Strangers in a Strange Land? Intimate sociality and emergent creativity in Middle Palaeolithic Europe

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Europe in the Middle Palaeolithic would have been an unfamiliar world. The landscapes which we reconstruct for this period seem almost alien - often shrouded in ice, occupied by extinct fauna, such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, and moreover by people seen by many as ‘not quite human’. Unlike in later periods such as the Mesolithic (see Warren this volume) analogies between modern foragers and populations in the Middle Palaeolithic, Neanderthals, are rare. Such comparisons have typically been restricted to generalised ecological models, rarely extending to the social and cultural lives of these ‘strangers in strange land’ (Stutz 2012). Whilst in recent years a certain blurring of the boundaries between Neanderthals and modern humans has opened up the possibility of drawing on ethnographically documented societies to understand Neanderthal sociality such analogy is far from straightforward. Wholesale application of models from modern contexts onto this distant and undoubtedly different past risks compressing the very diversity we hope to understand. Even so, not only can modern foragers potentially provide much needed insight, but the distant lives lived by Neanderthals equally present us with a possibility of bringing something new to our understanding of hunter-gatherers. Here we aim to rise to the challenge of including Neanderthals within the diversity of hunter-gatherer social existence, without imposing a modern foraging adaptation on to their way of life. We review some of the difficulties with the direct application of analogies from contemporary hunter-gatherers, and explore alternative approaches to help us to understand the nature of Neanderthal sociality.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe diversity of Hunter-gatherer pasts
EditorsGraeme Warren, Bill Finlayson
PublisherOxbow Books
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2017

Bibliographical note

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  • Middle Palaeolithic
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Palaeolithic art
  • Mobility patterns

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