Did the average Neanderthal know she had a brother-in-law?

In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin hits on an interesting point that I don't think we (the media and laypeople) consider enough when we talk about our closest ancient relatives. Although we have an increasingly deep picture of Neanderthal anatomy and genetics, that doesn't necessarily tell us a great deal about their biology.

Truth is, for how little we understand the wiring and functioning of our own brains, we understand even less about the Neanderthal mind. It's quite possible that they could mate with us, but couldn't think the same way we do. And it's those unseen, unstudied differences that could really account for the vast disparities that we see between how humans lived and how their Neanderthal neighbors lived.

The picture we have so far is that the Neanderthals are sort of opportunistic, good at hunting middle- to large-sized mammals. They have a territory in which they probably go through a cycle of habitation in different places, basically when one place is exhausted they move to another one. What we don't see with Neanderthals is long-distance exchanges with other groups. What we see with modern humans in the same areas is different. For example, we find shells in Germany coming from the Mediterranean or from the French Atlantic Coast. It means there was a network of people. So, the question is, what kind of relationship did a Neanderthal have with his brother-in-law? Humans did not just live with their families and their neighbors, but they knew they had a brother-in-law in another village, and that beyond the mountain there is the family of their mother, or uncle, or something like that. There is a large network of groups that, if necessary, could help each other. I think this is where we would like to go to find differences between Neanderthals and modern humans.

Read the full interview at The Houston Chronicle

Via Marc Kissel

Image: Neanderthal Silhouette, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from erix's photostream



  1. We know nothing about the sexual social structure of Neanderthals and such would be very hard to discover.

    Did they live in bands like chimps or harems like gorillas?

    If in bands did they have mostly monogamous pair bonding like humans or was it just one big family where males tried to mate with as many females (or the “best” females) as chimps do.

    If one could find lots of Neanderthal skeletons, scientists could DNA test them to see how many had the same pair of parents which would give some information on the sexual social structure but not enough to give a clear picture.

    1.  I wouldn’t say we know nothing; looking at kin groups & doing gene testing on the bones says something about patrilocal & matrilocal patterns, for instance.  Or you know, the sexes present in a tribe.  We have some notions!

      1.  Do you have any references to actual studies or are just guessing there may be some. As far as I know the skeletal finds are too sparse for such studies.

        We do know that some Neanderthal skeletons show asymmetry but don’t really know what caused it. For a comparison of two guesses see: PLOS:Neandertal Humeri May Reflect Adaptation to Scraping Tasks, but Not Spear Thrusting, but there is not enough data to decide this or even the question of whether skin scraping was performed more by one sex than the other. Combining this with an earlier assumption that asymmetry indicated maleness may mean that many partial skeletons were improperly sexed.

        1. I am specifically thinking of a few things I read in “How to Think Like a Neandertal” recently, but I don’t have the book in front of me to check the bibliography out.

    2. Neanderthals were not like humans, they were humans. 
      We don’t know how Homo sapiens neanderthalensis structured their sex -, social – and family life. 
      In fact, there are those that try to define marriage in the remaining hybrid species Homo sapiens sapiens.

    1. Came here to say the same thing.

      There’s a large/tall statue of Glooscap standing guard over his people, at the Heritage Center just south of Truro NS. 

      At the time it was, um, erected by the Mi’kmaq people, someone (actually, just about everybody) noticed that from the sides, it seemed that it wasn’t just Glooscap that was towering at attention.  It has since been corrected.


  2. Can someone wiser than me answer me this: If humans and neanderthals mated, and modern humans carry neanderthal DNA, then  the fact that they left descendants means they most certainly did not go extinct. Or if the argument is that they ceased to be a separate species or lineage, then wouldn’t that also apply to “us,” as we would then be hybrids of the two lineages of hominids?

    1. No, even if they have left a lineage in modern humans they are still extinct. As a separate species (or sub-species there is still some debate there) with a specific set of characteristics they no longer exist even though they may have left descendants.

      Here’s an absurd analogy that came to mind. Assume for a moment that we had proof that the modern chicken was a direct descendant of a sub-group of T. rex. That wouldn’t mean that T. rex isn’t extinct or make chickens T. rexes.

  3. Please, let’s not give the many, many learned “joiners” short-shrift. It is not proven one way or the other whether or not neanderthals were actually different species, or in the process of speciating, or just robust versions of contemporary homo.

    Articles like this present the assumption that the “splitters” are correct, and it is a done deal. It just isn’t.

    Taxonomy is tricky thing, and doing it based only on bones and artefacts is trickier yet.

  4. I had been under the impression that even Homo sapiens didn’t figure out that sex led to childbirth until a few thousand years ago, so that would put a damper on any understanding of relationships.

    1. We apparently already had that down by the time written language came about so it’s probably difficult if not impossible to figure out when we made the connection, that’s not really a part of culture that is going to leave many traces.

  5. Short scene from a Stone Age backyard BBQ, meads in hand.

    Homo Sapiens:  “…and this is my sister’s husband’s cousin’s wife, who…”
    Neanderthal:  “…aaand…! ya lost me”

    1. I was reading “brother-in-law” as shorthand for “brother of this woman I’m attached to and/or have children with”. It doesn’t require marriage or laws to have a concept of person(s) you have made a family with (not going to assume monogamy) and their extended relations.

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