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ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

Neanderthal Homes Were at The Cutting edge of Modern Living

Published: 20 September 2018
Jersey fissure system
A view into the fissure system where Neanderthals made their home in La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey

Research led by the University of Southampton’s Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins (CAHO) has been looking into the minds and lives of some of our early ancestors by investigating where they lived.

The research, focused on the 220,000 year old cave site of La Cotte de St. Brelade on the Channel Island of Jersey, has begun to bring a period of important change in way early human organised their lives under examination. Detailed studies of key parts of the site have revealed how Neanderthals used the site as a home base, part of more complex lifeways emerging on the edge of the human world. 

Now, their new book, Crossing the Human Threshold, the team have brought together this evidence alongside the work of a team of international experts looking at similar sites across the early stone age world to reinterpret how our ancestors used caves and the broader landscapes they moved through. What emerges is a remarkably consistent picture right across the Old World; that different populations of early humans that included Neanderthals, began to properly occupy caves and rock shelter only after 600,000 years ago. Before this time there is remarkably little evidence for anything approaching a hominin ‘home’, but after it there is an explosion of evidence for early humans structuring their lives around fixed places in the landscape which offered a physical refuge from the challenges of the Ice Age world and a new social space which may have played an important role in human evolution.

While previous evolutionary studies have looked at aspects of early human life such as brain size, technology and group size, this is the first global review of the evidence for the emergence of a key niche in the development of our genus: the home.

Dr Matt Pope of the Institute of Archaeology UCL, says: “The first evidence for long term settlements and clusters of structure we’d identify as ‘houses’ comes from very recent human prehistory, say in the last 12,000 – 15,000 years, but the evolutionary history for the appearance of places in the landscape which provide a ‘home’, however temporary, is showing a remarkable pattern. Before around half a million years ago, such places are virtually absent in the archaeological record. After this period they become increasingly common, associated with innovative technologies like fire, new hunting technologies involving simple wooden spears or stone points hafted onto wooden shafts and the innovative use of materials such as bone, antler, wood and bark. Cave sites aren’t just places where we happen to find this evidence, the use of caves and other fixed places in the landscape may reflect a transformation in the way early human societies are organisation themselves and their raw materials.”

Early humans were Niche builders

In Crossing the Human Threshold published by Routledge, brings together diverse case studies of this transformation in the human record. It considers an important theory in evolutionary biology in this discussion for the first time. Niche Construction describes how organisms create their own mini-environments and influence the behaviours of the population in response to these changes. Niche construction enhances adaptation and may explain the evolution of humans into an organism that is now engineering the planet on a  vast scale. The volume explores the emergence the ‘home’ as the key nice in our evolutionary success.

Home is where the hearth is

In the book, Professor Mary Stiner of University of Arizona, reviews the use of fire in cave sites excavated by archaeologists in the Near East. She shows when an intensification in the creation of hearths took place and draws the conclusion that fundamental changes in the way early humans now organised their lives around these hearths in the home.  Professor Ran Barkai, from the University of Tel Aviv, shows how in the Near East, fire and cooking go alongside an intensification in the use of caves, technological innovation and changes in the way humans are using their landscapes. Examples are drawn from across the world, from South Africa to China to Northern Europe drawing attention to changes in the archaeological record which go from being collections of artefacts and bones in open landscapes, to concentrations record of habitation in fixed locales such as caves.

If the home and hearth are a new niche then this raises the exciting possibility that humans are evolving in response to the dynamic living spaces they are creating. The research presented in this book opens up a new avenue for enquiry; how did humans evolve in response to their own humanly, created environments? What if the new idea of a ‘home’ radically re-shaped our ancestor’s view of their own world? If earlier hominins followed the ‘tides of the seasons’, migrating with the herds from place to place, then having a home-place could change how you lived your life. A home was not just a hearth or a set of rocky walls to hide behind. It was a set of ideas and practises which could be replicated at different locations throughout the year allowing for protection from the environment and predators, efficient hunting and foraging and comfort for sleeping, recovery from sickness and injuries and care for the young and old. If home really is where the heart is then perhaps this is where our greatest adaptation really took off – the emergence of ‘domestic’ life, far earlier in evolutionary time than we usually consider.  While it may have taken hundreds of thousands of years and the emergence of farming for the first permanent settlements to emerge, these early Stone Age experiments in home building underpin our emergence as a global species.

Dr Matt Pope will be speaking on The Domestic Life on Neanderthals at New Scientist Live on 23rd September


Crossing the Human Threshold: Dynamic Transformation and Persistent Places During the Middle Pleistocene is published by Routledge. ISBN: 9781138217782

The project members were Professor Clive Gamble (UoS), Dr Matt Pope (UCL), Dr Becky Scott (BM), Dr Marie-Anne Julien (UoS), Dr Andy Shaw (UoS)


Dr John McNabb Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton.
Dr Matt Pope. UCL Institute of Archaeology Tel: 07801908734


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