Handaxe designs show two distinct Neanderthal cultures in Northern Europe from 115,000 to 35,000 years ago – one in the West spanning western France and Britain, the other in Germany and further East.
Archaeologist Dr Karen Ruebens of the University of Southampton examined 1,300 stone tools from 80 Neanderthal sites across France, Germany, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands to reveal the East-West divide, as well as a transition zone covering northeastern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. She found that western Neanderthals made symmetrical, triangular and heart-shaped handaxes, while eastern groups made asymmetrically shaped bifacial knives.
Dr Ruebens said: “In Germany and France there appears to be two separate handaxe traditions, with clear boundaries, indicating completely separate, independent developments. The transition zone in Belgium and northern France indicates contact between the different groups of Neanderthals, which is generally difficult to identify but has been much talked about, especially in relation to later contacts with groups of modern humans. This area can be seen as a melting pot of ideas where mobile groups of Neanderthals, both from the eastern and western tradition, would pass by – influencing each other’s designs and leaving behind a more varied record of bifacial tools. Distinct ways of making a handaxe were passed on from generation to generation and for long enough to become visible in the archaeological record. This indicates a strong mechanism of social learning within these two groups and says something about the stability and connectivity of the Neanderthal populations.”
The research adds a new archaeological perspective on Neanderthal geographic subgroups (should we say races?), which genetic studies suggest comprised three, or maybe four, distinct groups: one in Western Europe, one in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, one in Southern Europe near the Mediterranean, and possibly one in Western Asia.
Source: University of Southampton