The lives of Neanderthal Women

Neanderthal Women
Fährtenleser, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What can archaeologists tell us about how Neanderthal women lived? Extracts from an essay written by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a Palaeolithic archaeologist and honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool, specialising in Neanderthals.

Neanderthals lived in Hunter-Gatherer Tribes

“Neanderthal women very likely did hunt some or much of the smaller game we find in sites, such as tortoise, rabbits and birds – and probably accompanied by babies and children. Yet the identity of big-game hunters probably shifted according to climate, season, landscape and other factors. Some 123,000 years ago, Neanderthal women of the forest marshes dragged beavers from their lodges, while their descendants 70 millennia – and 3,000 generations – later stalked red deer through wooded uplands.

Even if they weren’t always hunters, it’s extremely likely that women were wielding butchery tools in the bloody aftermath. Part of this was about skin preparation: gore and membranes from fresh skins leave a particular polish on stone tools, while the laborious scraping of dried hides produces its own distinctive lustre. From at least 50,000 years ago, there are even special, round-tipped bone tools for the latter stages of softening and burnishing, called ‘lissoirs’. Made from the ribs of larger animals such as bison, crucially they would have needed two hands to use; exactly the pattern we see in Neanderthal women’s arms. Moreover, the intensity of tooth wear seen in Neanderthal women resembles that in Indigenous cultures with strong hide-working traditions, such as the Inuit, Yupik, Chukchi or Iñupiat.”

Neanderthal Women – Childbirth and Child Rearing

“Birthing would certainly have made women vulnerable, and a secure location would be critical, not just during labour but for the hours afterwards. Mothers probably preferred caves or other sheltered places, but did Neanderthal women go through this alone? It’s been proposed that H sapiens is unique in the desire and even need for birth ‘attendants’ but, assuming that Neanderthal social groups included friendship between women, this might not have been an unreasonable scenario for them too. It’s known in bonobos, where experienced females physically supporting and protecting the mother have been observed, even holding the baby’s head as it emerged.

After birth, other work begins, and breastfeeding was among the childcare skills that Neanderthal mothers needed to learn. Isotopic studies of teeth indicate that babies continued nursing beyond one year old, but were being introduced to solid foods around six or seven months: remarkably similar to many human cultures.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a Palaeolithic archaeologist and honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool, specialising in Neanderthals. Read her full essay on Aeon

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