Hunter Gatherer Research

The use of ethnographic data in Neanderthal archaeological research

Recent trends and their interpretative implications

Hunter Gatherer Research (2018), 4, (1), 25–49.


Archaeologists frequently use ethnographic data on recent hunter-gatherers to interpret and analyse data from prehistoric groups. This use of ethnographic data is not limited to the archaeology of Homo sapiens, but also to that of archaic hominins. In this article, I examine how archaeologists use ethnographic data in their research on Neanderthals. An analysis of articles published in five international journals in the ‘genomic era’ of Neanderthal research (post-2010) shows that while not ubiquitous, many archaeologists use ethnographic data to interpret a range of Neanderthal behaviours. Several key patterns in the use of ethnographic data are identified, including limited engagement with ethnographic sources, the frequent use of data to substantiate a claim, or ‘fill in the gaps’ of a sparse archaeological record, and little acknowledgement of the problems or limitations of the application of these data to Neanderthal contexts. These practices may reflect the current trend in Neanderthal research which emphasises similarities with early Homo sapiens, and takes for granted the appropriateness of analogues with recent foragers. I argue that the prevailing use of ethnographic data does not account adequately for biological and cognitive differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. I demonstrate this using the example of the effects of Neanderthal biology on demography and mobility and provide some recommendations for best practice of the use of ethnographic data in Neanderthal archaeological research.

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Author details

French, Jennifer C