Neanderthals lived in Europe from ~400,000 years ago to ~28,000 years ago. During this time period the continent went through numerous ice ages. The Neanderthals’ body evolved to deal with this new tough environment, as did their technology. One important adaptation was the use of clothes. So what was Neanderthal clothing like? How did it help them survive the ice age?
Unfortunately clothes aren’t made from stone, bone or some other material which lasts for hundreds of thousands of years. This means we can’t study the clothes directly. Instead, scientists have to try and infer what they wore by looking at modern hunter-gatherers.
Whilst these people are obviously not neanderthals they can show what factors influence clothing choices when it is your very life – not just your style – on the line. So Nathan Wales, of the University of Connecticut, poured over comprehensive data collected by the famous anthropologist Lewis Binford to try and investigate this issue. His investigation revealed there was a fairly strong correlation between the temperature your environment and the percentage of the body clothes covered. Additionally, he also found that temperature influenced whether a specific part of the body was covered. Hats, it turns out, are only really used when it gets really cold.
This means that we can use the detailed environmental data we have for the European climate predict how much of their body neanderthal clothing covered. Additionally, we can also predict precisely what the neanderthals were covering as well. Did they wear hats? I’m just dying to know.
However, before we can make such predictions we have to take into account the fact that the neanderthals had developed many adaptations for life at northern latitudes. They were short and squat, reducing their surface area so that it would loose less heat. They also had more muscle mass, which insulates better than fat. These adaptations mean we can’t take data for modern humans – who lack many of these changes – and use it to make predictions for neanderthals. Instead we have to first apply a correction factor to take into account how much better neanderthals were at retaining heat.
Luckily for Wales much research has been done into neanderthal energetics since it is a key area of research for scientists trying to work out why the neanderthals went extinct. Many of their adaptations would’ve required more energy to function. This would’ve put gracile humans at an advantage, particularly during warmer phases where neanderthals cold adaptations would be giving them no benefit. As such it was relatively easy for Wales to search through the existing literature on the subject and identify that neanderthals’ adaptations would have meant they could survive in temperatures 4 degrees c colder than modern humans.
So after correcting his models by 4 degrees, Wales calculated how much of their body neanderthals would have covered with clothing. The results of this model indicate that neanderthals would’ve had to have covered >80% of their body during the coldest periods, but only ~40% during milder times and for those living in downright pleasant environments – such as along the Mediterranean – they would’ve only had to have covered ~20% of their body. When plotted over Europe, the results look like this.
He then ran his predictions of whether neanderthals would’ve covered their feet, hands and heads. These results indicate that neanderthals would more than likely have covered their hands in most of the environments they encountered, but would only have covered their heads in the coldest places. Finally, they would’ve likely have covered their feet most of the time. Finally, just to be sure of all of these predictions he ran his models for modern hunter-gatherers to see if they were reliable. He found that the resulting predictions were only ~10% off which is not bad at all. So these results are indeed reliable.
Although this certainly is interesting, revealing a lot about neanderthal clothing, can we get more specific about what they wore? Archaeology may finally be have use here, showing that neanderthals did not produce complex technology needed to sew or stitch clothes together to create well fitting garments. Further, anatomical evidence suggests that neanderthals were not wearing high quality shoes which provided them with grip or traction. Instead it would seem that they wrapped their feet in skins or made other simple shoes.
In short, neanderthals covered most of their body in cold environments, less so during the warm. They often wore gloves and shoes, but only wore hats during the coldest times. However, these clothes were likely just simple furs or skins, tied or just draped over their body. They lacked the technology to produce tight fitting tailored clothes, like the kind modern humans wore.
|Wales N (2012). Modeling Neanderthal clothing using ethnographic analogues. Journal of human evolution PMID: 23084621|