What happened to Neanderthals?
In time immemorial, humans shared planet Earth with Neanderthals, our closest ancient relatives, but in the end Homo sapiens flourished across the globe while our relatives were doomed to extinction. How did it come to this?
Shawn Smith Friday 28 January 2022 16:08
Perhaps because of their physical strength, our cousins have been misrepresented as rude, but it is possible that they were also a kind people (Getty Images)
The Neanderthals were already threatened with extinction when our early modern human ancestors migrated to Europe about 45,000 years ago. After more than five thousand years, there are no Neanderthals left on the face of the planet. It is true that we will never know whether we are directly responsible for the extinction of our closest ancient relatives, but it is perhaps safe to assume that we are innocent of the fate to which they have fallen.
Since their remains were discovered in the "Neander Valley" near Düsseldorf, Germany in 1856, a rather bad stereotype has stuck with Neanderthals. Our closest relatives, who used to be described as apes but are somewhat more evolved, are now believed to have much more in common with us than previously thought.
Several discoveries have shown that our relatives were very sophisticated and experienced hunters who could make tools and jewels. In fact, the genomes of modern humans and that of Neanderthals look 99.7 percent identical, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise given that we share a common ancestor that lived in Africa only half a million years ago. Evolutionarily speaking, this time period is more like the blink of an eye.
After breaking away from our common ancestor, the line that gave rise to Homo sapiens survived in Africa until relatively recently, while the ancestors of Neanderthals formed part of an early wave of migration into Eurasia. And when the two species were finally reunited in Europe, 45,000 years ago, one can only wonder whether Neanderthals underestimated their new neighbours, those weak monkeys who were taller and thinner and babbled among themselves in incomprehensible language.
Neanderthals were far more powerful than us. Their musculature was so highly developed that the remains of their skeletons sometimes seemed to curve under the weight of the weight. Their face seemed to be drawn more forward due to their protruding nose, believed to be an evolutionary adaptation designed to warm the air they breathe in order to better enable them to live in colder climates. Their stocky bodies and short arms and legs resemble the structure of modern humans inhabiting the highlands of the Arctic, as both were likely able to adapt to living in these places through the limited surface area of the body and to maintain their temperature in cold environments.
Having inhabited northern latitudes for a period of time five times longer than modern northern Europeans, Neanderthals likely evolved other adaptive traits as well: blue or green eyes, light skin, and blond hair. It is also not excluded that they spent much more time hunting than gathering food;
A chemical analysis of their bones reveals very high levels of carbon and nitrogen isotopes, which are a distinct feature of animals in the highest carnivorous class, and skeletons of animals are usually found huddled near Neanderthal sites.
It is believed that Neanderthals were experienced predators who adopted surprise as a way to hunt their prey, as they were able to cooperate and think strategically to kill a woolly mammoth, for example, while the process of reconstructing their vocal tract shows that they had at least 25 percent of the vocal ability of modern humans, that is, it was more than enough to formulate an effective primitive language.
Neanderthals had thick eyebrows and large nostrils, but the distinctive depression of the backbone is the most obvious defining characteristic. For hundreds of thousands of years, the Neanderthals stretched from North Wales through Eurasia to Siberia, and even as far as modern China.
So where did things go wrong for the Neanderthals?
Given that the cave sites they favored as living quarters are well suited to preserving the bones, each new archaeological discovery provides additional evidence that experts add to the fossil record that so far contains the remains of more than a thousand Neanderthals, giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. It caused the decline of the Neanderthals.
It is unlikely that the extinction of Neanderthals was a single event, but rather a complex process involving multiple factors that occurs gradually over thousands of years. Various parts of Europe witnessed the extinction of this species at different times and for local reasons that varied in different places.
But even so, climate change is probably the most important factor in the decline of Neanderthals. A sudden drop in temperature on the planet about 50,000 years ago may have disrupted the ecosystem and stressed the groups of medium to large mammals that Neanderthals hunted.
Since then, massive cold waves lasting about a thousand years have coincided with the gradual extinction of our ancient relatives.
It seems that Neanderthal populations dwindled in numbers and retreated to remote and hard-to-reach areas in order to survive. As a living species, Neanderthals are believed to have been over-reliant on a limited carnivorous diet, and their supposed inability to adapt their hunting methods led to their annihilation.
But why were Neanderthals unable to adapt to new environmental challenges, unlike our early modern human ancestors who discovered ways to survive? Although our ancient relatives were able to use and benefit from stones, stone tools discovered at sites hundreds of thousands of years old bear few signs of technical progress, strengthening the theory that they may not have been innovators.
Our ancestors of Homo sapiens in Africa went through the same period of stagnation about 100,000 years ago when they experienced a "cognitive revolution" or a "great intellectual leap forward". This is probably rooted in a sudden advance in their linguistic and conceptual abilities.
Stephen Sheenan, an archaeologist at University College London, has proposed that the pace of cultural innovations greatly accelerated as our early modern ancestors began to live in larger groups that required advanced social and cognitive skills, and this view is supported by research by Robin Dunbar. An anthropologist at the University of Oxford.
Dunbar's research demonstrated that different types of primates had the optimal number of members before hierarchy and relationships began to fall apart, and groups split into competing teams. Dunbar is best known for showing that modern humans can maintain stable relationships with 150 people, which is why it's the perfect size for efficient companies, rural villages, active military units, and personal social networks.
For our early modern ancestors, societies of 150 would have given us tremendous power, but according to Dunbar, our true strength derives from the way our language evolved to track and share useful information about our friends and foes. Gossip theory holds that the development of human language is an evolutionary adaptation of storytelling.
Mystery has helped hold larger groups of people together, but it has also spawned imagination, artistic creativity, and most importantly the ability to discuss things that don't happen right in front of our eyes.
Yuval Noah Harari, in his best-selling Sapiens book, uses Robin Dunbar's "Theory of Nonsense" to suggest that the distinctly human quality of storytelling and abstract thinking has truly allowed us to inherit the Earth.
Our ancestors of Homo sapiens in Africa went through the same period of stasis about 100,000 years ago (Getty Images)
For Harari, fiction and superstition form the essential basis for ideas that can break through Dunbar's 150-person threshold, transforming separated human societies into a complex culture that engages in innovation among tribes, critical trade networks, religions, and ultimately nation-states populated by millions or even billions. the people:
Harari writes, "Nevertheless, none of these things exist outside the stories that people invent and pass on to one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, no justice outside the common imagination of human beings."
Also, solid evidence indicates that early modern humans did develop long-distance trading networks that protected them from starvation when sudden and unpredictable food shortages threatened their survival.
By contrast, before the arrival of the first modern humans, Europe appears to have been inhabited by very small, scattered and isolated communities of Neanderthals, which explains the delays in their technical progress.
Also, recent advances in the analysis of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of Neanderthal remains have yielded very significant results.
Bones found in a Croatian cave in the 1980s belong to a Neanderthal who lived 52,000 years ago, but she was surprisingly genetically similar to another Neanderthal that inhabited Siberia 122,000 years ago.
The fact that two Neanderthal women separated by some 4,000 miles and 70,000 years were closely related also supports the theory that a decline in Neanderthal genetic diversity contributed to their extinction.
In contrast, a recent study led by the University of Denmark found that the genomes of early modern humans were more genetically diverse, supporting the theory that ancient humans lived in very large networked societies that helped them regularly exchange sexual partners, genes, and ideas.
Because of their greater diversity, early modern humans had a greater ability to resist infectious diseases, and were generally more successful as a living species. Apparently, incest was taboo in their culture, while Neanderthal genomes reveal very high rates of interbreeding necessitated by their tendency to live in isolated communities.
Most anthropologists believe that Neanderthals were able to use a fairly sophisticated language, but their cultural isolation suggests that whenever they met other Neanderthals, language barriers prevented the spread of their community networks.
But it's not just our tendency to communicate that privileged our ancestors. During the "cognitive revolution" in Africa, quantitative changes occurred in the brains of our ancestors, making them better equipped to survive in hostile environments.
Neanderthal brains, which evolved independently in Europe, carried less developed parietal lobes and cerebellum, regions involved in tool use, creativity, problem solving, and high-level conceptualization, so it is possible that our ancestors survived the challenges of climate change because they were resourceful innovators..
Knitting may not seem like a revolutionary technique, but associated skills such as spinning enabled us to make nets, traps, and traps that allowed the young and old in early modern human societies to hunt small mammals and fetch a very wide variety of protein-rich foods.
Neanderthal fossil bears first possible evidence of disease transmitted from animals to humans
A third human lineage in East Asia is closer to us than Neanderthals.
Fossil remains of 9 Neanderthals found in an Italian cave
Neanderthals heard and spoke like humans
Modern man is innocent of the extinction of Neanderthals
The discovery of the direct ancestor of Neanderthals in Ethiopia
Neanderthals stored bone marrow as soup cans 400,000 years ago
While our ancestors continued to develop more intelligent ways of killing animals from a distance using lancet weapons, and later bows and arrows, it is believed that Neanderthals remained so attached to close range ambushes that it proved to be a dire occupational hazard.
However, later on, evidence began to emerge on Neanderthal sites that they used more advanced technologies just before their extinction. According to a theory put forward by Paul Millars, emeritus professor of prehistory at the University of Cambridge, they began to imitate their new neighbors.
But in terms of innovation, it may have come too late for the Neanderthals. In an analytical study carried out by Millers comparing the population density in Homo sapiens and Neanderthal sites in southern France, the evidence is compelling. After arriving in Europe, which was inhabited by only a few thousand, the professor concluded, modern humans soon outnumbered Neanderthals by ten to one.
According to anthropologist Pat Shipman, because early humans were anatomically taller and thinner with a lower metabolic rate, as hunter-gatherers they were more energy efficient and needed fewer calories to survive in a challenging environment.
Their superiority in the ability to travel long distances was enhanced by the domestication of wolves, which enabled them to track prey more efficiently and protect valuable prey skeletons from other predators, thus outperforming their Neanderthal competitors.
Recent improvements in radiocarbon dating technology with 95 percent confidence indicate that about 45,000 years ago, modern humans and Neanderthals entered into intertwined relationships in Europe for a period of 2,600 to 5,400 years.
The disappearance of Neanderthals soon after our ancestors arrived in Europe may suggest that we accelerated their extinction. Their demise is one of history's most pressing mysteries, and some believe we are directly involved.
It is certain that two very similar predatory species cannot coexist in the same place indefinitely, as they are likely to compete for living space, cave sites and fishing resources. However, since the population is very small, and one primitive human being lived in every 100 square kilometers according to estimates, chances of coexistence, constant competition, or even chance encounters must have been rare.
But it is known that a few short meetings, to say the least, have brought them together. Until recently, Neanderthals and early modern humans were thought to have lived as completely separate species from one another, but in 2014 evolutionary geneticists shocked the scientific community by declaring that Neanderthals were not completely extinct in the end.
An analysis of the modern human genome has revealed that almost all living things today that originate outside of sub-Saharan Africa carry some Neanderthal DNA in their genes, because interbreeding undoubtedly occurred whenever early humans and Neanderthals encountered throughout their intertwined history. So we find quite a bit of Neanderthal in many of us around the world.
New archaeological discoveries continue to provide tantalizing glimpses into the evolving Neanderthal culture.
When it comes to language and intellectual development, symbolic representation is of great importance, so it may be clear that recent research by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has used uranium and thorium dating to show that Neanderthals were practicing cave art at three separate sites in Spain before 20,000 A year after modern humans first arrived in Europe.
If Neanderthals did indeed engage in symbolic thinking, it is possible that they might have been almost epistemologically indistinguishable from their recent modern human neighbours.
They probably only preceded us by 30,000 years, and died before they had a chance to complete the great cognitive leap that our African ancestors took 100,000 years ago.
Perhaps because of their physical strength, our muscular and burly cousins were misrepresented as primitive savages, but it is possible that they were also a kind people.
Neanderthal remains reveal horrific hunting injuries they suffered and then recovered long before their deaths, suggesting that they tended to their wounded long after they were unable to contribute to the group's survival.
Just like early modern humans, these people likely buried their dead in order to preserve their bodies for the afterlife. Certainly, burial sites established by later Neanderthals contained funerary goods.
One site in Iraq also revealed high levels of pollen, indicating that flowers were placed in their graves.