Was This A Neanderthal Playground?

Sep 18, 2019 By Christina K, Writer
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Imagine living 80,000 years ago–not as a human, but a great relative, the Neanderthals.

As you run after your friends on what would be modern-day France, your footprints embed deeply into the ground, before being buried with layer by layer of windblown sand. These tracks end up preserved, even as societies rise and fall... all up until this century.

This exact situation occurred in Normandy, France, at the excavation site Le Rozel, where scientists discovered 257 footprints between 2012-2017. These findings were published in a paper on September 9th, 2019. 

Although Neanderthals are the closest evolutionary cousins to humans, little was known about their appearances and social life. These footsteps, however, give new insight into how Neanderthals may have lived, as well as their height.

Neanderthals? Who?

The Neanderthals were found in Europe and Asia while our species, Homo sapiens, were still evolving in Africa.

Though they looked similar to humans, they had longer, lower skulls, more prominent eyebrow ridges, and a stockier body. As mentioned before, they were closely related to humans, most likely sharing a common ancestor. Although we know more about them than any other relative of humans, data on them is still obscure thanks to our limited dating methods.

While the disappearance of the Neanderthals is considered mass extinction, some speculate that they did not go extinct, but instead assimilated with the human gene pool. This is very likely, as Neanderthals and the early modern humans coexisted for a millennia – long enough that some humans today carry 2% of the Neanderthal DNA.

Either way, the Neanderthal population had vanished abruptly. Scientists propose several scenarios to explain this mystery, such as competition with modern humans (hunting, social differences) or worsening environmental conditions.

What This Discovery Tells Us

Artifacts and fossils were the main sources used to slowly and painstakingly paint a picture of what Neanderthal life was like.

Piecing together tools and instruments, scientists learned that they used stone tools, buried their dead, made cave art, among other things. However, isolated findings meant there were lots of spots left blank on the canvas. It’s incredibly difficult to piece together the body shape of the Neanderthals using scattered bones.

This is where the supposedly measly footprints come in handy. Scientists analyze the size and shape of the footsteps to infer the composition of the footprint’s owner, as well as his or her age. Other than appearance, the footprints also tell us how many individuals were in each social group. This particular finding consisted of 10-13 individuals, and the children (around 4 ft) outnumbered the adults (5-6 ft) 4 to 1, to the researchers’ surprise.

In most hunting and gathering communities, the children to adult ratio would not be so skewed. But in other excavation sites, such as the El Sidron cave in Spain, scientists discovered remains of more adults than children. They hypothesize that the Le Rozel group may represent only a few members of the group who were working nearby. 

Only nine other excavation sites have uncovered Neanderthal footprints, making the hundreds of scattered tracks in Le Rozel an incredible discovery. These footprints, among other artifacts as well as 8 handprints, will be used to further study Neanderthal behavior.

Sources: NY Times, Guardian, NatGeo, Britannica, NewScientist