Neanderthal Footprints Shed Light On What Their Social Groups Were Like

Between a creek and what is now a Normandy beach archaeologists are racing to extract footprints before they are destroyed through exposure to the elements. Dominique Cliquet

Until very recently only nine Neanderthal footprints had been found at four locations, and the origins of some are disputed. When a single Neanderthal footprint was found at Gibraltar earlier this year it was considered significant, so imagine the response to the identification of 257 prints laid down together from different members of a single tribe.

Numerous footprints from humans, as well as a few from animals, have been found at Le Rozel, Normandy in France since the 1960s, but their age was unknown, leaving open the question as to whether they were from Neanderthals, or more recent modern humans. Since 2012 a large group of footprints has been uncovered, and earlier this year they were dated as being at least 70,000 years old, a time at which we have no evidence for any people other than Neanderthals living in Europe, particularly so far north. Moreover, the width of the prints, relative to length, are consistent with Neanderthals' robust anatomy.

The prints were mostly made on the muddy flats lying between what is now a creek and the beach, and were covered and protected by aeolian sand before they could be destroyed. Five subunits have been identified, believed to have been laid down at different times.

Le Rozel has not only many different Neanderthal footprints, but also some handprints (top right) and some from animals like wolves. Duveau et al./PNAS

Since these must have belonged to Neanderthals, Jérémy Duveau a PhD student at Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris argues they can tell us a lot about the tribe who made them.

Footprints are not as obviously revealing as other fossils such as bones. However, they often provide information we would obtain no other way, for example about how extinct animals interacted. Neanderthals were so closely related to us some anthropologists argue they were a subspecies of Homo Sapiens – part of us rather than merely our nearest relatives. Consequently, we tend to assume their social relationships were like those of modern hunter-gatherers, but this is only a guess. Our living relatives, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have different social structures not only from us, but each other, proving many options exist.

Not all the prints have been well preserved, but in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Duveau describes the 104 that were. At least 90 percent of these were made by children or adolescents. Since footprints from lighter individuals are less likely to be be preserved, this suggests a grouping of just a few adults and many young people.

The paper estimates the group who made the prints consisted of just 10-13 individuals, most not fully grown. A single site can't determine if this was the norm for Neanderthals. It would certainly be unusual for a group of modern human hunter-gatherers to consist of so few adults caring for so many young, however, raising the possibility Neanderthal families were not so similar to our own.

One of the Neanderthal prints in more detail. Dominique Cliquet

 

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