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  • Ancient Greek Religion › Origins
  • Ancient Greek Pottery › Origins
  • The Neanderthal-Sapiens Connection › Origins

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Ancient Greek Religion › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

In the ancient Greek world, religion was personal, direct, and present in all areas of life. With formal rituals which included animal sacrifices and libations, myths to explain the origins of mankind and give the gods a human face, temples which dominated the urban landscape, city festivals and national sporting and artistic competitions, religion was never far from the mind of an ancient Greek. Whilst the individual may have made up their own mind on the degree of their religious belief and some may have been completely sceptical, certain fundamentals must have been sufficiently widespread in order for Greek government and society to function: the gods existed, they could influence human affairs, and they welcomed and responded to acts of piety and worship.


Polytheistic Greek religion encompassed a myriad of gods, each representing a certain facet of the human condition, and even abstract ideas such as justice and wisdom could have their own personification. The most important gods, though, were the Olympian gods led by Zeus. These were Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Hera, Aphrodite, Demeter, Ares, Artemis, Hades, Hephaistos, and Dionysos. These gods were believed to reside on Mt. Olympos and would have been recognised across Greece, albeit, with some local variations and perhaps particular attributes and associations.
In the Greek imagination, literature, and art, the gods were given human bodies and characters - both good and bad - and just as ordinary men and women, they married, had children (often through illicit affairs), fought, and in the stories of Greek mythology they directly intervened in human affairs. These traditions were first recounted only orally as there was no sacred text in Greek religion and later, attempts were made to put in writing this oral tradition, notably by Hesiod in his Theogonyand more indirectly in the works of Homer.
Gods became patrons of cities, for example, Aphrodite for Corinth and Helios for Rhodes, and were called upon for help in particular situations, for example, Ares during war and Hera for weddings. Some gods were imported from abroad, for example, Adonis, and incorporated into the Greek pantheon whilst rivers and springs could take on a very localised personified form such as the nymphs.


The temple ( naos - meaning dwelling place in reference to the belief that the god dwelt in that place, or at least temporarily visited during rituals) was the place where, on special occasions, religion took on a more formal tone. Gods were worshipped at sacred sites and temples in all major Greek communities in ceremonies carried out by priests and their attendants.

Temple of Segesta

At first, sacred sites were merely a simple altar in a designated area, but over time massive temples came to be built in honour of a particular god and these usually housed a cult statue of the deity, most famously the huge statue of Athena in the Parthenon of Athens or Zeus at Olympia. In time, a whole complex of temples to lesser gods could spring up around the main temple, creating a large sacred complex, often built on an acropolis dominating a city or surrounding area. This sacred area ( temenos ) was separated from the rest of the community by a symbolic gate or propylon, and in fact it was believed that this area belonged to the particular deity in question. Sacred sites also received financial donations and dedications of statues, fountains and even buildings from the faithful, often to celebrate a great military victory and give thanks to the gods, and larger sanctuaries also had permanent caretakers ( neokoroi ) who were responsible for the upkeep of the site.
The temple itself, though, was not used during religious practices as these were carried out at a designated altar outside the temple. Ancient authors often show a reluctance to go into explicit details of religious ceremonies and rites as if these were too sacred to be publicised in the written word. What we do know is that the most common religious practices were sacrifice and the pouring of libations, all to the accompaniment of prayers in honour of the god. The animals sacrificed were usually pigs, sheep, goats or cows and always the same sex as the god which was being honoured. The meat was then either burnt completely or cooked, with part offered to the god and the rest eaten by some or all of the worshippers or taken away to be eaten later. The actual killing of the animal was carried out by a butcher or cook ( megeiras ) whilst a young girl sprinkled seeds onto the animals head, perhaps symbolic of life and regeneration at the moment of the animal's death. Other such rituals included examining the entrails of sacrificed animals to ascertain signs which could help predict future events.
Priests then, orchestrated the religious ceremonies and delivered prayers. The position was generally open to all and once assuming the role, particularly when wearing the sacred headband, the body of the priest became inviolate. Priests served a specific god but they were not necessarily religious experts. For theological questions, a citizen could consult an exegetes, a state official, who was knowledgeable in religious affairs. Women could also be priests, which is perhaps surprising given their lack of any other public role in Greek society. Often, but not always, the priest was the same sex as the god they represented.Priestesses did have the added restriction that they were most often selected because they were virgins or beyond menopause. Worshippers, on the other hand, could be both sexes and those rituals with restrictions could exclude either men or women.

Pythia of the Oracle of Delphi


In addition to the formal and public religious ceremonies there were also many rites which were open to and known only by the initiated who performed them, the most famous example being the Mysteries of Eleusis. In these closed groups, members believed that certain activities gave spiritual benefits, amongst them a better after-life.
Places could also acquire a divine connection; the great oracles such as that of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Dodona may well have begun as places considered particularly good to receive signs from the gods. Such places became hugely important centres with their priest oracles consulted by both individuals and city-states so that the rather vague and ambiguous proclamations might help guide their future conduct.


Athletic Games and competitions in music (especially playing the kithara and lyre ) and theatre (both tragedy and comedy) were held during festivals such as the City Dionysia of Athens and the Panhellenic games at the most important sacred sites of Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia to honour a particular god. These events were attended by visitors from all over Greece and the experience was perhaps more akin to a pilgrimage rather than that of a mere sports fan. Illustrating their sacred status, warfare was prohibited during these events and pilgrims were guaranteed free-passage across Greece.However, there were also much smaller festivals, sometimes only attended by a very select number of individuals, for example, the Arrhephoria in Athens, where only priestesses and a maximum of four young girls participated.

Map of Classical Greek Sanctuaries


Although the historical record reveals much about formal religious occasions and ceremony, we should remember that Greek religion was in fact practised anywhere, at any time, by private individuals in a very personal way. Not only temples but also the hearth in private homes was regarded as sacred, for example. Individuals could also visit a temple anytime they wanted to and it was customary to say a prayer even when just passing them in the street. People left offerings such as incense, flowers, and food, no doubt with a hopeful prayer or in gratitude for a past deed. Individuals could also organise their own private sacrifice if they had the means to do so, and these have been commemorated in thousands of stone relief markers found at sacred sites. In addition, temples were often visited in order to seek healing, especially at those sites associated with Asclepius the god of medicine, notably at Epidaurus.
People also looked for signs from the gods in everyday life and to interpret these signs as indicators of future events. Such signs could be birds in the sky or a spoken word between friends said at a particular moment or even a simple sneeze which might be interpreted as an auspicious or inauspicious omen.
Such beliefs and, indeed, certain aspects of religion such as the immorality of the gods as portrayed in the arts, were severely criticised by intellectuals, artists, and philosophers from the 5th century BCE, but these may or may not reflect the commonly held views of the wider populace, and it is difficult to believe from the wealth of archaeological and written records that religion was anything but a fundamental part of life for the ordinary inhabitants of the ancient Greek world.

Ancient Greek Pottery › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Greek Pottery from c. 1000 to c. 400 BCE provides not only some of the most distinctive vase shapes from antiquity but also some of the oldest and most diverse representations of the cultural beliefs and practices of the ancient Greeks. Further, pottery, with its durability (even when broken) and lack of appeal to treasure hunters, is one of the great archaeological survivors and is, therefore, an important tool for archaeologists and historians in determining the chronology of ancient Greece. Whatever their artistic and historical value though, the vast majority of Greek vases, despite now being dusty museum pieces, were actually meant for everyday use and, to paraphrase Arthur Lane, it is perhaps worth remembering that standing on a stone pavement and drenched with water, they would have once gleamed in the Mediterranean sun.


The clay ( keramos ) to produce pottery ( kerameikos ) was readily available throughout Greece, although the finest was Attic clay, with its high iron content giving an orange-red colour with a slight sheen when fired and the pale buff of Corinth. Clay was generally prepared and refined in settling tanks so that different consistencies of material could be achieved depending on the vessel types to be made with it.
Greek pottery was invariably made on the potter's wheel and usually made in separate horizontal sections: the foot, the lower and upper body, the neck, and finally the handles, if necessary. These sections were then joined together with a clay 'slip' after drying and it is possible in many cases to see the prints of the potter impressed on the inside of the vessel. The piece was then put back on the wheel to smooth the join marks and add the final shaping. Therefore, all vases were unique and the small variations in dimensions reveal that the use of simple tools and not cut-out templates was the norm.
Next, the pot was decorated. This process depended on the decorative style in vogue at the time, but popular methods included painting the whole or parts of the vase with a thin black adhesive paint which was added with a brush, the marks of which remain visible in many cases. This black paint was a mix of alkali potash or soda, clay with silicon content, and black ferrous oxide of iron. The paint was affixed to the pot by using a fixative of urine or vinegar which burned away in the heat of the kiln, binding the paint to the clay. Another technique, used more rarely, was to cover the vessel with a white clay paint.Alternatively, only lines or figures were added in black using a thicker version of the black paint mentioned above and applied with a stiff brush or feather; in consequence, a slight relief effect was achieved. Minor details were often added with a thinned black paint giving a yellow-brown colour, a white pipe-clay, and a dark red of ochre and manganese. The latter two colours tended to flake off over time.

Cypriot Pitcher

The finished pot was then ready to be put in the kiln and fired at a temperature of around 960 °C, which is relatively low and explains the 'softness' of Greek pottery (in comparison to, for example, Chinese porcelain). Pots were fired several times (in the same kiln) in order to achieve the required finish and colouring. First, the pot was fired in an oxidising fire where good ventilation to the kiln ensured that the orange/red of the clay came to the fore. Then the pot was re-fired in a kiln starved of oxygen (reduction process) by adding water or damp wood inside the kiln. This ensured that the painted colours, particularly the black, darkened in colour. A third firing, again with good ventilation, re-reddened the clay of the pot whilst the painted areas, now protected by a thin wash, kept their original colouring. This complicated process obviously required excellent timing from the potter so as not to spoil the vase with unseemly discolouring.


Painter and potter ( kerameus ) were usually, although not always, separate specialists. However, lasting partnerships existed such as between the potter Ergotimos and painter Kleitas. Many individual potters and less frequently, painters, have been identified with certainty through their signatures (most commonly as “...made this”) although the majority of Greek vases are unsigned. However, Professor JD Beazley, working in the 20th century CE, identified more than 500 unsigned artists distinguishable through their particular style. Beazley's systematic and comprehensive cataloguing of Greek pottery has also allowed for the study of its evolution in techniques, designs, and decoration.
Painters often worked in collective workshops, generally under the supervision of one 'master' potter (which suggests form was actually more important than decoration for the Greeks). Although artists were free from centralised political control or restrictions, they no doubt were driven by the market demand for particular styles, subjects, and fashions. Many potters and artists were prolific in their output and in some cases over 200 vases may be attributed to a single artist. The majority of pottery workers would have been paid no more than any other manual labourer and a good vase probably cost only a day's wages. Certainly though, a few artists would have been in great demand and their goods were sold not only locally but far and wide throughout the Mediterranean. Potters themselves sometimes relocated to other cities, particularly colonies, often taking with them their regional style. There was also some rivalry between artists as indicated by one signed comment on a vase, “better than Euphronias could ever have done”.


Although Greek pottery provides us with a wide range of shapes from cups to plates to massive amphorae, many of the forms remained relatively constant over centuries. This is primarily because Greek potters were producing wares for practical use - holding wine, water, oil, and perfumes - and once the optimum practical shape had evolved, it was copied and maintained.However, despite this restriction in form, the Greek potters and painters could express their versatility in the decoration of the vase.
The most common forms of pottery were amphorae for storing wine, large kraters for mixing wine with water, jugs ( oinochoai ) for pouring wine, kylixes or stemmed cups with horizontal handles for drinking (especially practical if lifting a cup from the floor when reclining on a lounger at dinner), hydra with three handles for holding water, skyphoi or deep bowls, and lekythoi jars for holding oils and perfumes. Precisely because these objects were for practical use, handles (when present) are generally sturdy affairs, yet the potter, by using carefully considered shapes, often managed to blend these additions into the overall harmony of the vessel and was aided in this endeavour with subtle decorative additions by the painter.

Geometric Pottery Designs


Greek pottery, particularly in terms of decoration, evolved over the centuries and may be categorized into four broad groups.These groups or styles, however, did not pass abruptly from one to the other but rather in some cases ran contemporary for decades. Also, some city -states and regions were either slow to catch on to new styles or simply preferred the 'old' style decoration long after they had gone out of production elsewhere. In addition, some cities and regions were consistently a little eccentric in their decoration (notably Laconia- Sparta, Cyprus, Crete, and Boeotia) and preferred to follow their own artistic path rather than imitate the styles of the more dominant centres such as Athens and Corinth.
The first distinctive Greek pottery style first appeared around 1000 BCE or perhaps even earlier. Reminiscent in technique of the earlier Greek civilizations of Minoan Crete and the Mycenaean mainland, early Greek pottery decoration employed simple shapes, sparingly used. Proto-Geometric pottery, however, differs from Minoan and Mycenaean in shape. The centre of gravity of the vase is moved downwards (creating a more stable vessel) with the feet and neck more articulated.
The most popular Proto-Geometric designs were precisely painted circles (painted with multiple brushes fixed to a compass), semi-circles, and horizontal lines in black and with large areas of the vase painted solely in black. A new motif on the bases of vessels was the upright triangular points which would endure for centuries and become a staple feature of the later black-figure pottery design.


From around 900 BCE the full Geometric style appeared and favoured the rectangular space on the main body of the vase between the handles. Bold linear designs (perhaps influenced by contemporary basketwork and weaving styles) appeared in this space with vertical line decoration on either side. It was in this period that the Maeander design first appeared (perhaps inspired by the practice of wrapping leaves around the rims of metal bowls), destined to become forever associated with Greece and still going strong on everything from plates to beach towels even today. The lower portion of Geometric vessels were often painted in black and separated from the rest of the vase using horizontal lines. An interesting Geometric style shape appeared which was the circular box with a flat lid, on top of which, one to four horses acted as a handle.
From the 8th century BCE, Geometric pottery decoration began to include stylized human figures, birds, and animals with nearly all the surface of the vase covered in bold lines and shapes painted in brown and black. Towards the end of the period in the 7th century BCE, the so-called Orientalising style became popular in Corinth. With its eastern trade connections, the city appropriated the stylised plants (eg lotus, palm, and the tree of life), animal friezes (eg lions), and curved lines of Egyptian and Assyrian pottery to produce its own unique Greek version. The rest of eastern Greece followed suit, often preferring red on a white slip background. Athens also followed the new trend and it became widespread with, for example, the Cyclades also producing pottery in this new freer style, often on very large vases and with more spacious decoration. At the end of the 7th century BCE, Proto-Corinthian pottery reached new heights of technique and quality producing the finest pottery yet seen, in firing, shape, and decoration. The black stylized figures became more and more precisely engraved and were given ever more detail, grace, and vigour. The celebrated black-figure pottery style was born.

Black-Figure Warrior Scene


Although first produced in Corinth, then with fine examples made in Laconia and southern Italy (by Euboean settlers), it would be the potters and painters of Attica who would excel above all others in the black-figure style, and they would go on to dominate the Greek market for the next 150 years. Not all figures were painted black as certain colour conventions were adopted, such as white for female flesh and purple-red for clothes and accessories. A greater interest in fine details such as muscles and hair, which were added to the figures using a sharp instrument, is characteristic of the style. However, it is the postures of the figures which also mark out black-figure pottery as the zenith of Greek vase painting. The finest figures are given grace and poise and often illustrated in the moments before actual movement or resting after exertion. The famous vase by Exekias, with Ajax and Achilles playing a board game during the Trojan War, is an excellent example of the dignity and energy black-figure painting could achieve. In addition, black-figure vases often told, for the first time, a narrative. Perhaps the most celebrated example is the Francois Vase, a large volute krater made by Ergotimos and painted by Kleitas (570-565 BCE) which is 66cm high (26 inches) and covered in 270 human and animal figures depicting an astonishing range of scenes and characters from Greek mythology. Typical other vessels of the black-figure style are amphorae, lekythoi, kylixes, plain cups, pyxides (small lidded boxes) and bowls.

Greek Athlete With Strigil


The black-figure technique was replaced by the red-figure technique (red figures created by painting their outline with a black slip background) around 530 BCE which would endure for the next 130 years or so. The two styles were parallel for some time and there are even 'bilingual' examples of vases with both styles but the red-figure, with its advantage of the brush over the graver, could attempt to more realistically portray the human figure and eventually it became the favoured style of Greek pottery decoration. Perhaps influenced by contemporary wall painting techniques, anatomical detail, diverse facial expressions, greater detail in clothing (especially of folds, following the new fashion of the lighter chiton dress which also fascinated contemporary sculptors), greater attempts at portraying perspective, the overlapping of figures, and the depiction of everyday life such as education and sporting scenes are all characteristic of this style.
The shapes of red-figure vessels are generally those of the black-figure style. An exception is the kylix which becomes shallower and with a shorter foot, almost becoming a third handle. In addition the painted narrative is to be read by turning the cup in the hand. Other minor modifications are the hydra, which becomes a little fuller in figure and the slimmer neck- amphora. Lekythoi of this period commonly had a white background as did (more rarely) cups and boxes.


Into the fourth century BCE, perhaps in attempting to copy the innovations in perspective of contemporary fresco, the red-figure style would reveal its limitations and vases would degenerate into over-packed scenes with strange floating perspectives. Significantly, pottery painting would no longer be linked intrinsically to the form which it decorated and so ceased to exist as an art-form in its own right. Consequently, artistic attention and excellence would turn away from the confinements of pottery to other more open media such as wall-painting.


In conclusion, then, we may say that not only has Greek pottery given us some of the most distinctive, influential, and beautiful shapes and designs of antiquity but it has also given us a window into the lives, practices, and beliefs of a people long gone and of whom we very often have no contemporary written record. These everyday objects, unlike those other archaeological survivors literature, sculpture, and architecture, allow us to feel a little closer to the ordinary people of the ancient world, those who could not afford fine art or precious jewellery but could indulge in possessing a finely made object such as a Greek vase.

The Neanderthal-Sapiens Connection › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Emma Groeneveld

In May 2010, after years of intense discussions surrounding possible fossils of mixed Homo sapiens and Neanderthaldescent floating around the scientific community, a team led by Svante Pääbo of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, published the results of their pioneering journey towards retrieving ancient Neanderthal DNA. The study sent out a shock wave: it discovered that our own DNA contained between 1-4% Neanderthal DNA, meaning our early modern human ancestors had indeed not only shaken hands with Neanderthals back in Ice Age Eurasia, but had also definitely shaken other body parts and interbred with them. The team's find not only pushed modern humans and the Neanderthals a lot closer together, but also paved the way for more ancient genetic research, which has since been shedding more light on the Neanderthal-Sapiens connection.

Homo Sapiens & Neanderthal Skulls

The Neanderthals were relatively short and stocky humans with big brains who gradually developed in chilly Eurasia, with features that become clearly recognisable between c. 200,000 - c. 100,000 years ago and the 'classic', full set of features as we identify them settling in around 70,000 years ago. They were well-adapted to the often cold temperatures that held sway across the regions they were found in, all the way from Spain and the Mediterranean to Northern Europe and Russia, as well as throughout the Near East, and as far east as Uzbekistan and Siberia, and were capable of hunting even the biggest Ice Age creatures such as mammoths or woolly rhinoceros.
Genetic research has shown that the Neanderthals are a sister group to us – we share a common ancestor quite a long way back, in Africa, between c. 550,000 and c. 750,000 years ago. Although disconnected for a while, when a big wave of modern humans left Africa around 55,000 years ago and started spreading out across the world, they clearly did not find vast, uninhabited lands with unchallenged prey for them to hunt, but instead bumped into the resident Neanderthals. Somehow, however, after successfully surviving for such a long time in not exactly the breeziest of conditions, Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record by around 30,000 years ago, not long after modern humans began expanding their territory.
There are still a fair few hiccups in our knowledge of what happened when these two species met. For instance, it is hard to say how we should visualise them actually meeting and sharing certain areas – the options range from excessively violent and competitive to happily exchanging tips and tricks. It is also not entirely clear whether or not Homo sapiens may have had a direct or indirect hand in pushing the Neanderthals into extinction, and which other factors may have been at play.
Another big component to this debate is interbreeding – how exactly does it fit into this story? Under which circumstances and to what extent this may have taken place can radically alter the view we have of how modern humans and Neanderthals interacted over the space of time they shared Eurasia. It certainly impacts on our view of the social side of things; it means that genes were exchanged and our genetic makeup was altered, an effect that was felt not just there and then in Ice Age Eurasia but all the way up until this day. It also means Neanderthals did not die out in the strictest of senses, because part of their DNA still survives in us.


As mentioned above, there is a family relation; by at least c. 500,000 ago one group of what is generally thought to have been Homo heidelbergensis upped and left Africa, journeyed all the way to Europe and somewhere in those regions gradually developed into Neanderthals, while the portion of Homo heidelbergensis that was quite alright with Africa and stayed behind became part of the eventual development towards Homo sapiens (who appeared by around 200,000 years ago).
By the time these two sister groups would meet in person, there were some differences – Neanderthals had stockier builds and big heads with brow ridges, lacking a proper chin, and modern humans had tall, slender skeletons and heads with chiselled chins and faces tucked in under our braincases. However, both hunted and gathered, used well-crafted tools to survive, and show evidence of things like fire usage and burials.

Tabun Cave

Both genetic evidence and archaeological finds seem to support the Near East as the place of first contact. This area shows (so far) the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens outside of Africa, at the sites of Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel, where burials have been dated to be older than 100,000 years ago – and perhaps even up to a staggering 130,000 years ago. Moreover, Neanderthals are also known to have been present here, at neighbouring sites such as Tabun Cave and Kebara Cave.Evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo envisions a possible scenario where modern humans may have moved into these Near Eastern caves when the climate was warmer and more suited to their needs, whereas Neanderthals could have been pushed that far south in colder periods, likely resulting in these two species meeting at least at some point within the long period of time they weaved in and out of the same region. This Near Eastern setting is also the most logical explanation for the very early presence of Homo sapiens DNA in a set of Neanderthals found in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, as the data indicates that ancestors of these Neanderthals must have met and interbred with modern humans around 100,000 years ago.


However, the main component of Neanderthal DNA that jumped over into our Sapiens gene pools came from interbreeding at a later point in time; as the main wave of modern humans left Africa around 55,000 years ago, they seem to have run into the Neanderthals in the Near East and mixed with them (or, perhaps, mixed with a crowd of modern humans living there who had themselves already interbred with Neanderthals at some point in the past). This group of travelling Sapiens then carried their mixed genes to the far reaches of the world as they spread out across Asia (with East Asians possibly receiving another shot of Neanderthal DNA along the way) and into Europe, resulting in non-Africans today possessing on average around ~2% Neanderthal DNA. Interestingly, somewhere in Southeast Asia these modern humans bumped into yet another species of human that was already presumably living there – the Denisovans – and gave us another clue about what was likely to happen when two different groups of humans met; they interbred with them, too, between c. 54,000-c. 44,000 years ago. When it works, it works; there are plenty of clues that interbreeding was likely a common feature along our evolutionary road.
When it comes to the practical side of these kind of mixings, we do not know whether we should picture meetings between two different human species as spontaneous neighbourhood barbecue sharing feasts that resulted in people getting quite friendly with each other as more food and drink was consumed, as violent and unhappy affairs, or anything in between. What we do know is that - as far as we can detect, that is - all or almost all of the genes that jumped over flowed from Neanderthals into modern humans, meaning there were mixed babies that were raised in modern human societies. However, this does not mean the reverse did not happen, too; possible fertility issues in that direction, or the fact that such gene flow would not have been preserved as easily in the smaller and already shrinking Neanderthal population, may have simply made it untraceable for us today.


Upon arriving in Europe by at the earliest around 45,000 years ago in a single founding population, Homo sapiens may have had a bit of an 'Ah, you guys again' revelation (not literally, of course, as there would have been a few thousand years in between the Near Eastern encounter and the European ones). Right off the bat, there was a huge contrast: Neanderthals had been living in temperamental Ice Age Europe for thousands of years already and had adapted to the cold both physically and with regard to their lifestyle, whereas the arriving modern humans, albeit already carrying bits of Neanderthal DNA with them, would have had to learn to cope with the new regional conditions. Although it seems like this might have put Sapiens at a disadvantage when trying to carve out their own living space, they were hugely helped by the fact that the numbers were in their favour; both their group sizes and their overall population density were much larger than the resident Neanderthals, whose already dwindling population must suddenly have faced competition for resources.

Neanderthal sites

But how did this Europe-sharing work in practice? Whether or not the invading modern humans ended up sharing certain valleys and actively socialising and exchanging tips and tricks with the resident Neanderthals, or whether they instead pushed the Neanderthals out of their way and covered the previously Neanderthal sites with their own tools and objects is a question with more than just one possible answer. When a certain site shows an earlier, distinctly Neanderthal tool culture (a big general one around this point in time is the Mousterian), and a slightly later Homo sapiens -made tool culture (the main one associated with Sapiens spreading across Europe is the Aurignacian), with no evidence that either set of tools had clearly influenced the other - which would imply acculturation - we tend to lean towards the displacement idea. This can arguably be seen at, for instance, Kaldar Cave in Iran, sites in the Swabian Jura in Germany, some sites in Italy, and at Châtelperron in France.
However, some other sites paint a different picture. The Middle Danube region in Central Europe, for instance, shows the influence of a newly arriving stone tool culture on an already existing Neanderthal one, and suggests that these two specific groups would have literally stood eye to eye to some degree and overlapped a bit in living space. Close proximity, although visible here, may not even have been a prerequisite for a certain degree of influence; ideas were possibly even capable of spreading indirectly across much larger distances. Theoretically, if a Neanderthal in the Lower Danube region came really up close and personal to a modern human there and was shown a nifty new tool, this knowledge could have spread when his group met another Neanderthal group, and so forth, travelling all the way to a Neanderthal group in the Dordogne in France.
There is actually a really cool find that shows how fluid this whole connection story must have been in practice. It is now clear that a bone tool known as a lissoir, which was thought to have been exclusively modern human, was already created from within a Neanderthal context before Sapiens even arrived in Eurasia. This means that this tool was either invented independently by the Neanderthals; that they were somehow influenced by Sapiens across large distances; or that modern humans actually hijacked the idea for this tool from the Neanderthals in the first place.
Considering the varied nature of our own species, I feel it is safe to say we should imagine a broad range of different scenarios for when Neanderthals met modern humans and vice versa. Some of us (and them) would undoubtedly have been violent brutes taking over areas that caught their eye, whereas others would have been more curious and social, obviously up to a close enough point to interbreed on certain occasions, which probably continued at least to an incidental degree after the 'main' traceable mixings in the Near East. They certainly had a couple of thousand of years of overlap during which they could potentially have exchanged both ideas and genes, as well as competed for resources. Going a step further, though, there is even a fairly widespread belief that modern humans were cognitively and technologically superior, giving the Neanderthals a run for their money.


This superiority argument has been fairly popular. The idea is that modern humans were smarter and better than our competitors - using superior weapons and more effective hunting strategies – to which the Neanderthals had no sufficient answer, resulting in them eventually kicking the bucket.

Aurignacian Sites

Up until the last decade, this theory was backed quite well by the archaeological evidence; whereas Upper Palaeolithic modern humans were clearly capable of making stuff like spear throwers and created beautiful cave paintings that must surely show they had developed to the point of symbolic thought, it was hard to prove the Neanderthals came up to the same cognitive benchmark. However, more recent studies have pointed out there really was not enough of a difference between these two humans to make this supposed superiority the main perpetrating factor. Neanderthals are now known to have been highly sophisticated, too; they used ochre in a likely symbolic way, knew sophisticated heating techniques to produce pitch, produced ornaments such as eagle claws as well as quite specialised tools (including the bone lissoirs named above). Moreover, they were formidable large game hunters with a broad general diet who must have really known their way around prehistoric Eurasia.
The supposed gap between our species is narrowing. Clearly, we were not so very different at all, and certainly not different enough for it to have been the only cause of the Neanderthals' extinction. Earlier this year, a study even suggested that because there was such a difference in population size between the two groups, modern humans would not have needed any severe advantage over the Neanderthals in order to replace them. Not only were there a lot fewer Neanderthals, living more scattered and in smaller groups than the arriving aliens; their numbers, too, were already decreasing when modern humans entered the arena, leaving them vulnerable.

Neanderthal Burial, La Chapelle-aux-Saints (reconstruction)

Something that may have had a hand in this and that has previously been overlooked a bit is the climate, which is now known to have been much more unstable around that time than we thought. On the Iberian peninsula, for instance, evidence has popped up indicating that Neanderthals vanished from there as early as around 42,000 years ago (while in other regions in Europe they clung on until c. 30,000 years ago at the latest), and that right at this time the climate started going through all sorts of annoyingly large fluctuations. This could help explain their dwindling population size in general.
Interestingly, there are also theories that point at interbreeding as a contributing factor to the Neanderthals' demise. Although we know that interbreeding happened, probably in the Near East, it is hard to reconstruct how common this may have been throughout the period in which Neanderthals and modern humans came into contact with each other. The huge amount of time that has passed since the Neanderthals disappeared would have watered down their genetic contribution, and there is evidence that the mixings were never even a straight-forward affair, but came with selection against certain portions of Neanderthal DNA. Male mixed children may even have been sterile, which would obviously reduce the amount of Neanderthal DNA being passed on any further than that first step. The social dynamics between the two groups must have played a role, too. All in all, it is possible that mixing might have happened fairly consistently, and that the dwindling Neanderthal population may have been partially assimilated into that of the modern human newcomers. One can imagine the much larger modern human numbers effectively 'swamping' the Neanderthals, but it is hard to say how likely a scenario this is.
What is clear is that the Neanderthals vanishing from the fossil record (but not the genetic one) must have been the result of a complex process involving many different factors, such as tough climatic conditions; a small and dwindling population size;contact with newcomers that at least in some areas included interbreeding; probably competition for resources; and perhaps even assimilation.


Our colliding fates actually go to a deeper level still. Science has reached that wonderful point where we can see not just the DNA we originally received from the Neanderthals, but also unearth the functions of some of these genes, which still have an effect on us today. Among the ones that have been identified are genes affecting skin and hair colour, which suggest that as modern humans first arrived in the colder Eurasian conditions, they helped themselves adapt by picking up lighter skin and fairer hair from the Neanderthals. The immune system shows a similar story; certain variants of genes boosting immune response, which would have helped defend modern humans against the new array of parasites and bacteria, are courtesy of both Neanderthals and the Denisovans.

Neanderthal Skeleton & Reconstruction

However, although these changes were probably originally useful within hunter-gatherer societies trundling around the prehistoric landscape, our vastly different lifestyles and environments today mean that we are now seeing some serious side-effects of the Neanderthal legacy. For instance, although a gene variant that ensures faster blood clotting could have saved the lives of prehistoric people getting hurt running around hunting things that were a fair bit bigger than they were, it also increases the risk of strokes and the likes, which is undesirable considering today's high life expectancy. Moreover, in today's more sterile environments, the Neanderthal immune response boost sometimes gets translated into allergies. Other present-day issues that seem to have roots within the transmitted Neanderthal DNA are all sorts of fun things like urinary tract disorders, nicotine addiction, skin lesions, risk of depression, predisposition towards malnutrition, and, for Native Americans, increased risk for type 2 diabetes. Clearly, we really thought this one through when we met our first Neanderthal.
The Denisovan genome has been sequenced, too, so their genetic impact on us is also starting to be canvassed. It has become clear, though, that it was not just these two species of human Homo sapiens got all up close and personal with, but that different humans mixed all the time, even way back within Africa. Palaeontologist John Hawks compares our evolutionary path to a river delta, with a main stream that supplied more than 90% of the ancestry of today's humans, and loads of other little streams weaving in and out, eventually heading into the desert and going extinct. We even know that some still unknown human ' ghost ' lineages must have existed because of this genetic legacy. Homo sapiens are the product of this entire past and preserve a dynamic and varied history of many meetings, in which the Neanderthals clearly played an interesting part, but there is no doubt that we also played an interesting part in the lives of all of these other humans, too.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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