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Right I can't bear #Brexit so am treating everyone to a GIGANTIC THREAD on TRADE- #Neanderthal-style.

Hold onto your handaxes!
DID #NEANDERTHALS TRADE? An excellent question but extremely hard to answer (even for early Homo sapiens) because it relies on a lot of assumptions about how Neanderthal society was organised.
We’ve got two ways in:
- how things were moved around
- how people moved around
The biggest & best-studied category of artefacts to help us look for #Neanderthal trade is lithics: stone tools. Decades of research on where rock was sourced vs. where it ended up shows everybody, including Upper Palaeolithic H. sapiens, mostly shifted stone small distances.
That’s basic economics, and reflects how people preferred what was close to them, as long as the rock wasn’t terrible. ‘Local’ stone is classed as within about 10 km, not a long distance for hunter-gatherers to move out and back to a site.
Medium distances (about the limit of a whole day’s walk) are < 40-60 km, and reveal a more regional picture of stone. It might be sourced directly on a trip away from the site, or carried between sites, when the whole group– whoever that comprised– shifted their base.
Evidence comes from the almost universal pattern in #Neanderthal sites that the farther from the source, the less often that type of stone will be found as ‘raw’ nodules, cores or even knapping debris. Instead, flakes or tools were made elsewhere and carried onwards.
In typical assemblages there’s also usually v. small proportions (<5%) of lithics from distant sources: over 60 km & rarely >100 km. It’s these ‘exotic’ objects that are potentially important in arguing for or against #Neanderthal trade.
It’s possible exotic lithics were sourced directly: a few #Neanderthals might have gone for targeted trips lasting a few days or more away from a ‘base site’. But the *kind* of distant artefacts we find doesn’t support theory of bringing stone straight back to work ‘in-situ’.
Technological analysis again shows exotic artefacts are almost always tools with long ‘lives’ like handaxes or scrapers. Made elsewhere, they were designed to be carried about, resharpened, recycled. We see this through overlapping user-wear and phases of edge rejuvenation.
The problem is these artefacts transferred over very long distances could be tools held onto through multiples moves between ‘residential’ sites, OR they could have been exchanged with other groups.
Can we tell the difference? Mapping #Neanderthal territory is one way to try. By looking at totality of lithic transport patterns from many sites across whole regions, it’s possible to find consistent spatial boundaries, where movement of any stone seems to have stopped.
These ‘lithic landscapes’ are a strong possibility for territorial boundaries, with #Neanderthals only moving stone within particular areas, even if it was sometimes over long distances. But are they more about natural barriers– topography– than social ones?
If we found outliers– tools being moved extremely long distances and/or a pattern of just a few kinds of stone crossing what seem otherwise to be lithic territorial boundaries– this *could* point to exchange between groups.
One kind of stone which matches this is obsidian, the sharpest natural substance. Obsidian is mostly found in SE Europe, and it’s consistently moved the farthest distances we see for #Neanderthals, 2–300 km in some cases.
[Side-note: some claims for v. long distance transport from rock outcrops are less certain, as we’ve begun to understand how important ‘secondary’ sources were, like flint in river gravels. Obsidian tends to be more outcrop-specific and avoids this issue]
We’d expect obsidian to move the farthest on economic terms, but in theory it might also reflect exchange. This is especially because research from recent hunter gatherers shows that when things move more than 300 km, it’s most often trade.
However, it might simply be that #Neanderthals lived across areas much bigger than the distances they were prepared to carry stone. So outliers then might just represent unusual instances when they chose to carry things through the full range of their territory.
Other kinds of materials might also have been transported. For instance, did #Neanderthals carry their wooden tools around, esp. spears or hafted ones they invested a lot of time in making? Or even bone retouchers used for working lithics? So far, we don’t have research on this.
There is one last category of artefact that could be important: “symbolic” objects, i.e. things we find in #Neanderthal sites which have no obvious/ more than a subsistence-related function. Many examples exist, from shells to fossils to mineral pigments.
All of these things tend– in recent hunter gatherers as well as other human groups– to be traded. And in some later Upper Palaeolithic cultures, shells moved even further than lithics, over many 100s of km. Is there any evidence of this for #Neanderthals?
Maybe. There are hints that non-lithic objects did sometimes move farther than average. A dolphin bone at Zaskalnaya, Crimea came from at least 50 km away; farther than we assume most hunted meat was carried; but perhaps it was a special sea-food trip.
Shells seem to be important to #Neanderthals. They ate a variety of shellfish, and around the Mediterranean shell was also knapped. But examples exist beyond practical use: at Cueva Antón, Spain a large scallop shell with pigment traces had been moved at least 60 km.
Fossils definitely weren't food, and include long transfers. In Pech de l’Azé I, France, a fossil shell came c. 30 km, but the farthest is @Grotta_Fumane, Italy. Here a Miocene fossil shell with red pigment (possibly worn or at least threaded) had been picked up >100 km away.
Once again however, it’s possible to argue that fossils or shells, if they were special, might just have been carried around by the individual #Neanderthal or group that found them, rather than exchanged. None so far breach the 300 km ‘trade distance’.
What about people? We do have a way to tell directly how far #Neanderthals moved in their lives, through geochemistry: isotopic analysis of teeth. The water you drink as your teeth form leaves a distinct signature which can be compared with the geology where you later die.
It’s complex science, and only particular regions at particular scales show up clearly, but it can give us pointers. For example this is how we know the later prehistoric Amesbury Archer near Stonehenge was born outside the UK.
For #Neanderthals, the few samples we have come out less than 30 km = the ‘middling’ range we see in the lithics. Not super local, but not long distance either, and well within regional-scale movements.
However, we shouldn’t forget that individual sites we find were not necessarily ‘centres’ in #Neanderthal territories; they were each nodes within larger areas and along routes that we’re only just beginning to trace.
If #Neanderthals followed seasonal/annual ‘rounds’, they probably would have been unlikely to end up dying at the extreme ends of their territory, so isotopes mightn’t necessarily show the full extent of land they moved over.
With current low numbers of isotopic samples, a skewed view of their territory is a risk. But as we analyse more teeth, if we don’t see *any* long distance isotopic patterns, it will tip the scales towards #Neanderthals having generally smaller ranges.
Small territories– also based on high % of local lithics– have been used to argue for weak #Neanderthal social networks. Yet regional isotopic patterns implies that the persistent presence of at least some long-distance artefact movements are *more* likely to be exchange.
So... my answer to the question is: if we use the same kinds of data & assumptions as for later H. sapiens, then #Neanderthals were *possibly* occasionally trading particularly valuable stone and special items. But not as much, or as far, as Upper Palaeolithic peoples.
[in thread frenzy I forgot tweet numbering, but hopefully it worked!]
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