Neanderthals may have been more like us than previously thought, according to new evidence suggesting they organized their living spaces in ways similar to modern humans.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, Canadian Julien Riel-Salvatore, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, talked about an excavation project at Riparo Bombrini, a collapsed rock shelter near the Mediterranean Sea in northwest Italy.

The findings, published in December in the Canadian Journal of Archeology, suggest that Neanderthals were not necessarily the savage, simple brutes they're often portrayed to be. Instead, they organized their living spaces more like homes, where they butchered animals, made tools, built fires and slept in different parts of the shelter.

“We tend to have this idea of Neanderthals as these stereotypical cavemen that must have been different from us because they're not around today,” Riel-Salvatore said. “And what we’re seeing, in fact, is that the more we look at the record of Neanderthals ... the more their lifestyle appears to have been similar to those of modern humans at more or less the same time.”

Riel-Salvatore, who did his postdoctoral fellowship at Montreal’s McGill University, said three levels of occupation by Neanderthals were found at the Riparo Bombrini site. At a level dating back about 44,000 years, the excavation team found a hearth, or fireplace, located about a metre away from the back wall of the cave.

“This is a very strategic placement because that position allows the heat from the fireplace to radiate along the back wall of the cave and along the ceiling and distribute the heat along the rock shelter,” Riel-Salvatore said.

'A pleasant place to live'

At the mouth of the cave, researchers found stone tools and animal bones, which Riel-Salvatore said indicates Neanderthals were keeping items away from sleeping areas that could be hurtful if stepped on or could attract unwanted scavengers or vermin.

“So Neanderthals were segregating their activities across space so as to make it a pleasant place to live,” Riel-Salvatore said.

'The more we look at the record of Neanderthals … the more their lifestyle appears to have been similar to those of modern humans.'- Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver

The team also found evidence of Neanderthals collecting and processing shellfish, a discovery that portrays them as being more in tune with the ecological resources of their environments than previously thought.

They also discovered ochre scattered in the shelter, a reddish pigment that is commonly used among Homo sapiens but has so far been rare among Neanderthals.

“We’re starting to get evidence from a few sites across the old world that Neanderthals were occupying sites in a purposeful and organized way,” Riel-Salvatore said, adding that the most recent site in Italy was particularly surprising because the patterns appeared so quickly.

Neanderthal is an extinct species of human that first appeared about 400,000 years ago and went extinct about 30,000 years ago. Their fossil remains have been found across Europe and in western Asia.

“The big difference between them and us is shrinking by the day — literally, at this point,” Riel-Salvatore said. “And so instead of seeing them as this extinct offshoot on the human family tree, we should think of them more as extinct cousins, fairly close relatives.”