. Excavations revealed some "provocative patterns" of artifact distribution, the researchers wrote in their study detailed in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology.

The scientists think the cave's ancient occupants divided the space into sections for different activities: a top level for butchering and preparing animals, a middle level for long-term living and a bottom level for use as a short-term base camp.

In the main living level, a hearth was positioned near the back wall of the shelter, which likely allowed warmth to circulate among the living space. Meanwhile, stone tools and animal bones were concentrated at the front of the cave, the researchers say.

"When you make stone tools there is a lot of debris that you don't want in high-traffic areas or you risk injuring yourself," Riel-Salvatore said.

Alongside a hoard of animal remains in the back of the top level, the researchers also uncovered evidence of ochre, a natural brownish pigment.

"We found some ochre throughout the sequence but we are not sure what it was used for," Riel-Salvatore explained in a statement. "Neanderthals could have used it for tanning hides, for gluing, as an antiseptic or even for symbolic purposes — we really can't tell at this point."

The authors note that other Neanderthal sites in the archaeological record, such as Italy's Grotta Breuil, are not so tidy, suggesting that spatial organization of living spaces might not have been common to all Neanderthals.

"This is ongoing work, but the big picture in this study is that we have one more example that Neanderthals used some kind of logic for organizing their living sites," Riel-Salvatore said. "This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well."

Neanderthals roamed Eurasia from at least 200,000 years ago until they went extinct 30,000 years ago. For a period of time, they overlapped with humans, and some studies suggest the two even interbred

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