The above image is from a diorama at the Museum of Natural History. The project was headed by Ian Tattersall. Click on the image for a larger view.


Very little is known about the social structure and interaction of Neandertals among one another. They lived in "groups of 30 to 50 individuals, they invented many of the tool types that were to be perfected by fully sapient peoples, they had weapons adequate to deal with both the cave lion and cave bear, they used body paint, buried their dead and were clever flint workers" (Megarry 1995:274). However, there have been extremely different interpretations of Neandertal life by anthropologists and archaeologists. It is known that "Neandertals rarely lived more than forty years, with both sexes dying at the end of the females reproductive cycle" (Rudavsky 1991:56). This means that there was no post-menopausal survival which equals to very little, or no grandparenting. Females tended to die before the age of thirty, due to hazards of childbirth, while males usually expired at a later age. From this evidence it is obvious that children and juveniles made up most of the clans. Few children would have known their grandparents due to the brief contact between one generation and the next. According to Myra Shackley, "taking twenty to thirty years as the maximum period during which a couple could have children then the youngest members of a family reached adult stage when their mother died and their father would shortly die" (1980:33). This is a highly negative trait in a hunter-gather society, where the grandparents help raise the children and "are responsible for passing on knowledge of the environment and religious lore" (Rudavsky 1991:56). It is probable that because of no grandparenting, Neandertal children might have been more apt to survive on their own. Also, with such a short life-span, an adolescent Neandertal would be forced to mature, marry, and reproduce early.

Evidence has shown that Neandertals developed and matured much faster than modern humans. Paleoanthropologists have found data to prove this theory by using an innovative dating technique called perikymata. It analyzes the incremental growth lines that form like tree rings and become visible on the outer surface of the tooth enamel (Johanson and Edgar 1996). The perikymata of an unerupted incisor from a Neandertal youth skull found at Devil's Tower in Gibraltar shows that the child was four years old when it died. Ironically the skull had well-developed molars for its age, which suggests that once Neandertal children were weaned, they had to provide for themselves. This would cause them to mature at an early age.

This was one of the many paintings done by Jay Matternes for the American Museum of Natural History. It depicts Neandertals as being in a social family unit. Compared to earlier paintings, Matternes brings out the true humanity of Neandertals. Click on the image for a larger view.


Louis Binford developed one of the most controversial theories on the Neandertal social structure, based on his analysis of the Combe-Grenal site. He proposed that Neandertal males and females led separate lives, ate different food, usually lived in separate places, and the men only "stopped off between foraging trips just long enough to mate" (Fischman 1992:48). Binford derived his conclusion from a series of hearths found on the same level at Combe-Grenal. He called one hearth "the nest," because there was a bed of soft, ashy, sedimentary material, simple stone tools, and animal marrow bones, including teeth and crania. The other hearths, some nine to thirty feet away, were very distinct. According to Binford:

they held collections of more elaborate stone tools, such as scrapers, which are rock flakes whose edges were further flaked to sharpen them. The outer lying clusters also held the ends of animal bones; and in some cases Binford was able to fit these ends to the bone splinters found in the nest, a pretty clear indication that the two areas were used at the same time. (Fischman 1992:49)
Carbonized sediments from these sites showed fires burning at a much higher rate that in the "nest," and that the tools associated with these hearths were made of materials available at a great distance from the cave. What was even more fascinating was that tools made from distant river valley rocks were found along with the remains of river valley mammals, such as pigs. On the other hand, simple stone tools from the neighboring plateau were accompanied by horse remains and other plateau fauna

From this evidence, Binford surmised that the cave was being shared by one group of people who were highly mobile, covering substantial territory, and another clan who were dependent upon the resources  available in the immediate area, such as plants and scavenged animal bits. According to Binford, these two groups of people were separately composed of men and women. He claimed that "the nest were occupied by more sedentary females, who foraged in the local areas for plant materials and cooked over low flames" (Tattersall 1995:152). Binford speculated that the other areas belonged to the males of the clan. They ranged more widely in such of animal sustenance and may have returned to home sites only in intervals, possibly just to mate. "Bones associated with the fleshy parts of mammals were rare in such spots, suggesting that the males ate the meat where they caught it and brought home only the marrow bones and heads," which require high heat to obtain their maximum fat content (Tattersall 1995:152).

Binford uses examples of modern hunter-gatherer societies to support his theory. In these groups, the females forage closer to home and "exploit low-risk resources like plants like plants they can count on as reliable resources of nutrition for their offspring" (Shreeve 1995:164). The men go out hunting for the meat and bring it back for the entire group,  including the women. However, unlike the males of modern hunter-gatherer groups, Binford claims Neandertals did not do this. Instead they selfishly hunted together, while the women and children took care of themselves. The men would often eat at the sites of their kills and then bring home the manageable items for fat content, such as marrow bones and skulls. "Perhaps some of these scraps were shared with the nest-dwellers, but not to the extent that they could depend on them" for survival (Shreeve 1995:164).

Olga Soffer, in support of Binford's theory, indicates that "juveniles do make up a significantly greater portion of remains in Neandertal caves sites of modern humans, suggesting that they were indeed more vulnerable to the perils of disease, starvation, and perhaps menacing male intruders" (Shreeve 1995:165). Basically, considering the fact that there were more juvenile Neandertals than any other age representation in these small clans or groups, might have contributed to other factors of their socioeconomics such as: the small sites, the lack of organization, the low population densities, the extreme muscularity of women as well as the men, the lack of long distance movement, and equivocal evidence for food sharing, it makes sense that Neandertals lived in familiar, male-protected family arrangements.

Many other paleoanthropologists and archaeologists dispute the validity of Binford's theory. Erik Trinkaus believes that one can document the different uses of space within a culture, but "claiming that the differential represents males and females is just inference" (Shreeve 1995:165). Others find Binford's hypothesis difficult to believe because there is no true evidence to prove his assumption. In fact, several critics believe that it is just Binford's mere deduction of the sites that he analyzed, and his interpretation of what communication was occurring between Neandertal males and females.

Binford's theory appears to have many flaws. For example, if Neandertal society was as sexually divisive as he suggests, then why are burials frequent? There have been instances of men, women, and children being buried together. If Binford's Neandertal social organization had existed, then men would have been buried in separate sections of the cave, apart from women and children.

The Binford thesis that men lived separate from the women, who were left stranded with the children, does not account for the representation of children in the Neandertal social organization. When the male children mature, they leave with the men and vise-versa for the female children. In looking at this aspect, one must consider the bond that develops between a mother and a child. If Neandertals were capable of this bond, then it is doubtful that they would just abandon their mothers without providing for them. It would be more likely that they protected them, and provided food and other various affectionate needs.

Whether or not Neandertal society was as separated as Binford claims, may never be known, but there had to be some interaction between males and females in order to produce offspring. Binford claims that Neandertal men were "visiting firemen," only devoting attention to the females when they wanted to copulate. However, other theories have been put forward to explain Neandertal mate-recognition, and mating habits. One of these theories involves Neandertal faces as part of a mate recognition system, which would provide formal invitations to potential mates through facial cues and expressions. If Neandertal noses and facial features were for cold adaptation, then their sizes and shapes would have fluctuated and reduced during the warm interglacial periods that they experienced (Shreeve 1995). On the other hand, if their faces were for mate-recognition, they would have retained the same characteristics. "Any significant deviation from the facial theme would limit that individual's chance of finding a mate" (Shreeve 1995:205).

Another mating theory developed indicates that the emotions we associate with love, in order to reproduce, might not have evolved with Neandertals, and may have been circumscribed by the need to advertise fertility rather than conceal it (Shreeve 1995). The way in which females would have done this is much like primates, by showing visible signs of estrus, or aggressively pursued or presented to the males during their fertile time (Shreeve 1995). In return, the males may have been interested in sex only when the females' estrus inspired them.

Either way, Neandertal women managed to conceive and bear children for 300,000 years. However, due to their robust sizes, shapes, and differences in pelvic bones, it is speculative if the Neandertal female gestation period was the same length as modern humans. Trinkaus disagrees with this. Unlike modern humans, Neandertals had a much longer pubic rami, which is a segment forming the front of the pelvis (Trinkaus and Shipman 1993). This detail occurs in both Neandertal sexes, and would provide a very wide birth canal for women. Trinkaus estimates that a Neandertal woman would have been able to give birth to a baby with a head fifteen to twenty-five percent larger than that of modern babies without much difficulty (Trinkaus and Shipman 1993). It was in concordance with this evidence that Trinkaus suggested that Neandertal female gestation period lasted from a full eleven to twelve months in order for the fetus to fully mature. Therefore, these ancestors could have matured faster and developed quicker than modern Homo sapien sapiens.

However, with the discovery of the skeleton at Kebara cave in Israel, called Moshe, Trinkaus saw the down fall of his theory. This specimen had the most complete Neandertal pelvis ever found. Moshe's pubic ramus measured about 90 millimeters long, the longest found, and about a third longer than modern man's. Yet the pelvic inlet width is only thirteen percent wider, meaning that the Neandertal pelvis was wider from side to side and not front to back. Therefore, the volume of the birth canal did not change. Even though Moshe was a male, "we can assume that a female Neandertal's pelvis would have similar proportions, and the greater length of the pubic ramus still did not contribute to a larger birth canal" (Johanson and Edgar 1996:78).

Above is a modern human pelvis. Underneath it is Moshe's pelvis.

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