KeywordsModern Human Postcranial Skeleton Blade Tool Spear Thrower Stone Tool Technology
Archaic Homo found in Eurasia between 400,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Although Neanderthal fossils were first recovered in Belgium in 1830 and in Gibraltar in 1848, it was not until 1856 when skeletal remains found by miners in the Feldhofer Cave in the Neander Valley, Germany, that scientists entertained the idea that the bones might belong to an extinct form of an ancient human (Shreeve 1995). In 1864, the bones were assigned to the species Homo neanderthalensis (Neander Valley Man). This was the first recognition of an extinct human relative. At that time, the prevailing view considered Neanderthals as an extinct kind of human that played no role in the ancestry to modern humans. In the 1930s several scholars challenged this interpretation and entertained the view that Neanderthals were progenitors to modern humans. Today Neanderthals are seen as an evolutionary lineage close to modern humans that exchanged some genes with us but died out roughly 40,000 years ago.
Geographical Distribution and Geological Age
Numerous Neanderthal remains have been found from Great Britain to Spain and eastward to the Middle East and Uzbekistan; no Neanderthal fossils have ever been recovered from Africa. Neanderthal DNA can be traced back to roughly 400,000 years ago in fossil bones from the Atapuerca Mountains at Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain, tracing the roots of Neanderthals much deeper in time than anticipated (Meyer et al. 2016). Carbon 14 dating places Neanderthal extinction at approximately 40,000 years before the present, shortly after the migration of modern humans, Homo sapiens, into Europe (Wood et al. 2013).
Neanderthals evolved as a single lineage in Eurasia and appear not to have spawned any other descendants. The most ancient Neanderthals exhibited incipient skull anatomy that gradually became more distinctively Neanderthal over time due to natural selection and genetic drift as they continued to be isolated in a glacial Europe. By 50,000 years ago H. neanderthalensis evolved its full blown “Classic Neanderthal” morphology both in the craniofacial region and throughout their postcranial skeleton. Examples of the later Neanderthals include some well-known finds such as those from La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France and Amud in Israel.
Neanderthal faces are characterized by a heavy, double-arched, supraorbital brow behind which are enlarged frontal sinuses. The nasal aperture is broad and large with an expanded nasal cavity bordered by big maxillary sinuses. The middle face juts forward, a feature called midfacial prognathism, and gives the impression that the entire nasal region was pulled forward. The cheek bones, immediately below the orbits, slope backward unlike in modern humans where this region presents a flat face where our prominent cheeks define a right angle below the orbit (Harvati 2015).
The distinctive Neanderthal craniofacial morphology is interpreted largely as a response to the glacial and periglacial environments in Eurasia where they lived. A large nasal opening and nasal cavity functioned to warm and humidify the cold, dry glacial air. The large sinuses functioned much like double pane windows as insulators to keep the brain from becoming chilled.
Neanderthal brain cases were long and low from front to back and sported a substantial “chignon” or projecting bun at the rear of the skull. The average Neanderthal brain measured 1520 cc (cubic centimeters) and ranged in size from 1200 cc to as much as 1700 cc. Modern human brains average around 1400 cc, and the larger Neanderthal average probably reflects the additional endocranial space required to house an increased blood flow to keep the brain warm.
Generally Neanderthal teeth fall in the size range of modern humans, but molars are distinct in having large pulp cavities, a condition known as taurodontism. However, the anterior teeth are large and exhibit heavy wear as if they are used perhaps in some activity like chewing hides. The mandible lacks a chin, and in lateral view a large space (retromolar gap), maybe associated with midfacial prognathism, is evident immediately behind the wisdom tooth (third molar).
Neanderthal bodies are short in stature, stocky, and heavily built with strong, thick-walled bones. Relatively speaking the lower leg and forearm bones are shortened compared to modern humans. The short, stocky bodies, and abbreviated limb segments undoubtedly reflect an adaptation to the cold environment of glacial Europe. Thus with a reduced skin area to body mass ratio their bodies served as heat conservers. In contrast modern human bodies, especially in tropical regions, are tall and slender with long limbs, thus increasing the ratio of skin area to body mass enhancing heat dissipation allowing for cooling of the body.
Neanderthals led stressful lives in Arctic-like environments under rugged conditions as is seen in frequent evidence of trauma, perhaps brought about during close encounter hunting episodes employing thrusting spears. Bone fractures occur in both male and female individuals implying that both sexes participated in hunting. Studies of the age of death suggest that Neanderthals did not have long life spans. A number of Neanderthal skeletons show healed fractures, possibly a reflection of some level of compassion and care by other individuals.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Neanderthals did not lead culturally sophisticated lives (Marean 2005). The stone tool technology traditionally associated with Neanderthals, known as the Mousterian, was named after the site of Le Moustier in the Dordogne region of France. The tools of this Middle Paleolithic period consisted of stone flakes that were modified into points, scrapers, and even small hand axes. Employing a knapping technique known as the Levallois, a number of smaller flakes are first removed from a larger stone core. This prepares the core that is then struck with a single percussive blow, fabricating a large disclike flake. Tools were fashioned exclusively on stone unlike the more recent Upper Paleolithic technology, brought into Europe by Homo sapiens, where bone, antler, and ivory served as a source for making tools and carvings. While there are minor regional differences in the shapes of flake tools throughout the geographic distribution of the Mousterian, the extensive variation in Upper Paleolithic blade technology reflects a significantly more sophisticated cultural diversity associated with Homo sapiens.
Faunal remains recovered from excavations of Neanderthal living sites indicate that they were principally carnivorous eating large amounts of meat from a variety of mammals such as the aurochs, horse, deer, and bison, as well as wild boar and ibex. Neanderthals living closer to the Mediterranean Sea included marine mammals and even shellfish in their diet (Stiner 2006). Studies of stable isotopes recovered from Neanderthal skeletons, like nitrogen and carbon, confirm a diet dominated by large, cold adapted herbivores such as wooly rhinos and wooly elephants (Richards and Trinkaus 2009).
The lack of art associated with Neanderthals, with some minor exceptions such as an engraved figure, similar to a hash mark found on the floor of a Gibraltar cave in strata containing characteristic Mousterian artifacts, suggests that Neanderthals were not capable of symbolic thought. Neanderthals must have had some level of communication, but it is unlikely they possessed symbolic language that is one of the defining hallmarks of Homo sapiens.
Neanderthals occasionally buried their dead, but their graves show a paucity of ritual grave goods in characteristic of later Homo sapiens interments. Discovery of crayons of variously colored ochre and even manganese suggest that Neanderthals may have practiced some degree of self-adornment.
An abundance of eagle, falcon, and vulture wing bones recovered from a number of Neanderthal sites implies that feathers were intentionally collected and worn as ornamentation. Cut marks and polishing on eagle talons recovered from a Neanderthal site in Croatian and Italy imply that these were worn as jewelry (Peresani et al. 2011). Discoveries such as these are beginning to paint a somewhat more “humanlike” view of Neanderthals in contrast to the long-prevailing view that they were dim-witted brutes.
Not everyone agrees as to why Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago, but they vanished only a few thousand years after modern humans arrived from Africa. The Upper Paleolithic industry associated and brought in by Homo sapiens is significantly more advanced and varied that the Mousterian. In the Upper Paleolithic, sophisticated techniques were employed to make blade tools, tools with long cutting edges like knives. Blade tool technology is a more efficient use of stone than Mousterian flake technology. Homo sapiens used spear throwers, also known as atlatls, and perhaps also the bow and arrow, both of which greatly enhanced their hunting prowess compared to Neanderthals that killed by jabbing spears in dangerous close encounter episodes. Neanderthals were unable to compete with these technologically advanced peoples who may even have used dogs during hunting (Shipman 2015). Polychrome paintings on cave walls and exquisitely carved mobiliary art objects further attest to the cognitive superiority of the modern humans over Neanderthals.
Neanderthal and Modern Human Interbreeding
Migrating out of Africa, modern humans may also have brought with them pathogens against which Neanderthals had no immunity. Paleogenetic studies confirm that moderns and Neanderthals interbred, opening up the possibility that tropical infectious diseases could have been a factor in Neanderthal extinction.
It is clear that the Neanderthal lineage went extinct and Homo sapiens prevailed, but genetic analysis confirms that our direct ancestors and Neanderthals did interbreed with humans, perhaps during three separate time periods, before their extinction (Green et al. 2010). Both Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA and a complete nuclear genome of Neanderthals have now been sequenced and compared with modern humans. Modern Eurasians have inherited between 1 and 3% from Neanderthals.
In this early stage of paleogenetics, understanding the function of the genes we inherited from Neanderthals is difficult, but it is certain that some of these genes were beneficial and other are deleterious to humans (Gibbons 2016). For example, it appears that some archaic genes actually conferred an increased immune response in modern humans. While other genes may not have been so beneficial and may have contributed to depression, the risk of nicotine addiction, increased risk of blood clots, and even urinary infections.
According to the biological species definition, different, even closely related species should not be capable of interbreeding and exchanging genes. However, in the case of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens, these two species were similar enough to have experienced some level of interbreeding. No fossils retaining intermediate hybrid morphology have been recovered. Although a 24,000-year-old subadult skeleton from Lagar Velho, Portugal, was thought to be a Neanderthal-human hybrid, unlikely since Neanderthals had already been extinct for 16,000 years. The Lagar Velho find may be a modern Homo sapiens, with cold adapted features in its postcranial skeleton as in Eskimos.
Current thinking views Neanderthals as a separate, successful, and geologically long-lived Eurasian lineage of humans that were morphologically and behaviorally distinct from anatomically and behaviorally modern humans, Homo sapiens. And while Neanderthals did interbreed with us and contributed some favorable genes to Homo sapiens, as a lineage, they went extinct.
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