March 30, 2008

Lagar Velho I

This is a paper I wrote for a Human Origins class in Fall 2005. I'm keeping the original academic citations intact for posting. I wouldn't recommend plagiarizing it, because has it on record. Also, my grad student teacher was a fan of the Neandertal and got a little hinky about my assertions re: their lack of cognitive ability.

Lagar Velho I

Approximately 24,500 years ago, a human child of about four years of age was buried in the back of a large cave shelter in Iberia. He was wrapped in an animal skin that had been painted with red ochre, and he was wearing a seashell necklace and headdress made of deer teeth. The child was interred with part of a rabbit as well as a deer, which were perhaps food for his afterlife journey. His body was largely undisturbed until the present day. (Zilhao, 2002; Tattersall and Schwartz, 1999; Duarte et al., 1999)


In November, 1998, two archaeologists came upon the Lagar Velho skeleton while they were looking for cave drawings. Joao Mauricio and Pedro Souto were following a tip from a student who had found some paintings in another cave. While they were visiting the area, they took a look at the cave shelter where the burial site was found. In a rodent’s burrow, one of them reached down to find the child’s arm and hand bones. Over the next months, the entire skeleton was unearthed. The skull had been broken into pieces by a bulldozer a few years earlier, but nearly 80% of it was recovered, including all the teeth. It was later rebuilt via computer imaging. (Zilhao, 2002; Duarte et al., 1999)

The post-cranial skeleton had been undisturbed and was found complete. The bones were stained with red ochre on both the tops and bottoms, leading to the conclusion of an ochre-painted shroud around the body when it was buried. The site was “archaeologically sterile” in the time periods directly before and after the burial, and it was approximately 10 meters away from the part of the cave used by the child’s family or tribe for shelter. There is evidence that they lived in the shelter, and their burial of the child away from their living quarters was certainly done purposely. (Zilhao, 2002)

Species Classification

The Lagar Velho child displays modern homo sapiens characteristics, but the initial discovery led to some disagreement over its assignment to this species. The first paper released on the fossil contended that the child was a hybrid between humans and Neandertals. His prominent chin, small front teeth, narrowness of his front pelvis, and the muscle markings of his thumb help classify him as modern homo sapiens. However, features such as his sloping front mandible, short lower-leg bones, and his pectoral muscle markings indicate Neandertal morphology. This led some researchers to conclude that the Lagar Velho child was the result of many generations of interbreeding between humans and Neandertals. (Duarte et al., 1999; Zilhao, 2002; Stringer and Davies, 2001) This explains the fact the child lived at least two to three thousand years after the Neandertals disappeared, but the shared characteristics would be more expected from a first or second generation mixture of the two species. (Tattersall and Schwartz, 1999) Even more important perhaps in the argument against Neandertal/human interbreeding is the use of DNA testing. Recent DNA tests on Neandertal remains show that Neandertals are genetically distinct from modern homo sapiens, and not likely to be our ancestors. (Jurmain, et al., 2006; Stringer and Davies, 2001)

The cranial capacity of the Lagar Velho specimen is not mentioned in the sources I have found; nor is a comparative chart for modern homo sapiens and Neandertals of his age group readily available. Adult cranial capacity in modern humans ranges from about 1150cc to 1750cc, with an average of 1325cc. Adult Neandertals averaged an even higher 1520cc, which may have been an adaptation to their colder climates, much like the modern Inuits, who have larger brains than other humans. (Jurmain, et al., 2006) Lacking the necessary data, we can not say where the Lagar Velho child would be charted in this comparison.

Time Period

The Lagar Velho skeleton was found buried on top of a burnt branch of Scots pines, which was helpful in dating the burial. Radio carbon dating of this burnt material places the time period of the burial at ca. 24,900 years ago, and the rabbit remains buried with the child are dated at ca. 23,900. (Zilhao, 2002) Radio carbon dating is a method that measures the decay of C14 in formerly living tissue. Because the decay occurs at a steady rate, it can be used to measure age with a reasonable degree of accuracy up to 75,000 years. (Jurmain, et al., 2006)

The time period of the Lagar Velho child is somewhere between 2,000-4,500 years after the Neandertals disappeared from the fossil record of the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. (Tattersall and Schwartz, 1999) Modern homo sapiens had been in Western Europe for almost 10,000 years before the Lagar Velho child was born, and of course live there to this day. (Jurmain, et al., 2006) It is safe to say they thrived.


When the Lagar Velho child was alive, he lived in what is now Portugal in Western Europe. The climate was going through a warmer trend, and although his burial site proves there were trees nearby, most of the nearby land was open and welcoming to grazing animals. Large herds of deer and bison provided meat for his family. The Lagar Velho child’s male family members did the hunting, while the female family members gathered what edible berries and other vegetation they could find. They did not eat from pottery dishes, but probably used wooden dishes of some sort instead. (Jurmain, et al., 2006)

Hunting at this time was not as dangerous as it had been for the Neandertals. Modern homo sapiens developed methods of killing their prey that did not require such close contact. They developed spears that could be thrown from some distance, and they fashioned rudimentary bows and arrows around this time. Neandertal skeletons show a high proportion of injuries due to close proximity with large prey animals, but homo sapiens remains show much fewer incidences of similar hunting injuries. (Jurmain, et al., 2006) Homo sapiens managed to adapt in a way that their Neandertal neighbors either did not or could not.


Some of the Lagar Velho child’s family members may have spent their free time drawing on the cave walls with red, black, and yellow paints. They would have drawn the animals they saw around them, as well as drawing the occasional picture of family members. Perhaps they intermittently spent time engraving pictures onto their tools or even fashioned small figurines out of clay. Although their life was not an easy one, they did find time to beautify their surroundings. The pursuit of art may have been for art’s sake, or it may have been ceremonial in nature. (Jurmain, et al., 2006)

We do not know what place ceremony had in the society of early homo sapiens, but we do know it existed to some degree. The Lagar Velho child’s burial alone indicates some degree of ceremony. The branch that was burnt before the body was interred, the shroud covering the child, the necklace and headdress placed on the child, and the food buried with him were all done purposely, and likely had some symbolism attached to them. Thought and effort were put into his burial. (Duarte, et al., 1999; Zilhao, 2002) He was not simply left out for the animals to scavenge. Perhaps his family believed in an afterlife or a higher power, and perhaps they had other ceremonies surrounding these beliefs.


Around the Lagar Velho child’s lifetime, sewing was developed. Neandertals had not developed this technology, and wore animal skins either wrapped around their bodies or fashioned into a sort of poncho. Neandertals had been skinning and tanning animals, curing the skins, and making them more durable. The Lagar Velho child’s family probably wore furs during cold weather, but they surely had lighter-weight, more comfortable clothing for the warmer months. Whether they were able to sew their clothes to make them fit better, we cannot be sure, but it is possible they did. The technology existed. (Jurmain, et al., 2006)


Language is a facet of culture, and helps immensely toward its growth and complexity. Communication is essential for progress, and modern homo sapiens progressed mightily during the Upper Paleolithic period. Art became more widespread and symbolic, tools and built shelters became more sophisticated, and society became more complex. (Jurmain, et al., 2006)

Homo sapiens possessed language skills that their Neandertal contemporaries probably did not. They were wired for sound, so to speak. Neandertals probably did speak, because they apparently had the brainpower to do so, and they met the physical requirements of speech. However, it seems likely that they lacked some advanced cognition which would have been necessary for them to develop a complex language system based on symbolism. (Jurmain, et al., 2006)

Evidence that Neandertals lacked advanced cognitive abilities can be found in the archaeological record. They were not artists, and did not leave behind anything like the cave drawings we see from early modern homo sapiens. They did not make use of all resources at their disposal when they made tools, and favored rocks when bone or bits of antler may have been more useful. Their tools were also extremely simple, and did not show much innovation. Neandertals also failed to develop a weapon that would keep them out of harm’s way while hunting. They had been injured by large prey animals, but did not figure out a method of preventing this from happening again. (Jurmain, et al., 2006) Based on this evidence, one can easily conclude that Neandertals did not have what it took to develop a complex, symbolic language system. They were largely stuck inside the box.

Homo sapiens, however, were able to use symbolism and develop language. The Lagar Velho child was probably speaking and communicating with his family much like a modern human child. He may have fought with his siblings or listened to stories about the hunt. Maybe he knew he was loved, and understood what it meant to love his family. He probably let them know when he was hungry or cold or hurting. Perhaps his mother comforted him in his last hours, and perhaps the rest of the family comforted her when he died. Maybe she believed he was going to a peaceful place where he would be safe in the care of a higher being. Maybe she thought his spirit would be reincarnated into another person or animal, or that she would see him again in a different world.

Taxonomy and Phylogeny

There are different arguments about what happened to the Neandertals. The Lagar Velho child is at the heart of one school of thought. Some scholars, including those who discovered the Lagar Velho skeleton, believe Neandertals interbred with modern homo sapiens and simply evolved. Others believe modern homo sapiens pushed out the Neandertals, who could not compete with their new, more efficient neighbors for food sources. (Duarte, et al., 1999; Tattersall and Schwartz, 1999; Jurmain, et al., 2006) Based on the evidence presented in this paper, it should come as no surprise that I reject the first argument. Neandertals did not evolve into humans, and humans did not evolve from Neandertals. Modern humans evolved from homo heidelbergensis, and pushed the less adaptive Neandertals out. As the climate fluctuated dramatically around 30,000 years ago, food sources became scarcer and the Neandertals lost out in competition with the humans. (Stringer and Davies, 2001)

Homo heidelbergensis were found from approximately 850,000 years ago until about 130,000 years ago, and both modern humans and Neandertals evolved from this species. Their skulls are more derived than homo erectus, in that the bones are less robust, the cranial vault is more globular, and the base of the skull is nearly identical to modern humans. However, they did retain some ancestral characteristics such as the
lack of a chin as well as very large supraorbital and occipital toruses. (Jurmain, et al., 2006)

Homo heidelbergensis originated in Africa, but migrated to Europe and Asia. A group of these hominids was isolated in Europe by glacial movement and evolved into Neandertals while cut off from the rest of the species. The Asian groups were isolated as well, and were likely extinct by the time modern homo sapiens migrated into Asia. (Jurmain, et al., 2006) Homo sapiens can currently be found all over the globe, and are highly adaptive to all climates.

To date, homo sapiens are not ancestral to any other species. At the current rate of interbreeding, they will likely evolve together unless a catastrophic or major exploratory event separates some homo sapiens populations from one another. Maybe a small group will depart for another galaxy and evolve separately from the others. The future is impossible to predict, after all, and perhaps better left in this case to the imaginations of science fiction authors.


The Lagar Velho child was cared for. His family found a sheltered spot to bury him, and his remains were safe for thousands of years. He was a modern homo sapiens, capable of speech and symbolic understanding. Had he grown to adulthood, he might have been an artist or a successful hunter. He may have had a family of his own and built a sturdy shelter for them to live in. He might have loved his wife and children and he probably would have taken great care of them. We don’t know why his life was cut so short, but we do know that the adults around him were intelligent and caring, and that they extended their care of him to his death and beyond.

Cidalia Duarte, Joao Mauricio, Paul B. Pettitt, Pedro Souto, Erik Trinkaus, Hans van der Plicht, and Joao Zilhao. “The Early Upper Paleolithic Human Skeleton from the Abrigo do Lagar Velho (Portugal) and Modern Human Emergence in Iberia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96 (1999): 7604-11.

Robert Jurmain, Lynn Kilgore, and Wenda Trevathan. Introduction to Physical Anthropology. 10th ed. Canada: Wadsworth, 2006.

Chris Stringer and William Davies. “Those Elusive Neanderthals.” Nature 413 (2001): 791-93

Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H. Schwartz. “Hominids and Hybrids: The Place of Neanderthals in Human Evolution.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96 (1999): 7117-20.

Joao Zilhao. “The Lagar Velho Child and the Fate of the Neanderthals.” Athena Review 2 (2002): 33-39.

Posted by Jennifer at March 30, 2008 12:38 PM | TrackBack


If the climate was warmer then did they blame it on someone?

Posted by: Pete at March 30, 2008 01:44 PM