Mysteries Of The Neanderthals

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Video: Mysteries Of The Neanderthals

Video: Mysteries Of The Neanderthals
Video: The Neanderthals' Dark Secret | Inside El Sidrón 2023, March
Mysteries Of The Neanderthals
Mysteries Of The Neanderthals

They invented the first musical instrument, wore clothes and took care of a wounded fellow tribesman for years, as some scientists see Neanderthals - perhaps distant relatives of modern man

Mysteries of the Neanderthals - Neanderthal, ancient man
Mysteries of the Neanderthals - Neanderthal, ancient man

Fossil remains of Neanderthals - large hominids similar to chimpanzees - were first discovered in 1856 in Germany. The features of their physique - massive brow ridges and legs bent at the knees - were initially taken by some researchers for signs of pathology.

French paleontologist Marcel Boulet was the first to come to the conclusion that these are fossils of an ancient man. It was he who reconstructed the image of the bent-knee savage that most people imagine when they say "Neanderthal".

And the Irish geologist William King considered that this creature is too similar to a monkey, so it should be attributed to a special genus. But in the end, these hominids were recognized as representatives of the human race, but of a special species, Homo neanderthalensis.


Apparently, Neanderthals lived in the territory of modern Eurasia, their area of settlement stretched from the British Isles to Siberia and from the Red Sea to the North Sea. They managed to survive the climatic chaos, which lasted at least 200 thousand years, but about 30 thousand years ago, this species disappeared from the face of the Earth.

The long-standing belief that Neanderthals were in many ways inferior to Homo sapiens is now being revised. They discovered those skills that were previously considered characteristic only of modern man. In addition, as shown by the study of the genome of Neanderthals, the genes of humans and Neanderthals coincide by more than 99%.

Approximately 500 thousand years ago, Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans separated from a common progenitor, and then, about 45,000 years ago, most likely in the Middle East, they interbred with each other.


And if our ancestors made love, and not war, then the same cannot be said about the scientists who study them. Some are sure that the Neanderthals thought like we did, spoke like we did, and created music, jewelry and symbols like us, and find new evidence in favor of their point of view. Some scientists even believe that we belong to the same species.

But there are many researchers who are convinced that the intelligence of the Neanderthal is not able to compete with the intelligence of N. sapiens. Moreover, to prove their point of view, they also cite data from genetic studies. So were the Neanderthals our peers, or is this another unfortunate hominid species?

Flute or Bear Bone?

The first reasons for revising attitudes towards Neanderthals were found in their way of life - there are many parallels with how the ancestors of modern people lived. For example, we know that Neanderthals not only lived in caves and under rock ledges, but also built shelters.

Holes were found at two sites in France for wooden pegs and posts that most likely supported the canopy (American Anthropologist, vol. 104, p. 50). Numerous finds of hearths aged 60 thousand years indicate that the Neanderthals owned fire, although they were not the first to master it. It is believed that it was the Neanderthals who first invented music.


The researcher Ivan Turk, who discovered the oldest known musical instrument in Divya Baba (Slovenia), attributed its creation to the Neanderthals (Nature, vol. 460, p.737), but skeptics believe that this bone "flute", created 43 thousand years ago, is nothing more than the thigh bone of a cave bear, bitten by wild animals.

There is evidence that Neanderthals wore clothing. Sarah Bailey of New York University (USA) believes that, like modern Eskimos, Neanderthals softened animal skin with their teeth. “If you look at the skulls of adult Neanderthals, you will find that their front teeth are often worn down to the gums, and their molars are in order. They probably used their front teeth to process the hides,”she says.

Previously, it was believed that the Neanderthals ate mainly carrion, but then they found out that they hunted rhinoceroses and adult mammoths. They adapted their hunting strategies to the surrounding terrain: they attacked lonely prey in the forests, looked for bison and other herd animals in the steppes, and collected birds, rabbits and sea animals on the shore.

The Neanderthals required a lot of skill and planning skills to create the tools that were typical of the Mousterian culture (300,000-30,000 BC). In order to create a chopper with a hammer stone, it was necessary to carefully prepare the workpiece.

“They have developed techniques that are difficult for modern humans to recreate,” says Thomas Wynn of the University of Colorado Springs, USA.

Neanderthals created and used composite tools, for example, 127 thousand years ago, they invented the first spear. There is also evidence that 80 thousand years ago, Neanderthals created a glue with which a stone tip was glued to the handle of a spear - for this they heated birch resin without oxygen.

In the past, there was a widespread point of view explaining the technological achievements of the Neanderthals, which appeared towards the end of their existence, by copying the lifestyle of H. sapiens, but the study of the sites of the Neanderthals in southern Italy (42 thousand years BC) refutes this. At least in this region, the Neanderthals created many different stone and bone tools than those used by the early humans living to the north.


In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Richard Green at the University of California (USA) and Svan Paabo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, made an astonishing discovery. Based on bone fragments of three Neanderthals who lived 40 thousand years ago in Croatia, they restored 60% of the Neanderthal genome, and also conducted the first detailed genetic comparison of Neanderthals and modern humans.

It turned out that Neanderthals and modern humans are as genetically close as two modern humans: in two people, the total amount of DNA reaches 99.9%, and in Neanderthal and humans - 99.8%. This is a sure evidence that we had a common ancestor, from which we separated 500 thousand years ago.


Surprisingly, people of non-African descent are more similar to Neanderthals than Africans - scientists have concluded that approximately 1-4% of the DNA of non-African people was inherited from Neanderthals. Non-Africans could acquire these genes only if they crossed with Neanderthals on their way from Africa to the rest of the world. Scientists believe that this could have happened in the Middle East 5 thousand years ago. This finding was unexpected because previous studies of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome showed no evidence of crossbreeding with modern human ancestors.

Of no less interest are those parts of DNA that distinguish us from Neanderthals. Scientists have discovered 78 genes typical of modern humans that Neanderthals do not have. These differences are mutations that occurred with a person after which he departed from a common ancestor. These include genes that affect sensory function, perception, social interaction, metabolism, and immunity. "We don't yet know exactly how the cognitive abilities of humans and Neanderthals differ," says Greene. "But now we know where to look."

Naturally, scientists did not hope to find one gene that distinguishes humans and Neanderthals, nevertheless they were very interested in the RUNX2 gene. Mutations in this gene cause skeletal changes, including the formation of the massive superciliary arches of the bell-shaped chest, characteristic of Neanderthals. “This is a very interesting discovery,” says Paabo. "Perhaps this gene confirms the archaeological findings."

Some researchers hoped that a comparison of genomes would resolve a controversy that has been going on for ISO years, whether Neanderthals and modern humans belong to the same species or not? The formal criterion is that different biological species cannot interbreed with each other and give birth to offspring. But, according to Paabo, in the case of groups as close as Neanderthals and humans, this definition of the species introduces more confusion than clarity.

Burials of Neanderthals

It is widely believed that Neanderthals buried their dead. The earliest burial (120 thousand years BC), belonging to N. sapiens, is located in the Skhul cave on Mount Carmel (Israel). Auto-burials of Neanderthals have been discovered at several sites. For example, in La Chapelle-aux-Seine, the burial of an old man was found, made 60 thousand years ago, and in the Teshik-Tag cave, the burial of a nine-year-old child was discovered, surrounded by horns of mountain goats, it was created 70 thousand years ago.

The burials of ten Neanderthals discovered in the Shanidar cave (Iraqi Kurdistan) are also attributed to the same time. Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, author of Extinct Humans, notes that one of these burials shows that Neanderthals cared for an injured tribesman for years before he died, a “telling example of empathy and concern within social groups, this probably demonstrates the presence of complex social roles."


Also in Shanidar, a famous burial was discovered, which contained an abundance of pollen from flowers. This example is often cited as evidence that Neanderthals have shamanic practices and ritual burials.

While this claim is controversial, more and more evidence has recently been found that Neanderthals possessed symbolic thinking. Joao Zilhao of the University of Bristol (UK) and Francescod'Errico of the Institute of Prehistory and Geology of the Quaternary in Talance (France) found perforated shells with red and yellow pigments in two caves in Spain, as well as shells decorated with a mixture of several pigments.

Moreover, one of the caves is located 60 kilometers from the sea. According to the researchers, these findings show that Neanderthals adorned themselves with symbolic artifacts. In addition, these decorations were created 50 thousand years ago, long before people came to this area. It seems that the Neanderthals were still capable of creating something new.

To date, there is no evidence that Neanderthals created cave paintings: the earliest cave paintings appeared 20 thousand years ago, after the Neanderthals became extinct. However, Zilhao believes that Neanderthals could create temporary images - for example, paint their bodies with dyes, conveying symbolic information about the hierarchy in the group.

Neanderthal language

Typically, symbolic thinking is associated with another skill characteristic only of people - language. Is there any evidence that Neanderthals could speak? Ralph Holloway from Columbia University (USA) is sure of this. He studied hundreds of Neanderthal skulls and found that, even if adjusted for the larger Neanderthal bodies, their brains were only a couple of percent different from those of modern humans. And the frontal lobe and speech areas, even despite the massive brow ridges, hardly differ from ours.

In addition, genetic tests showed that Neanderthals had a variant of the FOXP2 gene, which is usually associated with language. At the same time, fossils found in the Kebara Cave (Israel) show that a U-shaped bone in the neck of Neanderthals, to which key speech cords are attached, did not differ from ours. “I'm sure they had a language,” says Holloway.


Philip Lieberman, a linguist at Brown University in Providence (Rhode Island, USA), agrees with this opinion. However, he notes that 50 thousand years ago, neither Neanderthals nor humans could produce all the variety of sounds that modern man owns (Expedition, vol. 49, p. 15).

Lieberman, who carefully studied all available skulls, ranging from Homo erectus aged 1.6 million years and ending with the skull of H. sapiens aged 10 thousand years, came to the conclusion that none of these species could pronounce vowel sounds [and], [in] and [a]. Computer models created by Robert McCarthy of Florida Atlantic University at Eoka Raton (USA) support this theory.

Taking this new evidence into account, Eric Greenclus of the University of Washington in St. Louis (USA) formulated a new perspective on Neanderthals:

“If we compare the archaeological record of Neanderthals in Europe and modern humans in Africa or the Middle East over the same time period, with rare exceptions, they are remarkably similar,” he says. "The Neanderthals were human and probably had the same mental faculties as we do."

Case is closed? Maybe. However, there are some researchers who strongly disagree with this point of view. “The paths of Neanderthals and modern humans diverged 500 thousand years ago, they evolved separately in Europe and Africa. It turns out that they are separated by a million years of evolution, - says Paul Mellars from the University of Cambridge (UK). "It would be strange if there were no differences in the anatomy and structure of the brain." Mellars believes that the significant difference in cognitive ability of the two species is due to biological differences.

A publication last year on the genome of Neanderthals provided evidence to support this view. Despite the fact that the difference between the genome of Neanderthals and modern humans is only 1%, mutations have affected hundreds of genes. It is very difficult to determine exactly which genes we differ in, since the genome reconstruction has not yet been completed.

However, Johannes Kraus of the University of Tubingen, Germany, already notes that some of the differing genes affect brain function. “Perhaps the main difference between Neanderthals and humans lies in their social skills,” he says.

Further support for this view comes from a study by Philip Hans and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. They compared a virtual reconstruction of the skulls of a newborn Neanderthal and a modern human infant. As it turned out, the brain of a Neanderthal man and the brain of a modern person did not differ at birth, but during the first year of life they developed differently, and this period is critical for cognitive functions.

Some authorities believe that Neanderthals had limited thinking. Lewis Binford of Southern Methodist University at University Park, Texas, USA, argues that, judging by the lifestyle of the Neanderthals, they were poorly planned. AUynn is convinced that Neanderthals have less working memory than modern humans, that is, they could process less information.


Stephen Meeten of the University of Reading (UK) believes that Neanderthals possessed knowledge of the natural world, they could manipulate materials and interact in society. However, he notes that they lacked the "cognitive flexibility" and "mastery of metaphors" to connect these areas of knowledge, which means that they could not create complex symbolic objects.

Mellars disagrees that the Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thinking, which Zilhao attributes to them based on shells found in Spain: “I believe Zilhao is deeply mistaken. If this is the best that the Neanderthals of all Europe have been able to achieve in 250 thousand years of their existence, then God help them."

But after all, modern people living at that time were not distinguished by special ingenuity. Even Mellars admits that the difference between the accomplishments of humans and Neanderthals was at one time minimal. But about 50 thousand years ago, early people managed to go far ahead, there was a "big explosion" of symbolic activity, carved figurines, thoughtful burials, personal jewelry and (after a while) rock carvings appeared. Mellars argues that by the time modern humans came to Europe, their technology, social organization, and brains were much better. “The Neanderthals played against a stronger team,” he says.

Anthropologist Richard Klein of Stanford University, California, USA, agrees with Paul Mellars that genetic traits underlie the cognitive and symbolic superiority of modern humans.

“Some researchers have called it racist to say that Neanderthals or early humans were genetically different from us,” he says. "I was accused of criticizing the Neanderthals, it feels like I forbid them from going to Harvard."

Nevertheless, Klein continues to stand his ground; "Genes unique to humans could help explain why) 'Neanderthals are no longer with us."

For traditionalists, the basic premise is that the Neanderthals have disappeared and we still exist. But the revisionists also have something to answer. Neanderthals may not exist, but their genes are still alive: in the genome of people of non-African descent, 4% of genes are from Neanderthals. It turns out that they are our great-great-great-grandfathers (see "What DNA Can Tell").

This is even more surprising if the size of the population of Neanderthals is reconstructed: the limited variation in mitochondrial DNA makes it possible to estimate their population at only 3,500 individuals. As Zilhao notes, the genetic reservoir of modern humans in Africa was several times larger than that of the Neanderthals. “What happens if you mix one liter of white paint with 100 liters of black? You will get 101 liters of black paint, he says. This is exactly what genetic studies demonstrate.

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