We’ve all gotten that viral e-mail about how a messy desk is a sign of genius. It may be true, but the ability to organize our space is one of the things that sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Some of us may have cluttered desks, some of us may have clean ones, but we’re the only species around that has desks at all, and designated rooms called offices where we put them. Like language and tool-making, music and barter, furnishing is an inherently human activity. A monkey’s desk would be really, really messy—he’d probably use it as a toilet.
Researchers are finding, however, that our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals, may have also been thoughtful interior decorators. On Dec. 3, a team led by Julien Riel-Salvatore of the University of Colorado Denver, describing its recent excavation of a collapsed rock shelf called Riparo Bombrini in northwest Italy, reported evidence that its Neanderthal occupants tens of thousands of years ago took care in how they laid out their living and work spaces. They maintained separate areas for butchering animals, for making flint tools, for sleeping and hanging out. They placed the hearth in the back of the cave, where the slope of the ceiling would focus the heat.
For Riel-Salvatore, it’s another clue that Neanderthals were a lot smarter than we give them credit for. He’s one of a group of researchers who are rehabilitating the reputation of a species long stereotyped as dumb and lumbering. “There’s this idea of the stereotypical Neanderthal, this really primitive caveman, and over the past 10 or 15 years, there’s been a big push to figure out whether the preconceptions are supported by the archeological record,” he says. The care with which Neanderthals laid out their spaces “tells us something about their ability to understand consequences and to plan ahead, and these are often thought to be very human characteristics.” Other research has found evidence that Neanderthals had more humanlike habits and abilities: They buried their dead, made jewelry, and were able to catch fast-moving prey such as rabbits, birds, and fish.
And, like those of us moderns who have worked from home, the Neanderthal came to understand the importance of separating working spaces from living spaces. For Stone Age residents of Riparo Bombrini, this probably stemmed from the realization that having a lot of butchering refuse in the living area attracts vermin, and that making stone tools in bed means sleeping on pointy bits of rock. But they may have been attuned to less purely pragmatic considerations, too. After all, the location they chose—in a cliff with a view of the Mediterranean—would, millennia later, become the Italian Riviera.