Neanderthals: challenging the perception
Neanderthals were skilled hunters with complex societies. So why did they die out? And could they have passed some of their genes on to us?
For many people, Neanderthals conjure mental images of hairy, stooping brutes with more brawn than brains. At the turn of the last century, this is exactly how they were viewed by academics and public alike. But by the 1950s, experts were lining up to challenge this interpretation, as new finds were made and existing evidence was revised.
Lessons from literature
This shift in thinking is best illustrated by the way they are depicted in two popular 20th century novels. In 'The Grisly Folk' (1921) H. G. Wells portrayed the Neanderthals as backward creatures who deserve their annihilation at the hands of modern humans. "It's appalling," says Clive Gamble of the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton, England. "It's portrayed as a sort of mercy killing."
By the time of William Golding's novel 'The Inheritors' (1955), Neanderthals had become simple folk whose quiet existence is shattered by warlike invaders - human beings. However, palaeoanthropologists still do not agree on many aspects of Neanderthal biology and behaviour. Controversy still rages, particularly over their relationship to modern humans.
What did Neanderthals look like?
Neanderthal man, or Homo neanderthalensis, had a jutting nose set in a large face with massive brow ridges and no chin. From around 190,000 years ago, they lived across Europe and the southwest of Asia, from Britain in the West to Iraq in the East. They evolved from Homo heidelbergensis populations that inhabited Europe in the Pleistocene.
How did they survive the Ice Age?
During the Pleistocene
, the polar ice caps were locked in a cycle of retreat and advance. When they retreated, temperatures climbed and deciduous forest covered Europe. When the ice caps advanced, temperatures plummeted and the landscape turned into snowy tundra. In order to survive these ice ages, heidelbergensis evolved physical adaptations to the cold, and became the Neanderthals.
The Neanderthals lost the tall, strapping physique of heidelbergensis and developed a short, stocky body that was an ideal shape for conserving heat. They were also extremely muscular in order to cope with the demands of a gruelling Ice Age lifestyle. This physique developed early in childhood.
"An eight-year-old Neanderthal is at the same developmental stage as a 12-year-old modern human," says Christoph Zollikofer, an anthropologist at the University of Zurich.
The Neanderthals were committed carnivores, and in order to obtain enough animal meat to survive, they needed to be skilled hunters. Neanderthals hunted bison
, auroch (an ancestor of living cattle), deer
and musk ox
, to name but a few.
They probably trapped their prey in bogs
or on deep stream banks before closing in with their spears and making a kill at close range. A high rate of head and neck trauma in Neanderthals matches the pattern seen in present-day rodeo riders suggesting that, like these sportsmen, Neanderthals were tackling big animals up close and getting thrown off them.
"They do seem to have gone in for a much more in-your-face culture. That was reflected in the way they went in for the food quest. It was the same sort of pattern," says Gamble. "This applied to the way they built their societies, which I think were based on face-to-face interaction."
Care in the community
Social relations were important to the Neanderthals, and these were maintained through language. The Neanderthal hyoid bone, which holds the voice box in place, shows they were capable of complex speech. But their sentences were probably basic. "I think they spoke in the imperative a lot: 'Give me the object' rather than 'Could you perhaps give me the object,' as modern humans
might say," says Professor Stanley Ambrose of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
These cave-dwellers even cared for the elderly and infirm. An elderly male Neanderthal known as 'La-Chapelle-aux-Saints 1' had lost all his molar teeth, making it impossible for him to chew his food. But the bone above his tooth cavities had partially healed, suggesting that other Neanderthals chewed his food for him before feeding it to him.
Neanderthal home ranges were extremely small. Their tools are rarely found more than 50 kilometres (30 miles) from their source. Early modern humans maintained social networks over distances of up to 200 kilometres (124 miles). "Life for them was local - they didn't go abroad for their holidays. And they did very well as a result," says Gamble.
But the appearance of modern humans in Europe 40,000 years ago placed Neanderthals in direct competition with our ancestors for resources. It was a competition the Neanderthals would lose. Around 28,000 years ago, the last Neanderthals died out.
Computer simulations show that once Neanderthals and modern humans started interacting, a Neanderthal mortality rate just 2% higher than that of modern humans could have resulted in Neanderthal extinction within 1,000 years. But some researchers believe that Neanderthals didn't go extinct. Instead, they interbred with moderns, contributing genes to modern Europeans.
Were they our ancestors?
In 1999, the skeleton of a child was unearthed in Lapido, Portugal. Dated to around 25,000 years ago, the remains show a mixture of Neanderthal and modern features, suggesting it may be a hybrid. But small fragments of Neanderthal DNA extracted from three different specimens show that they were not closely related to any present day human populations.