Thursday, 24 June 2010

Neanderthals- Our Cousins

"In 1856, quarry workers in Germany found bones in a cave which seemed to belong to a bear or other large mammal. They were later identified as being from a previously unknown species of hominid similar to a human. The specimen was named Homo Neanderthalis after the valley in which the bones were found."(1)

"In Our Time", with Melvin Bragg, aided and assisted as ever by a team of experts - Simon Conway Morris (Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge), Chris Stringer (Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum and Visiting Professor at Royal Holloway, University of London) and Danielle Schreve (Reader in Physical Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London) - looked recently at Neanderthals, and the latest research on this species which was our close cousin.

Neanderthals lived from around 4,00,000 BC to around 40,000 BC, and dwelt mainly (but not entirely) in the North and East, where our ancestors, Homo Sapiens were still coming out of Africa. We think we have bad times ahead with global warming, but over this period there were relatively rapid and violent oscillations in climate between extremely tropical conditions over much of Europe, and Ice Ages. These are, of course, geologically rapid - about every 100,000 years, but that is fast in the scale of geological time, and the speakers suggested that it was this violent change which was one of the key evolutionary drivers of human evolution.

It seems that they migrated from Africa during an glacial period, when there were sufficient land bridges across the continents, while our own species was stopped as tidal levels rose during the interglacial periods, and our own migration was very much delayed, and some time shortly before 400,000 BC, we split from a common ancestor, possibly homo erectus.

Hence, they were not in any sense a so-called missing link; rather they were very evolved humans and shared most of the characteristics of a large brain but with a larger brow ridge, a larger nose (possibly evolved for breathing in colder climates), and were much shorter and stockier than modern humans, which is why early specimens were thought to have been deformed, whereas in fact they were very muscular. They were hunter / gatherers rather than farmers, and usually cave dwellers. They also had fair skin and red hair which helped in a cold climate because fair skin can metabolise vitamin D.(2)

As there is a considerable overlap in time and geography, from around at least 100,000 BC, I wonder if some of the traditions of dwarves, trolls, or goblins might not, in part, be derived from the tens of thousands of years when we shared some of the same hunting grounds, which has somehow become a distant race memory, surfacing in folklore and legends. Think of short stocky people, with high brow ridges, large noses, and large beards, and the image is there.

The spread of Neanderthals has been discovered to be far wider than was previously thought, from a small sample of Neanderthals from Europe in particular, they have turned up in the Middle East and even as far away as Uzbekistan. DNA testing has been useful here in validating bone samples, as mitochondrial DNA can be found even in some of these ancient bones, and doesn't degrade too much as long as it is away from conditions of high humidity.

Neanderthals had the same gene that is a pre-condition of language, and by the evidence that they worked in teams, often at close quarters, jabbing at their prey with spears, it is likely they used language to communicate and coordinate their hunts. This also is reflected in their care of the injured, who would have been cared for, rather than just being left to die. Being at such close quarters with their prey, there is considerable evidence of injuries in the story told by the bones; a lifespan of around 30-40 would have been "old age", and there is also some evidence that they matured faster than modern humans.

This would tie in with the suggestion of Steven Mithen that the characteristic that distinguishes modern humans from Neanderthals is an extended period of infancy and childhood, allowing for greater growth in intellectual abilities. It is known (c.f. Stephen Jay Gould), that this retention of infantile characteristics, known as neoteny, marks a major difference between humans and apes, and is reflected in an exceptionally greater life span than would be expected statistically, and might explain the difference in brain power when it came to the development of more sophisticated technologies.

Neanderthals knew their landscape intimately, where to find their prey, and how to kill it - it is clear that in Jersey, they stampeded woolly mammoths over the cliff top near La Cotte, and then salvaged the meat from the carcasses. Dr Ron Wilcox describes this as follows:

At La Cotte on the Channel island of Jersey, two piles of bone were discovered beneath a rock overhang. The animals represented include mammoth and rhino. They have been interpreted as the result of hunting drives across the granite headland so that small herds were forced over a cliff. (3)

He also describes the tools found at the site relating to this period:

Amongst the flint tools, hand axes are rare but very common are tools made from flakes struck from cores using the Levalloisian technique. This involves carefully shaping a nodule of flint so that one side is domed. At one end a striking platform is made by knocking off one end of the nodule to leave a flat surface. A blow on this striking platform knocks off a domed flake. The procedure can then be repeated as long as the nodule is big enough. What is left is shaped rather like a tortoise and so is known as a tortoise core. (3)

But their diet also included shellfish; traces of seaweed and shells at sites some distance from the sea suggest they used damp seaweed as a means of preserving shellfish.

Their technology was not that sophisticated, but they were tool makers - they could make flint and stone tools, use fire (they ate cooked food, and had a diet extremely rich in meat), and wore animal skins, but there are none of the evidence of stone needles that human settlements had around the same time, which were used to thread clothes from animal skins. The species were close enough genetically for interbreeding to take place, and there also seems to be some evidence of borrowing of ideas, as some human technology seems to be borrowed in the form of bone beading (from a necklace) which begin to be found among grave goods.

When humans and Neanderthals overlapped, the Neanderthals were already in decline, and probably already down to thousands, but it is unclear how they died out, if it was in part, in competition over the same species to hunt, or otherwise.

There is some evidence that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism, which may seem gruesome, but if so, it probably was like the tribes of New Guinea, where the Fore people had a ritualistic practice of eating the brains of the recently deceased. How widespread this was is still unclear, but I wonder if - as with the Fore people - it gave rise to Kuru; Kuru was a slowly progressive fatal disease of the brain due to an infectious agent transmitted among the Fore by ritual cannibalism, and rather like CJD, transmitted by prions; it began with trembling, and over a year or less progressed the death; as the younger members of the tribe ate the brains of their dead relatives, the disease became widespread. If something like this was the case, then the Neanderthals own ritual practices could have hastened their own demise.(4)

This was a fascinating programme, and as Neanderthals are amongst the oldest inhabitants of Jersey, it is something we should know about as part of our own heritage.

Further Reading on La Cotte de St Brelade:

Robert R. Marett (1866 - 1943) worked on the Paleolithic site of from 1910 - 1914, recovering some hominid teeth and other remains of habitation by Neanderthal man. He published "The Site, Fauna, and Industry of La Cotte de St. Brelade, Jersey" (Archaeologia LXVII, 1916).

The Cambridge University excavations of the 1960s and 1970s found important examples of remains of Pleistocene mammals carried into La Cotte, including a pile of bones and teeth of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Princes Charles took part (as a student) in these excavations, directed by Professor C.M.B. McBurney, which were published as "La Cotte de St. Brelade 1961 - 1978: Excavations by C.B.M. McBurney." (Geo Books, Norwich).

Katharine Scott, in 1980, published an article on the hunting methods used by Neanderthals at La Cotte entitled "Two hunting episodes of Middle Paleolithic Age at La Cotte Saint-Brelade, Jersey (Channel Islands)" (World Archeology 12:137-152. ),

"In Our Time" has an extensive archive, and the programme is permanently available to listen to.
(2) In Our Time Newsletter, Melvin Bragg
(3) - good on hunting at La Cotte
(4) - on Kuru

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