By Published: Dec. 1, 2016


Neanderthals get a bad rap. CU archaeologist Paola Villa is helping set the record straight. 

Last May, two stone circles found deep in a French cave set off a ripple of awe around the globe. Built with chunks of stalagmites snapped from the cave floor, the circles dated to 176,000 years ago — more than 100,000 years before modern humans pushed out of Africa.

The international news media called the discoveries “extraordinary,” “remarkable” and “shocking.” Researchers said there was no doubt the circle structures in Bruniquel cave — the largest of them roughly 20 feet across and both set nearly a quarter of a mile past the entrance in total darkness — had been created by Neanderthals, close human relatives long stereotyped as knuckle-dragging dimwits.

In the days before the findings became public in the journal Nature, CU Boulder archaeologist Paola Villa’s phone was ringing and her email dinging. An internationally known Neanderthal expert not involved in the study, she was in hot demand for an advance, independent take.

“A plausible explanation,” she told The Atlantic, “is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual behavior.”

The interpretation reflected Villa’s own view, increasingly popular, that Neanderthals were far more nimble intellectually than they get credit for.

Neanderthals and modern humans are both thought to be descendants of Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct species that roamed Africa and Europe beginning some 600,000 years ago. A bit shorter and stockier than modern humans, with a large brow and no chin and likely built for survival in colder environments, Neanderthals overlapped with humans, then disappeared some 40,000 years ago. For students of human evolution, they remain a source of deep fascination.

The Neanderthal 

  • Humans’ closest extinct relative
  • Emerged about 400,000 years ago
  • Went extinct about 40,000 years ago
  • Overlapped and interbred with humans
  • Contributed about 2.5 percent of modern humans’ DNA, on average
  • Controlled fire, made tools, hunted, buried their dead, collected and wore ornaments; possibly had spoken language

Sources: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; Paola Villa, CU Museum of Natural History

Villa, a curator adjunct at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, has been building a case for Neanderthals as an advanced species for a decade. And Bruniquel cave, where the stalagmite circles were found, offers compelling evidence of sophisticated Neanderthal activity, she said.

It contains plenty of evidence of ancient fire, for instance. More than 100 fragments of stalagmites and animal bones bear red and black streaks made by deliberately applied heat strong enough to break rocks. In 2011, Villa and Dutch colleague Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University published a paper detailing evidence of the continuous control of fire by Neanderthals dating back a breathtaking 400,000 years, about the time they first appeared on the landscape.

“These people must have had torches,” she said of the Bruniquel Neanderthals.

The were not brutes — and we are now seeing how adaptable and exceptional they were." 

One of the most extraordinary ways Neanderthals used fire was to make pitch, a sticky black liquid they invented more than 200,000 years ago to set stone tools into wooden shafts. Since the only way to create pitch from trees was to burn bark peels at high temperatures (more than 700 degrees F) in the absence of air, Villa and Roebroeks surmised that Neanderthals dug small holes in the ground, inserted birch bark peels, lit them and capped them with stones.

“For those who say Neanderthals did not have elevated mental capacities,” she said, “I think this is good evidence to the contrary.”

Born in Rome, Villa became interested in science at an early age. After reading a book on archaeology when she was 16, she decided it was her calling. She graduated from the University of Rome with a doctorate in Etruscan archaeology.

“Since then,” she said, “archaeology has never disappointed me.”

After coming to the United States in the 1970s, she earned a second doctorate in archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in the Lower Paleolithic period of southern France, roughly 1 million to 300,000 years ago. She settled in at CU Boulder in 1982.

As evidence piled up that Neanderthals were a creative, successful bunch, Villa and Roebroeks threw down the gauntlet in 2014, publishing a paper bluntly refuting the idea that Neanderthals were ape-like dunces inferior to humans.

The pair, who read and speak a combined six languages, reviewed more than 140 scientific papers citing evidence of various Neanderthal activities documented over the prior 15 years. Their study advanced the case for the Neanderthal as a complex, intentional creature.

“Both Wil and I believe that progress in science depends on precision,” she said. “There are many incorrect and imprecise ideas about Neanderthals in the scientific literature.”

Neanderthals were not limited to small ranges or valleys, for instance, as some claimed — their presence has been documented from Portugal to Siberia at more than 180 sites, suggesting adaptability.

As for their supposed lack of sophisticated hunting skills, they organized big game hunts in which they drove herds of steppe bison and horses over cliffs. They were successful in catching small, fast game-like birds and rabbits. And microfossils found in Neanderthal teeth and in ancient hearths indicate they downed wild peas, olives, date palms and pistachios.

We're all part Neanderthal." 

They also used weapons, including wooden spears similar to modern javelins. Villa has shown that small, sharp spear points Neanderthals created from stone flakes and cores were similar to those produced about the same time by modern humans using different techniques.

Villa can also rattle off examples of symbolism in Neanderthal culture: They buried their dead; used red ochre pigment, likely for body painting; collected feathers and talons from birds as ornaments (four Neanderthal sites in France contained deliberately cut eagle claws); and seem to have used perforated animal teeth, seashells and ivory for pendants.

In all likelihood, Neanderthals had speech, too.

“If Neanderthals had symbols, that means they had social values,” Villa said. “I don’t think they could have organized communal hunts, or transmitted their culture from parents to children over many generations, without language.”

The reasons for Neanderthals’ demise remain murky. Some scholars have proposed that modern humans wiped them out, though Villa said there’s no evidence of mass violence. Anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals were neighbors and even lovers in some parts of Europe, at least for a few thousand years. About 2.5 percent of human DNA comes from Neanderthals.

Rather than genocide, said Villa, it’s more likely that inbreeding and assimilation between Neanderthals and modern humans did them in — an inherent mating incompatibility that led to miscarriages and perhaps infertility.

“Neanderthals lived for 350,000 years under various climate conditions, longer than modern humans have been around,” she said. “They were not brutes, and we are now seeing how adaptable and exceptional they were.”

Illustration by Tim O'Brien