Free-association test: in the old sitcom “The Odd Couple,” Felix was the fussy neat freak who sipped wine, listened to opera and straightened up incessantly; his roommate, Oscar, was an unrepentant slob who swilled beer, threw garbage on the floor and smoked cheap cigars. Now picture our prehistoric cousins the Neanderthals and choose one—Felix or Oscar?
True, they may have been hairy and brutish-looking, and they might have spoken in guttural grunts while our own ancestors were working out the intricacies of complex language. But when it came to keeping a cave looking its best, Neanderthals evidently had the domestic touch. There was more Felix in them than Oscar, right down to the neatness, if not to the wine.
That’s the conclusion, at least, of a paper in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology. Lead author Julien Riel-Salvatore, of the University of Colorado, Boulder was part of a team that excavated a collapsed rock shelter known as Riparo Bombrini, in northern Italy.
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The scientists found that the shelter was divided into three levels. The top was full of animal bones, suggesting it was a food-prep area where animals were butchered. The middle level was more of a living space, with a fire pit toward the back. And the bottom was a sort of staging area, with a workshop toward the front where stone tools were evidently made, and perhaps stored, ready for hunting forays.
“There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans,” said Riel-Salvatore in a press release. “But we found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space.”
OK, so maybe it’s not quite the apex of interior design, but remember—these were the original cavemen. And it’s not just their decorating: in recent years, scientists have learned that Neanderthals ate a more balanced, heart-healthy diet than we once thought; practiced recycling; decked themselves out with jewelry; buried their dead; and were lovers rather than fighters (or maybe not).
They may, in short, have been a lot more civilized than we tend to give them credit for. No word yet, however, on whether they smoked smelly cigars. If that sort of evidence turns up someday, we’ll have to rethink the Felix-Oscar thing once more.