Shortly before their extinction, our ancestral cousins, the Neanderthals, faced a climate crisis of their own. We now know how they adjusted to it.

A new German-Italian research study has revealed that Neanderthals adapted to climate change by developing more complex tools. This was discovered through the analysis of artefacts found at the Sesselfelsgrotte cave in Lower Bavaria, one of the most important Neanderthal excavation sites in Central Europe.

Who were the Neanderthals?

Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were a subspecies of early humans who lived approximately 400,000 to 40,000 years ago in Europe and Asia. They were very similar to our early human ancestors (Homo sapiens), but were of a more stocky build, with shorter limbs proportional to their bodies. They were hunter-gatherers, but were more sophisticated than the simple caveman archetype we might imagine them to be.

Model of a Neanderthal man at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany

Despite often being depicted as primitive and bestial in popular culture, Neanderthals were quite advanced for their time. They developed stone tools, created fires and cooked their food. Their skills also included crafting clothes and using boats long before modern humans did.

They produced cave paintings, made ornaments from bird bones and shells, and even developed a language. It is also thought that they may have invented the flute, making it the world’s first musical instrument.

Model of a Neanderthal woman and man at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany

Some estimates suggest that there may have been as many as 70,000 Neanderthals on Earth at their peak, so where did they go? The answer isn’t entirely known. It is possible they may have exterminated or out-competed by early modern humans. It may be that they were wiped out by a deadly disease. Or it might have been climate change.

What climate change did they face?

A global environmental crisis is something that we as a species are currently facing, but we are not the first to face climate change. Around 44,000 years ago, the Neanderthals faced a crisis of their own.

A period of extreme cold swept Western Europe which lasted for approximately 1,000 years. Average temperatures dropped below zero, forcing the Neanderthals to adapt accordingly.

How did they adapt?

The universal cutting and scraping tool used by Neanderthals was a knife made from a single piece of stone. One edge is sharpened for cutting, while the other end is blunt and serves as a handle. This is known as a Keilmesser, or wedge knife. Examples of these knives found by archaeologists have varied significantly in shape and size, leading researchers to wonder why the Neanderthals created such a variety of knives.

It is now thought that these knives were designed to be adaptable because of the changing climate and subsequent lack of natural resources.

Model of a Neanderthal man using a Keilmesser to cut up his prey, from the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany

“Keilmesser are a reaction to the highly mobile lifestyle during the first half of the last ice age. As they could be sharpened again as and when necessary, they were able to be used for a long time – almost like a Swiss army knife today,” explained Prof. Dr. Thorsten Uthmeier from the Institute of Prehistory and Early History at FAU.

An excavation of the Sesselfelsgrotte cave in Lower Bavaria by Prof. Uthmeier and his team unearthed more than 100,000 artefacts. The many knife-like tools that were discovered were then 3D-scanned and analysed. The findings suggest that Neanderthals modified their knives to adapt to their new climate.

“The technical repertoire used to create Keilmesser is not only direct proof of the advanced planning skills of our extinct relatives, but also a strategical reaction to the restrictions imposed upon them by adverse natural conditions,” said Uthmeier.

“Unlike some people have claimed, the disappearance of the Neanderthals cannot have been a result of a lack of innovation or methodical thinking.”

So what can we learn from the Neanderthals?

Unlike the Neanderthals, our current climate crisis is two-fold. While there is certainly natural climate variation at play, our industrial society is accelerating those effects at an alarming rate. We may yet be able to prevent our climate catastrophe if we change our ways. But if don’t, we must learn to adapt within it.

While the Neanderthals had no way of preventing the climate change they faced, they learned to adapt. And while their ultimate demise is self-evident, their innovation and versatility allowed them to survive much longer than expected, and that is still something to admire.

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