The stability and uniformity of Neandertal (Middle Paleolithic) technology is a commonplace assumption. The development of local traditions and temporal variation has been documented only for the later phases of the Middle Paleolithic and in some regions only. Regional patterns in tool manufacture and typology may be seen as culturally determined yet the widespread assumption is that Neandertal societies and traditions were essentially uniform and static. Differences in the mental capacity of Neandertals and of modern humans might explain why Neandertals became extinct.

This research will advance the debate about differences in the cognitive capacities of Neandertals and early modern humans and will help to isolate the specific capabilities which make the human species unique.

Recent research has expanded the Neandertal chronological range to at least 400,000 years ago and their geographic range as far as possibly southern Siberia. Their cognitive abilities and subsistence practices have been extended to include planning of communal hunts, hafting and the use of glues that require heat treatment, long-term organization of knapping activities, the exploitation of small game and aquatic resources, the use of mineral pigments and the habitual use of fire. Yet the conventional view that Neandertals did not have a capacity to form innovative plans of action and copied technical behavior from one generation to the next, with little variation beyond adaptations to ecological conditions, persists.

At present it is impossible to fully support or refute the conventional view of Neandertals. To break this impasse, these claims must be empirically tested. With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Paola Villa and an international team of colleagues will carry out technological analyses, supported by experimental replication, of lithic assemblages from three late Acheulian, eight Middle Paleolithic and three Aurignacian sites, dating from 330,000 to 30,000 years ago in a single region (Central Italy). The assemblages will be used to establish rates of stability and/or change in tool forms, use of particular knapping methods and objectives of tool production over this long time span. These assemblages are all made on exactly the same kind of flint pebbles, of high quality but very limited in the size of products. This constant eliminates one major, external, factor of variability between assemblages which makes it difficult to evaluate the inventiveness and significance of technological changes through time. There are no other sequences in Europe documenting the use of the same kind and morphology of raw material over three hundred thousand years. Comparisons with pre and post Neandertal assemblages will be made to assess Neandertal technical abilities compared to those of modern humans and of presumed pre-Neandertals. Dating by multiple techniques will be done for assemblages which lack or have insufficient radiometric dates.

This research program includes Italian and French archaeologists, a geologist, a paleontologist, and three dating specialists from Australia and England. The project will bring to the international scene the rich but still incompletely known Italian prehistoric record of the Middle and Upper Pleistocene and will broaden the participation of students from multiple universities. Upon conclusion of analyses, thousands of artifacts curated and ready for other analyses will be available to other researchers.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of Colorado at Boulder
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