Family portrait: the good life of Neanderthals

We are not so different. Neanderthals also sought warm  climates to live as a family. 


Not everything was, for them, to survive in the steppe, hit by the cold glacier of the Ice Age.

We are not so different. Neanderthals also sought warm climates to live as a family. Not everything was, for them, to survive in the steppe, hit by the cold glacier of the Ice Age. Not surprisingly, most of their existence in geological time they lived in areas of Mediterranean and subtropical climate.

In the Spanish Levant, the Neanderthals enjoyed, in some phases, a mild climate and an abundance of food, both of animal and plant origin. Every brushstroke of the image above, every detail of this family portrait in a paradise landscape, could be a reflection of the reality of a Neanderthal father and son of his two hundred thousand years ago.

To build this instant of the remote past of the Neanderthals, we paleoartists have used the results of the research carried out by the ECCE HOMO group, led by José Carrión from the University of Murcia, and in particular the monographic work whose first author is an expert in the analysis of pollen, Juan Ochando , Silvicolous Neanderthals in the Far West: the mid-Pleistocene palaeoecological sequence of Bolomor Cave (Valencia, Spain) , published in Quaternary Science Reviews .

Next to the Bolomor cave

We are located in a cave near the eastern Spanish coast called Cova del Bolomor, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the exact place where Carrión’s team carried out their research. There, the local Neanderthals lived in a forest environment that remained largely unchanged from about 350,000 to about 100,000 years ago. Four Neanderthal fossils have been found at the Bolomor site : a piece of bone from a leg, two teeth and part of a braincase. In addition there are countless remains of the Mousterian culture, typical of the Neanderthals in Western Europe.

Due to the great paleobotanical interest shown by the findings in this cave, we decided to make a landscape reconstruction with a selection of the plants that were part of this environment and that have the greatest value in defining the ecosystem of the moment. Palynology , or analysis of fossil pollen found and studied by the ECCE HOMO group of the University of Murcia, has provided us with information on the plants that grew there, a large number of plant species, many of them with edible fruits. To our knowledge, there is no similar record of a forest landscape that has been described in a glacial context. At least not with such density and diversity of woody plants.

Life in the shade of an ash tree

Thus, we know that the families of Neanderthals that occupied the Bolomor cave environment probably ate fruits and seeds of plants, such as hazelnuts or walnuts. In the surroundings of this cave they were able to enjoy the shade of pine and oak forests and green holm oaks, which grew alongside carob, strawberry, chestnut, walnut, birch and myrtle trees. There were also rhododendrons and rockroses that alternated with ash trees, hackberries and many other species of trees, shrubs and herbs, in a greater diversity than is present in the same region.

They ate hazelnuts, olives and turtles

Neanderthals in the area hunted and processed the meat of numerous mammals, of varying sizes, and no doubt also fed on turtles, as evidenced by the abundance of charred shell remains found in the site’s strata.

Bolomor is also particularly important because it is the first Iberian place where the controlled presence of fire by a human species is evidenced. Tortoises were cooked in fire pits, along with frequent prey such as hares, rabbits, birds, and deer, and occasionally large animals such as horses and hippopotamuses.

This natural setting could offer an idyllic place for the life of the Neanderthals because the gastronomic offer was very abundant. Part of the Neanderthal diet was surely favored by the number of discovered edible plants that they probably knew perfectly well.

There the Neanderthals were able to consume hazelnuts, chestnuts, carob, olive, hackberry, holly or elderberry fruits. The area provided them with a large number of foods, its wealth of fauna and its forest environment facilitated hunting strategies and the plant refuge provided them with the security and stability necessary for survival.

In harmony with nature

The landscape of that good Neanderthal life must have been one of great visual exuberance. To recreate it, we have needed to work hand in hand with art and science, select each plant, value its abundance and position it in the landscape. We have taken into account the deciduous plants in their period of leaf loss, and we have not forgotten to represent some of the bushes with their fruits to emphasize the Neanderthal diet.

We have also recreated the cave entrance and the plant species that could surround it.

Supported by science, we wanted to represent a moment of a Neanderthal group, a moment of rest and relaxation between a father, who leaves a kind of spear on the ground surrendering to the tasting of hazelnuts, and his son, absorbed in the passage of a turtle. Both are perfectly integrated into the environment and use it peacefully. A family portrait in harmony with paradise.The Conversation

Gabriela Amorós Seller , Paleoecology and Paleoart, University of Murcia

This article was originally published on The Conversation . Read the original .