Our ideas about who the Neanderthals were have undergone something of a revolution in the past three decades. Old notions of them as stuck-in-the-muds with limited capacity for innovation – whether in what they ate, their technologies, or how they dealt with the dead – have been overturned by abundant archaeological discoveries. What tends to hit the headlines are dramatic finds, such as the astonishing (and baffling) stalagmite construction made by Neanderthals 174,000 BP (‘Before Present’), deep in Bruniquel cave, France. More often, however, archaeological advances come from less flashy things: slow, gritty work digging sites just a few centimetres deeper each season; developing new analytical methods; meticulous re-examination of old collections and archives; or refitting tens of thousands of stone tools and bones to reconstruct patterns in space.
Capturing all this to communicate the incredible detail of current knowledge was the impetus behind writing my book Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death, and art (see ‘Further reading’ box on p.25). In this, I covered the Neanderthals’ massive geographical range – and keen readers will spot that, of the 99 sites mapped (a fraction of the true number of known locales), only two are in Britain. It is true that the record of Neanderthals here – known as the Middle Palaeolithic – is sparse, both in numbers of sites and their richness. Yet, as the ‘Outermost West’ of the Neanderthal world, Britain still has interesting stories to tell.
But first, a quick primer: who were the Neanderthals? They were our closest ancient hominin relatives (part of the Homo lineage), and we shared a common ancestor very recently indeed, somewhere around 550,000-765,000 BP. To put that in context, the earliest members of the Homo family emerged before 2 million years ago, and the oldest known stone-working technology now comes from 3.3 million years ago, at Lomekwi, Kenya. Neanderthals appeared just 350,000 BP, broadly contemporary with the first individuals looking roughly like ourselves, although those early Homo sapiens were from Africa, not Eurasia. Unlike us, though, around 40,000 BP the Neanderthals vanished; at least from the fossil record. But in 2010 nuclear DNA confirmed that their genes are still present in living people, as a result of interbreeding probably 15,000 years before they disappeared. And ten years on from that revelation, it has become clear that there was a deeper history of interaction between Neanderthals and dispersing Homo sapiens populations. It goes back beyond 200,000 BP, with multiple phases of reproduction that left genetic legacies on both sides.
The British picture
Where does Britain fit in? Some of the oldest, and most arresting, evidence for any hominins here comes from the astonishing Happisburgh footprints found in 2013 in Norfolk (see CA 289). Having survived for somewhere around 900,000 years, they were destroyed by the North Sea tides; but not before analysis could reveal that their makers had included an adult, teenagers, and even small children. Many hundreds of thousands of years and several climate cycles later, we find evidence of ‘proto’ Neanderthals in the form of the Swanscombe skull from Kent. Just the top of the cranium – remarkably found in three refitting pieces over a span of 20 years – has survived, but we can tell that this was probably a woman from a population well on the way to becoming Neanderthal.
But it is artefacts that next take centre stage. Britain has some of the oldest examples of what is known as Levallois technology, the hallmark of the Middle Palaeolithic, and of Neanderthals. This represents a cognitive technological echelon in working stone, known broadly as ‘prepared core technology’ (PCT). Essentially this means that rather than simply striking pieces off a stone core from particular angles, a preparatory stage was introduced where small shaping flakes were removed around the core’s circumference and across its upper surface. The different patterns on the latter area created outlines effectively directing the kinetic energy. They allowed great control over the resulting flake shapes – an example held by the British Museum is pictured on p.20. Typically this process produces larger and thinner forms, with more cutting edge for their size. Levallois products could be flakes, blades, or even triangular points, and they represent a sophisticated new understanding and mastery of stone. PCT emerged through various forms first in Africa up to 500,000 BP, but in Eurasia things look different – here, it was early Neanderthals who began innovating with preparing their cores.
While there are Continental early PCT sites, artefacts from Purfleet in Essex record Neanderthals innovating towards Levallois between 335,000 and 300,000 BP. But the richest sites seem to date after 250,000 BP, and represent Levallois workshops located right on high-quality flint sources, such as Crayford, in Kent. They show that even in the Early Middle Palaeolithic, Neanderthals were already demonstrating characteristic flexibility, sometimes swapping between different types of Levallois – flakes and blades – while working a single core. By careful refitting, it is possible to see gaps in the sequence where the pieces they were after are missing, having been taken away into the landscape.
It is this that really defines what Levallois was about. Neanderthals were expanding the range at which hominins operated across landscapes, through being able to carry supplies of large but lightweight, easily transportable flakes. It is these, mostly made of high-quality stone, which are consistently found farthest from the rock sources, and which also have greater amounts of resharpening evidence. Most British Early Middle Palaeolithic sites or findspots are open-air locales like Crayford; the only cave is Pontnewydd, up in north Wales (CA 93). Yet there may be other sites still to be found preserved in a different setting: artefacts have been found about 25m deep beneath the waves off the Norfolk shore.
Who were these early Neanderthals? Britain is not in general blessed by large numbers of hominin fossils, but during this period one remarkable site provided a (relative) bonanza. First investigated in the 1870s, Pontnewydd cave was more fully excavated a century later, finishing in the mid-1990s. This revealed not just hundreds of stone artefacts, but the remains of their makers. In total, 18 teeth (only two of which were embedded in pieces of jaw) represent at least five Neanderthals, including an adult, two teenagers, and two older children. One of the latter may be a girl, based on the combined stage of tooth development, wear, and size. Intriguingly, the 19th-century diggings found another ‘human’ molar tooth, reported to be unusually large. It is just possible that this too was Neanderthal; had it not been subsequently lost, it might have gone down in history as being among the first finds for this species anywhere.
Despite lacking other parts of the skeleton, it is still possible to say something about the lives of the Pontnewydd Neanderthals. Four of the teeth have defects in development which probably indicate nutritional stress, a severe illness, or damage to the teeth during infancy and childhood; this is something seen in many Neanderthals elsewhere. While quite frequent for such a small assemblage, such features are shared with Upper Palaeolithic and some recent hunter-gatherer populations, which may indicate early life was not especially tougher for these Neanderthals. However, it looks as if many of the teeth had also grown ‘wonky’ or were even impacted, which might possibly point to a small and genetically isolated population.
Other details are discernable. There is no evidence of tooth decay, but many of the teeth show distinct wear traces. Partly from foods that needed lots of chewing, rather than crunching, the abrasion matches meat and plants, fitting growing evidence that – especially in warmer climes – Neanderthals weren’t hyper-carnivores. There is also wear, even seen in children, from using the mouth to process other substances, potentially including animal skins. Similar data from sites outside Britain show Neanderthal youngsters were highly active and learning adult tasks early on. Tiny cut-marks are also visible on some Pontnewydd teeth, accidentally created due to a particular method of eating where food was held in the mouth and pieces sliced off using sharp stone flakes.
Might the Pontnewydd remains have come from burials? There’s no direct evidence for deposition of bodies, although the growing consensus amongst researchers is that Neanderthals elsewhere sometimes did this. Their context in a debris-flow breccia means we can’t interpet this as a contemporary family group, and they may represent different occupations over a long span of time. But it’s interesting that the groups of teeth linked to particular individuals show rough spatial clustering. This suggests that, even if it is impossible to say how much of each body was originally present, the five or more Neanderthals here were never a jumbled mass.
Imagining an environment
What was their world like, at the north-westerly margins of the Neanderthal range? The Pontnewydd individuals certainly were not living in frozen glacial wastes. The deposits there are older than 225,000 BP and formed during a warm interglacial. Notably, beaver was present, implying woodland and at least seasonally flowing rivers. Cut-marks show that in addition to deer and maybe horse, these Neanderthals were skinning bears, perhaps even targeting them as they hibernated in the cave, as seen in later Italian sites. But other threats lurked: wolves and leopard may also have wished to use the cave, although unusually there are no hyaena remains recorded. In a strange coda to the hominin inhabitation of Pontnewydd, in addition to later Mesolithic activity, the cave was requisitioned in 1940 for wartime storage of munitions. A little guard chamber was installed, complete with a coke stove, creating the first smoke to rise from the cave mouth for many millennia.
The Early Middle Palaeolithic in Britain ended around 190,000 BP with an intense cold glacial, driving Neanderthals out. At this point Britain splits off literally and archaeologically from the Continent, and even though temperatures increased again after 130,000 BP, rapidly rising sea-levels may have cut the land off. This very warm period, known as the Ipswichian, saw animals including large elephants, and hippopotamus in Britain, but in terms of hominins it was an empty land.
For another 60 millennia it appears there was nobody here at all, or with such a minimal presence as to be effectively archaeologically invisible. Neanderthals were certainly living across the Channel, but even when a worsening climate periodically lowered sea-levels and allowed bison, reindeer, and wolves across, so far just two stone flakes are known from the whole of Britain during this period. After 80,000 years ago, another glacial began, frigid enough that even northern France seems largely abandoned.
Once the ice-blasted permafrost began to thaw, around 65,000-60,000 BP however, it looks as if Neanderthals returned to Britain as soon as possible. They arrive as part of a distinctive steppe-tundra environment characterised by a rich range of animal life, with herbivores like bison, reindeer, and woolly rhino eaten not just by Neanderthals, but furred predators, in particular spotted hyaena.
One of the most important and richest British Neanderthal sites found for many years comes from this recolonisation, and it is dominated by the remains of at least 11 woolly mammoths. Effectively an ordinary, muddy river channel stretching between the Atlantic and the Urals, Lynford gives us a glimpse into the complexity of how later Neanderthals were using their technologies within whole landscapes (CA 182). Handaxes – distinctive, double-sided tools – are comparably rare in the Early Middle Palaeolithic (though present at Pontnewydd in unusually high numbers), but it is clear Neanderthals did not forget how to make them. Handaxes really came into their own again during the Late Middle Palaeolithic, and at Lynford, they are the main event. Some of the 50-odd examples there were being made from immediately available river cobbles, but most had been produced elsewhere using beautiful, massive black flint nodules. They were brought to the site, finished off, used for butchery – probably of the mammoth, as well as woolly rhino, horse, and reindeer – then resharpened and used again, sometimes even broken and repaired, leaving many thousands of distinctive flakes behind.
What there is almost no sign of at Lynford or elsewhere, however, is Levallois technology. Late Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthals in Britain were quite happy getting flakes using informal core technologies, but in particular there is a lot of what is known as the Discoid method. Extremely economical, it needed virtually no core preparation, and nearly every flake taken off paved the way for the next. With very little waste, this created chunky but ergonomic, immediately useable products. However, Discoid flakes do not allow much resharpening, so rather than carry them between sites, Neanderthals took larger flakes from the odd casually worked or Levallois core. But handaxes were the real key to their high levels of mobility, and there are even cases of resharpening flakes being used as tools.
Once the ice-blasted permafrost began to thaw around 65,000-60,000 BP, Neanderthals returned to Britain as soon as it was possible.
The repeated association between Discoid technology and handaxes appears distinctive to Britain, with a number of the latter class of artefacts featuring a particular symmetric, D-shaped outline that is uncommon on the Continent. But the combination of ready-to-use flakes together with transportable tools designed to be maintained over longer periods is a definitive feature of later Neanderthal technological systems, although they achieved it in varying ways outside Britain.
This is where we see the real stretching of their activity across wider ranges, not only in space but in time. Lynford shows Neanderthals were splitting up the stages of production, use, and maintenance of their stone across the land, higher-resolution sites from outside Britain suggest they were probably doing the same with the bodies of animals. Where might the abundant fat and meat from those mammoths have been carried?
Caves are one possibility for places where many resources arrived. In contrast to the Early Middle Palaeolithic, later Neanderthals used caves much more widely. While the excavation history of many British sites dug between the mid-19th and earlier 20th centuries limited the available information, it is possible to see some patterns from key sites such as the Hyaena Den and Rhinoceros Hole at Wookey, Mendips, and the Creswell Crags cave complex in Derbyshire. Neanderthals were probably never around in huge numbers, and the caves appear to have been used only for short stays, but they were connected across wide landscapes. In regions without decent flint supplies, local rocks such as quartzites at Creswell Crags were utilised, but tools made on flint that had to have been sourced from far to the south are also present. While not far compared to the distances European Neanderthals moved, it is feasible that the same groups were potentially active across the whole of Britain. But that is not to say that all sites were in use at the same time, since unfortunately the dating is too coarse to pick out individual phases of occupation.
What we can see, though, is that Neanderthals were using some places in different ways. This is most obvious when comparing the different caves within Creswell Crags, and appears tied to the nature of the spaces themselves. Robin Hood’s Cave is the largest physically with the biggest assemblage, but notably it also has more evidence of working stone in situ, a wider variety of tools, plus more technologically formal cores and hand-axes. In contrast, Pin Hole is much narrower and would never have accommodated large groups. The archaeology there, as you might predict, does appear more transient. The cores are more expedient technologically, and there is a strong impression of flint tools made elsewhere entering the cave, being used, resharpened, and taken away again. This is echoed in the handaxes, the only witnesses of whose presence are sometimes resharpening flakes that have been left behind.
Despite relatively mild conditions in the British ‘mammoth steppe’ between around 65,000 BP and 55,000 BP, this was not to last. The climate began to see-saw downwards, and a few millennia of stability, when even trees recovered in sheltered spots, would be followed by rapid and dramatic cooling lasting another few thousand years. After 45,000 BP, over in mainland Europe, we see real deterioration in conditions, which probably marks the end of the Neanderthal presence in Britain. Though clinging on for a while in other Continental areas, within another 5,000 years they were gone everywhere.
That is the grand story so far. Lynford remains the most significant discovery in mainland Britain for nearly 20 years, but the Channel Islands have seen a resurgence in research in the past decade. Fresh investigation of the enormous archive from the massive ravine site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, is under way (see CA 333), together with targeted excavation and conservation in the face of marine erosion.
Revisiting other sites may provide new revelations. While the artefacts and animal remains from Lynford and larger collections such as Creswell Crags have been studied using traditional methods, modern archaeological science offers potential for learning more. For example, applying the recently developed technique ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) to unidentifiable bone fragments can pick out the type of animal. It has been applied with success on the Continent, finding species not recorded using normal methods, and such knowledge would help us widen understanding of how Neanderthals’ distinctive technological system in Britain might have been linked to particular hunting choices.
Perhaps most excitingly, however, ZooMS can also discern hominin remains, and therefore could allow us to find the first Late Neanderthal remains from Britain. If we should ever be so lucky, then a realm of other analysis would open up, from dietary and mobility studies. There might just be a chance of recovering DNA, and therefore finding out exactly where these ancient relations from Britain fitted into their own vast world.
Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a Palaeolithic archaeologist and Honorary Fellow at University of Liverpool. She is the author of the bestselling Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death, and art, and a co-founder of TrowelBlazers.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes (2020) Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death, and art (Bloomsbury Sigma, £20, ISBN 978-1472937490).