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At Home with the Neanderthals – Lunch Hour Lectures on tour

By Katherine Aitchison, on 12 June 2012

For the month of June 2012, the UCL Lunch Hour Lecture series has gone on tour to the British Museum and it was a sold out audience that awaited the first lecture of the series on Thursday 7June.

Most of the lectures are being held in the rather plush BP Lecture Theatre, which gives the event the feeling of a high-class university experience with its armed leather seats and its shiny red walls.

So, there was a real air of expectation as Dr Matt Pope of the UCL Institute of Archaeology took to the stage to tell us about his research into Neanderthal man’s living arrangements. And he delivered not only a fascinating insight into the development of Neanderthal dwellings but also into the very purpose and meaning of archaeology.

The invisible man
Dr Pope began by taking us back 600,000 years to the time of Homo heidelbergensis the suspected common ancestor of both us and Neanderthal man. He did so to demonstrate how “archaeologically invisible” Heidelberg man was.

Despite evidence of hunting and slaughter sites, there is nothing to suggest how or where H. heidelbergensis actually lived, no fire pits, no evidence of sleeping arrangements or food storage areas. It’s most likely that they were nomads who left little impression on the land that they moved through.

However, this began to change with Homo neanderthalensis, and to investigate this Dr Pope is examining the extensive evidence gathered from a site on Jersey; la Cotte de St Brelade.

This dramatic rocky headland was once a green valley with a cave at its head, which served as home to groups of ancient humans for 200,000 years or more. During excavations between 1910 and 1980, a staggering number of artefacts have been collected from the site  catalogued and stored on the island.

It is only recently that the catalogue has been decoded and Dr Pope and his team can begin to analyse the items and divine what it is that they can tell us about the living arrangements of Neanderthal man.

Putting down roots
From the work done so far, they have already detected differences from H. heidelbergensis. At St Brelade, there is evidence that people returned often and the site shows potential division into areas used for cooking or sleeping or making tools – all of which is suggestive of people making it a more permanent home.

This tallies with previous evidence from sites in Ukraine and France, and suggests that Neanderthals may have been some of the first to settle down and stay in one place for extended periods of time.

Location, location
But decoding the living habits of ancient humans is not just for interest’s sake. Dr Pope talked us through some of the main features that were likely to have been involved in choosing a dwelling site as a Neanderthal and showed that they are not so very different from the way we choose to place our cities today.

For example, prospect; having a good view over the surrounding area was as essential then as it was when major areas of habitation, such as London, were founded in more modern times.

To interpret the traces of the past uncovered by archaeology, Dr Pope says, you have to use your own experience of being human and how we live today.

He showed a picture of an archaeologist on a dig and pointed out how the researcher had put himself in exactly the same place as the man who left the artefact to be uncovered, and how little our actions and thoughts have changed over the millennia.

So, if we can use our knowledge of the present to understand the past, it only follows that the opposite is also true: and we can use the innovations made by our distant relatives to better our own lives and, by doing so, truly welcome the Neanderthals home.

Katherine Aitchison is a Second year PhD student at the UCL Institute of Child Health.

Image: First reconstruction of Neanderthal man (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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