Neanderthals were living in ice age Europe for thousands of years1. Their body evolved to cope, and so did their technology. But Neanderthal clothing seems to have remained a bit rubbish.

Studying Neanderthal clothing has always been a bit tricky. It’s so old it’s all rotted away. But by looking at other sources of evidence, Collard et al. managed to find differences between human and Neanderthal clothes2.

And it seems that we have the better dress sense, both for survival and fashion2.

Fur is murder

The stone age gets its name from the fact that all the artefacts we have from that period are stone. But that doesn’t mean that’s all they were using, it’s just everything else rot away. This includes any clothing, which makes their attire tad hard to study.

To get around this lack of data researchers have come up with some quite ingenious methods. We can look for technology indicative of clothing manufacture. We can infer what they had to wear to survive in the ice age climate. And sometimes, we can find the trace parts of clothes, like buttons and threaded beads.

The 22,000-year-old site of Sunghir contains lots of beads, from which the clothing they were threaded into can be inferred

Collard et al. have added another method to our repertoire. They figure that clothes had to be made out of something – typically animals, as PETA had yet to be invented. So, by looking at the animal remains at stone age camps, maybe we can infer what sort of clothes they were making2.

Obviously, fur is the big ingredient here. Modern hunter-gatherer groups living in cold regions use stuff like reindeer to make most of their clothing. They also eat the reindeer, so we might just be finding what they found tasty, rather than what they wore2.

However, they did upgrade reindeer fur with smaller animals like Mustelidae (otters, ferrets, etc.). These are used to make fur trim for the clothing, helping trap in heat. Crucially though, people don’t like to eat these animals. So their presence in stone age sites is a clear sign that a group was making fancy clothing with a nice fur trim2.

If we start protesting against Neanderthal clothing, I think they can raise some bigger grievances against us

Neanderthal clothing is crap

So Collard et al. went looking for this sort of animal evidence of fancy clothing. Fortunately, they didn’t have to travel very far as there already is a massive database on the subject, detailing all the animals found at more than 400 archaeological sites from OIS 3 (the time period humans arrived in Europe and Neanderthals went extinct)2.

This investigation revealed some serious differences between human and Neanderthal animal use. For instance, the aforementioned Mustelidae are present at nearly half of all human sites from the period. However, they’re only seen at ~20% of Neanderthal sites. Collard et al. saw this same trend with pretty much every animal that could be used to make fancy clothes2.

Species used to make cold weather clothes fancy

Now, this doesn’t mean only 20% of Neanderthals were making clothes. Both them and humans still hunted lots of animals with big pelts, like deer. However, the species which could be used to make nice trims were rarer amongst Neanderthals2.

Collard et al. take this to mean Neanderthal clothing was a bit crap. Most of the time, they were only using the larger pelts to make untailored clothes without a nice trim, like ponchos or capes2. This does match with some other evidence as their shoes also seem to have been a bit rubbish.

Neanderthals fight back

However, it is worth noting all of this evidence is rather circumstantial.

What if Neanderthals were using fewer trim species because they were actually making better clothes that lasted longer. If this was the case, the lack of animals was just because they had to replace them less often.

Or perhaps they simply used different animals to make their trim. After all, the expectation of what species = good clothes is based on modern human populations. How do we know Neanderthals were doing the same thing?

Collard et al. acknowledge such issues and others. For instance, we’re dealing with a period of climate flux; where Neanderthals were being forced out of some regions1. Maybe they couldn’t tailor as well in an unfamiliar landscape with unknown resources2. I certainly can’t write blogs as well in such circumstances, and I’m not even facing extinction.

Despite these caveats, this research does lend credence to the there some difference between human clothing and Neanderthal clothing. Hopefully, further research will help narrow down exactly what that was.

But in the meantime, we can be sure of one thing: we both look pretty dapper in modern clothes.

References

  1. Hublin, J.J. and Roebroeks, W., 2009. Ebb and flow or regional extinctions? On the character of Neandertal occupation of northern environments. Comptes Rendus Palevol8(5), pp.503-509.
  2. Collard, M., Tarle, L., Sandgathe, D. and Allan, A., 2016. Faunal evidence for a difference in clothing use between Neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology44, pp.235-246.

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