Disrecognized Space

agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi

Being human

Once portrayed as ugly, clumsy ape-men, Neanderthals were in fact culturally advanced close relatives of Homo sapiens. And their legacy lives on among us…


Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis skulls. Not so different? (Source: original from Wikimedia)


Knowing where we have come from gives us a better understanding of who we are. The story of human evolution was, until fairly recently, thought of as an almost unbroken progression of gradually improving species until its fulfillment in that paragon of animals, modern humans (Homo sapiens). That narrative has been overthrown by recent fossil discoveries and other research which shows that we are actually just the only surviving hominin species of what is a complicated and multibranched evolutionary tree.

Amongst all these recent advances, the story of our understanding of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) in particular gives us a clear example of how paleoanthropology has changed the way we view the past, setting us on new shores of ways of looking at ourselves and our future.

Evolving images
First recognized from a discovery in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856, Neanderthals were initially thought to be brutish, clumsy apemen, and this prejudice persists in the common imagination today when someone is referred to as a “Neanderthal”. Yet our increasing knowledge reveals a far different picture: Neanderthals were a singularly successful, intelligent, and robust species which managed to survive from around 350,000 to 40,000 years ago, in multiple ice age environments, far longer than the span of time that Homo sapiens has existed.


Putting flesh on the bones

Neanderthal skeleton. Isolated in a glass case, devoid of a cultural and social context (Source: SmugMug)
Neanderthals and modern humans both evolved from a common ancestor. Neaderthals were stocky, somewhat shorter than modern humans, with a prominent brow ridge, and a brain capacity slightly larger than humans today. Placed among modern humans, Neanderthals would be unlikely to stand out as dramatically different. Putting flesh on their bones allows us to see these cousins in a more familiar light, rather than the disembodied skeletons put on display in museums.


(Source: YouTube)


Real humans
Recent discoveries have allowed us to form a fuller idea of Neanderthal life, apart from simply reassessing their physical appearance, showing that they had a rich cultural world.


They used fire and stone tools:
Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, says that 20 years ago, he believed that if the Neanderthals made the Châtelperronian ornaments, they were blindly imitating modern humans. “Our interpretation was that they were copying but that they didn’t have the brainpower to give full value” to the objects. He wouldn’t say so now. Two decades of discoveries of sophisticated Neanderthal tools and weapons have made him think that “the gulf was not as great”: that the difference between Neanderthals and ourselves was a matter more of culture than of ability.
Source: Nature


They cared for their disabled, and buried their dead:
It is of course impossible to know exactly what thoughts lay behind this act [of burial]. If the Neanderthals just wanted to dispose of the body, then leaving him out in the open for the carnivores to do their job would have been simple. But instead they dug this pit, worked to remove a large quantity of sediment, and placed the body in it. They spent a long time doing something that was not essential for their life or survival: they just wanted to protect the body of this old man.

Furthermore, the care of his clan and their attentions for him can be seen in the last of his life, as well in death. At the ripe old age of 40-50 years old, the Old Man of La Chapelle (as he is known) suffered from osteoarthritis that left him stooped and bent, had hip problems and had lost almost all his teeth. He probably had trouble moving by himself, and was certainly useless for most group activities. But his group continued to feed him. They cared not only for his body in death, but also in life.

These discoveries confirm the existence of burial among European Neanderthals, and of their cognitive capacity to do so. But more, our findings also sustain the image of a very human group, with empathy for others, behaviour that shrinks still further the distance between them and us.
Source: The Conversation


Neanderthals - National Museum of Natural History - Washington DC - USA
Diorama depicting a Neanderthal burial (Source: Flickr)


They made jewellery, and used feathers as a decorative practice:
This is not the first time scientists have found evidence that Neandertals used feathers. In 2011 a team of Italian researchers reported on cutmarked bird bones from Neandertal levels in Fumane Cave in northern Italy that revealed this practice. But some researchers dismissed the find as an isolated phenomenon. The new findings suggest that feathers were de rigueur for thousands of years not only among Gibraltar’s Neandertals but quite possibly for Neandertals across Eurasia.
Source: Scientific American


Neanderthals quite probably had language. They certainly had the physical ability to speak:
An analysis of a Neanderthal’s fossilised hyoid bone – a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck – suggests the species had the ability to speak. This has been suspected since the 1989 discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid that looks just like a modern human’s. But now computer modelling of how it works has shown this bone was also used in a very similar way. Writing in journal Plos One, scientists say its study is “highly suggestive” of complex speech in Neanderthals.
Source: BBC News


They also had a spatial awareness capacity:
“This is ongoing work, but the big picture in this study is that we have one more example that Neanderthals used some kind of logic for organizing their living sites,” Riel-Salvatore said. “This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well.”
Source: Science Daily


The recent discovery of a 40,000 year old deliberate stone etching (which may or may not be “art”) raises further questions of their cognitive abilities:

“This behaviour was considered exclusive to modern humans and has been used as an argument to distinguish our direct ancestors from ancient man, including Neanderthals.”

The discovery is “a major contribution to the redefinition of our perception of Neanderthal culture”, prehistorian William Rendu, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told the Wall Street Journal. “It is new and even stronger evidence of the Neanderthal capacity for developing complex symbolic thought.”
Source: The Guardian


While there is still dispute about what all these discoveries mean, and what copying (if any) occurred between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, all these traits provide strong evidence that Neanderthals had a complex culture and were capable of symbolic thought. Just like us.


Genetic insights
Perhaps the most dramatic advance in our understanding of Neanderthals has been the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. The exact places and times that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens co-existed is under dispute, but recent findings put the period around 2,600 to 5,400 years in length. Indeed, throughout human evolution we now know that multiple human species existed at many times, and our current singularity is an anomaly. Non-African modern humans have been found to carry around 1% to 4% Neanderthal genes, the result of interbreeding in the past.


In 2010, Svante Pääbo’s lab announced a draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome. This new study has produced evidence consistent with interbreeding between Neanderthals and anatomically modern Homo sapiens and points to aspects of the human genome that may have changed since the split between humans and Neanderthals.
Source: Smithsonian


This genetic inheritance has dramatically altered not just our view of our ancestors, but ourselves.


“Many traits that distinguish humans from chimps are believed to have evolved more recently than the human–Neanderthal split,” observes biostatistician Katherine S. Pollard of the Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco. “A Neanderthal genome is a very important step towards determining the genetic basis for these characteristics that define the modern human species.”
Source: Scientific American


John Hawks, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, told BBC News: “They’re us. We’re them.
Source: BBC News


No longer alone
Rather than the exceptionalist view of modern humans as uniquely different and superior creatures, we are now forced to confront more directly and with greater nuance the question of what makes us human. The previous, easy, answers are no longer sufficient.


Roebroeks and his colleague, Dr Paola Villa at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, trawled through the archaeological records to look for evidence of modern human superiority that underpinned nearly a dozen theories about the Neanderthals’ demise and found that none of them stood up.

“The explanations make good stories, but the only problem is that there is no archaeology to back them up,” said Roebroeks.

Villa said part of the misunderstanding had arisen because researchers compared Neanderthals with their successors, the modern humans who lived in the Upper Palaeolithic, rather than the humans who lived at the same time. That is like saying people in the 19th century were less intelligent than those in the 21st because they didn’t have laptops and space travel.
Source: The Guardian


Understanding where we came from helps us to understand how we became who we are today as modern humans, as well as what “being human” means. It can help us to navigate the new shores of challenges facing us, such as climate change (which may have been one factor in the demise of Neanderthals) by knowing our limitations and our capabilities. Neanderthals were adept and successful as a species yet, while they became extinct, Homo sapiens flourished. Learning about our past can help us to address the fragility of our own existence, and, perhaps, learn to exist within our own world rather than blindly walking to extinction. We may be the first species to be self-aware that we are overusing resources and destroying our environment, but will we be the first species to do something about it, or will we too become extinct? As we literally encounter new shores due to sea level rise will we be wiser than the Neanderthals?

As a constant reminder of these questions, the Neanderthals have left us a genetic reminder of the time we existed together, of our differences, but also of our many similarities. It is a legacy we are only just beginning to explore.

Remember, you, and that person sitting next to you on the bus, are probably part-Neanderthal. We may not be so different.

A human face: Neanderthal skull with genetic code behind it (Source: original image from Wikimedia, genetic code from The Neandertal Genome)

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