Research regarding Neanderthal groups in Italy has been making the headlines with claims for structured organisation of space. Such organisation has previously been argued to be a trait that only modern humans, i.e. us, were capable or willing to do. Thus, if these new findings are to be taken seriously then it is another point off the list separating Neanderthals from Modern Humans. However, digging a little deeper beneath the headline some of the claims are based on somewhat shaky foundations (it should be stated here that the authors acknowledge the preliminary nature of these results in their paper, but not in the press release).
The site itself, a collapsed rock shelter (Riparo Bombrini, Italy) has been excavated on numerous occasions over the past years. This present analysis is based on the most recent excavations (2002-2005) with an impressive sampling and recovery methodology. Undoubtedly this increased the quantity and quality of material but there are several issues with the conclusions reached by the authors regarding structured and organised use of space.
1. The overall area incorporated into this spatial analysis is between 5m2(and at most) 9m2 in size. This is a very small area of the entire site (30m2), which suggests that patterns observed may not represent the site as a whole. Indeed, the authors discuss a small gap in the spatial patterning that they interpret as the dripline, though this cannot be seen nor is it visually represented within the paper making it difficult to determine.
2. The stratigraphy of the site looks, and undoubtedly is, very complex as highlighted by the stratigraphic section presented. Whilst several Mousterian levels (M) were identified throughout, the authors inexplicably clump several of these together (M1-M3) without apparent explanation. Surely such action could artificially inflate the density when considered as a whole and could produce a lop-sided interpretation of site use and spatial organisation.
3. Finally, tucked away in the discussion/conclusions section the authors state that the material they have identified do not represent “living floors” but “…If anything, they represent palimpsests…” (p86). Therefore, this calls into question whether the spatial data presented should be considered together at all, and how does this fit with the clumping of levels detailed above?
This paper presents some interesting issues and challenges the assumption that the organisation of space is solely within the behavioural realm of Modern Humans. However, the idea of Neanderthals not organising space, particularly within enclosed and limited cave/rockshelter environments is inconceivable. Perhaps they did not do it in the same way as modern humans but should this necessarily be expected? Neanderthals should not be made out to be “modern” or “like us”; they were, and for interpretive perhaps, still are a separate species. We should continue to be quietly surprised by what data the archaeological record throws up. Presently, there are some drawbacks with this new work, but it is hoped that through further work more detailed, and reliable, patterning can be discerned at this site.
Riel-Salvatore et al,. 2013. A spatial analysis of the late Mousterian levels of Riparo Bombrini (Balzi Rossi, Italy). Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 37: 70-92.