Neanderthals are not totally extinct


Neanderthals are not totally extinct


James Langton

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When you are a public relations disaster like Neanderthal man, there are certain deep seated prejudices that even the slickest spin doctor might struggle to overcome.

Being extinct for about 30,000 years does not help. Nor does the reality that your name is a byword for brutish, if not downright thuggish, behaviour that typically manifests itself in a cartoon in which you are shown as a knuckle-dragging cave man wearing little more than a woolly mammoth skin, carrying a massive club and dragging Mrs Neanderthal around by her hair.

Last week, though, has brought news that we may need to rethink our attitudes (and prejudices) about our long vanished cousins.

Researchers at George Washington University and The Smithsonian Institute have concluded that rather than existing on a diet of raw mastodon, perhaps lightly sautéed over a cave fire, the Neanderthal actually enjoyed a varied and health- conscious diet in which vegetables played a regular part.

After examining skeletons found in caves in Iraq and Belgium, they found starch granules from plants in the tartar lodged in their fossilised teeth (luckily for the researchers, the concept of dental hygiene was still several thousand years away). From this, they have concluded that they ate both plants and grains on a regular basis.

"Neanderthals are often portrayed as very backwards or primitive," said Amanda Henry, the lead researcher at the university."Now we are beginning to understand that they had some quite advanced technologies and behaviours."

This is not the only piece of recent research that suggests we may have got the Neanderthals all wrong. From France came news that a fragment of skull dated back approximately 50,000 years showed signs of being sharpened,the oldest tool ever fashioned in this way.

Experts are divided as to whether it formed part of a religious ritual or just that Neanderthals thought when it came to tools, one bit of old bone was as good as another.

Slightly less encouraging news for a PR offensive came earlier last month after an investigation of the bones of a family of 12 Neanderthals found in a cave in northern Spain concluded that they were the victims of cannibals, with bones broken open to better extract the marrow. Since the only neighbours would have been other Neanderthals, it is not clear how this fits in with the meat and two veg theory.

On the other hand, a seven-year research study, also published in December in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory proposed that Neanderthals were the world's earliest geeks, with a love of technology that enabled them to develop spear points, bone tools and even ornaments.

Why though, all this sudden interest in a race that vanished from the planet long before recorded history? Actually, what has changed is not our fascination with the Neanderthal, but the technology that allows us finally to unlock their secrets. DNA and the human genome are the tools that will reveal Homo neanderthalensis to Homo sapiens.

Neanderthal actually means Neander Valley, a limestone canyon in North Rhine-Westphalia, and itself named after Joachim Neander, a 17th-century German pastor. It was here, in 1856, that Dr Johann Carl Fuhlrott, a naturalist, recognised the significance of ancient bones discovered by limestone miners as belonging to a previously unknown race, different from mankind.

In fact, Neanderthal remains had been found before - in Belgium in 1829 and Gibraltar in 1848 - but had been wrongly attributed to early man. Since then hundreds more specimens have been discovered, suggesting a range from Spain and possibly North Africa in the west, ranging across what is now France, down into Turkey, Asia, northern Iraq and Palestine.

The conventional wisdom is that they survived for about 100,000 years before extinction, about 24,000 years ago by smarter more ruthless Homo sapiens. It was the earliest known instance of genocide - we wiped them out.

History, of course, belongs to the victors, which is one reason why they have had such a bad name. After Julian Assange , the founder of WikiLeaks, was accused of raping two women, one British tabloid newspaper described his behaviour as "Neanderthal." 

Wikipedia, which devotes an entire page to Neanderthals in popular culture, says the word is "sometimes used as an insult, to suggest that a person combines a deficiency in intelligence and a propensity towards brute force, as well as perhaps implying that the person is old-fashioned or attached to outdated ideas"

They appear as savages in an H G Wells essay called The Grisly Folk in which he describes them with a "big face like a mask, great brow ridges and no forehead, clutching an enormous flint, and running like a baboon", in contrast with what he called "the true men" or our ancestors. Wells imagines an early conflict between the two races: "The Neandertalers, albeit not so erect and tall as men, were the heavier, stronger creatures, but they were stupid, and they went alone or in twos and threes; the menfolk were swifter, quicker-witted, and more social - when they fought they fought in combination.

"They fought the men of that grisly race as dogs might fight a bear. They shouted to one another what each should do, and the Neandertaler had no speech; he did not understand. They moved too quickly for him and fought too cunningly."

Wells' essay, written in 1921, carries a message dangerously close to the eugenics of Nazi ideology that was nevertheless widespread at the time. In part this can be explained by the Neanderthal's appearance, in some cases reconstructed from complete skeletons. Compared with modern man, the Neanderthal had a weak chin and a lower forehead that sloped backwards, even if the size of the brain was probably larger. He (or she) was stronger than humans, contributing to the image of brutish stupidity.

That this conception is now being challenged is the result of modern research techniques and in particular a project to map the entire Neanderthal genome by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

In four years the team, led by Prof Svante Paabo, an evolutionary geneticist from Sweden, has mapped about 60 per cent of the Neanderthal genome. Researchers used dentists' drills to remove samples from bone fragments, wearing body suits to avoid contaminating with their own (human) DNA.

The first results were released inMay. Almost all Europeans have Neanderthal genes, probably between one and four per cent. "They are not totally extinct. In some of us they live on," says Dr Paabo.

At the same time, the bulk of the human genome supports the "Out of Africa" theory; that Europe and the rest of the world was colonised by a small group that journeyed out of the continent between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. In some instances, though, it is clear that Homo sapiens interbred with the native population of Neanderthals, rather than wiping them out.

It seems unlikely though that there is a single explanation. Other academics have suggested variously that Neanderthals were physically less agile than Homo sapiens , who developed on the plains of Africa, or that they lacked the cognitive skills that would have allowed them to devise artefacts such as the needle to make clothes that would help them better survive the harsh winters.

Steve Churchill of Duke University in the United States has theorised that Neanderthals were less able to compete for food stocks with Homo sapiens who had developed superior hunting technologies like spears and the bow and arrows.

Being able to bring down dangerous animals like the mammoth at a distance also dramatically reduced the risk of being killed or seriously injured in the hunt, unlike Neanderthals who would have literally had to grapple with their food. As a result, one strand of humanity thrived and multiplied while the other endured a slow decline.

And yet another discovery, revealed in the past fortnight, gives a possible new twist to the history of our long lost cousins. Excavations in a cave near Tel Aviv have uncovered teeth that are believed to belong to some form of human and perhaps up to 400,000 years old-

f confirmed, it would make these specimens twice as old as anything previously found. Given this is long before mankind left Africa, the best guess is that this unknown race would be related to Neanderthals.

After spending so long in the past, it seems, at last, that Neanderthals have a future.

the biog:

400,000 BC 
New evidence based on tooth fragments in a cave near Tel Aviv suggests ancestors of Neanderthal may have roamed the region

100,000 BC
Neanderthals lived in what is now much of Europe, Turkey and the Levant

50,000 – 60,000 BC 
Homo sapiens emerges from Africa 24,000 BC Neanderthal becomes extinct

Bone fragments discovered in the Neander Thal, a German valley, are identified as those of an unknown species of mankind by the naturalist Dr Johann Carl Fuhlrott

Two nearly complete specimens of a man and a woman are found near Spy, Belgium, along with implements

H G Wells publishes “The Grisly Folk”, a short essay which explains the extinction of Neanderthals as a lesser race

“Galilee Man”, fragments of a Neanderthal cranium, is found in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine by Francis Turville-Petre, a British aristocrat and anthropologist 

The last of the nine Neanderthal skeletons is uncovered in a cave in Northern Iraq

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology announces a project to map the Neanderthal genome

May 2010
With 60 per cent of the genome completed, the Max Planck study concludes that modern humans have up to four per cent Neanderthal genes

December 2010
Research by George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institute concludes that Neanderthals enjoyed a varied diet that includes cooked vegetables and grains