Neanderthals are perhaps the better known ancestor for the general public, as like as Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy). The classical view of them, a rough, coarse, crude, unintelligent beings, is still alive in the popular imagination (even “Neanderthal” is used as an insult), but in recent years the research tells us they were not like this. Discover in this article who they were and why you’re a bit Neanderthal.
WHAT WAS A NEANDERTHAL LIKE?
Homo neanderthalensis was the first hominin fossil discovered and currently we have hundreds of fossil specimens of all ages, so is the best known fossil hominin. Got its name from the Neander Valley (Neanderthal in German), a valley near Düsseldorf.
They lived in Europe (including Siberia) and southwestern Asia, 350,000-28,000 years ago (40,000 according to some sources), an era marked by glacial cycles. They existed in the world longer than us, Homo sapiens.
Neanderthals had various adaptations to cold, as robustness and less height than H. sapiens, and a wide nasal cavity.
Skull highlights its size, with an average capacity of 1,475 cm3, somewhat higher than the modern human skull, and is more elongated backwards (protrusion or occipital bun). Also it is observed easily a powerful supraorbital torus (bone above the eye sockets). Their pelvis was wider than ours and had shorter legs.
HOW THEY LIVED?
Neanderthals were skilled and selective hunters, they faced large animals (as witnessed from their injuries, some fatal) and used hunting strategies like the populations of Homo sapiens that arrived in Europe after them. They were seasonal hunters due to seasonal climate (basically reindeer in winter, deer and wild boar in summer). So their diet was based on meat, but near the coast also ate molluscs such as mussels, which were boiled to open them. It is likely that practiced cannibalism. Also captured marine mammals such as monk seals and dolphins stranded, and also ate cooked cereals.
Homo neanderthalensis had a lithic industry (stone work for constructing tools) called Mousterian, also associated with other species such as H. heidelbergensis and Homo sapiens that requires great skill and planning. In some deposits it has been found composite tools using adhesives.
There are no remains of clothes, but is likely that they used fur to cover them given the climatic changes that they faced.
In Spanish caves perforated shells were found with traces of pigments, suggesting that they were used as dishes for body painting or dyeing fur. It is suggested that perhaps they were the first to make cave paintings, contrary to the belief that we are the only ones who did it. They also carved bone and used feathers as personal decoration. All this suggests some sort of symbolic thought, associated until recently as an exclusive feature of Homo sapiens.
Neanderthals are believed that lived in family groups, although recent studies suggest that females would move to other families when they reached adulthood, while adult men remained with the original family.
One of the most important features of the Neanderthals is that they were probably the first human ancestors that buried their dead, which shows an awareness of the individual self and their peers, plus some symbolic or abstract thought as mentioned above. This increased the survival of individuals and made stronger social bonds, and also helped other dependent people such as elderly and sick fellows (as the old man from La Chapelle-aux-Saints). Their life expectancy was about 40 years.
DID THE NEANDERTHALS TALK?
Another unanswered question, though are reaching strength opinions of some scientists as Juan Luis Arsuaga, thanks to the remains of the site with more fossils of Homo in the world, La Sima de los Huesos (Burgos). Neandedrthals could have an oral language, against the widespread thinking so far that they had a communication based in grunts. In addition to the anatomical language adaptations, the Neanderthal DNA contains the FoxP2 gene, related to speech in H. sapiens.
The extinction of Neanderthals is one of the most controversial debates in paleoanthropology. They disappeared 28,000 years ago, after the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe about 60,000 years ago. A time ago extinction was associated with their lower intellectual capacity, but we have seen that did not have to be this way, since they were much like us. Inability to adapt to climate changes? Less reproductive capacity? More infant mortality? Less efficiency for resources or hunting? Direct wars? Imported diseases? Or … maybe sex?
HYBRIDIZATION BETWEEN H. SAPIENS AND H. NEANDERTHALENSIS
Refused for a long time, we now know that our species reproduced with Neanderthals when they were about to be genetically incompatible (100,000 years ago), because they coexisted between 2,600 and 5,400 years ago and left fertile offspring. So much so, that the Neanderthal genome accumulated by all living human beings is 20%, although the percentage in an individual -without african roots- is from 1 to 3%.
In June 22nd was published in Nature the discovery of a jaw in Romania of an anatomically modern Homo sapiens (40,000 years old) containing between 6 and 9% of Neanderthal DNA, which implies that their neanderthalensis ancestry was only 4 or 6 generations back in his pedigree.
So another possible explanation for their extinction is due to these reproductive crossings. Homo sapiens were more numerous, which could have caused that the Neanderthal genes were “diluted” over thousands of generations. This is known as extermination by hybridization.
WHAT IMPLICATIONS WE HAVE BEING A BIT NEANDERTHALS?
It is believed that Neanderthals genes brought us some advantages, as some characteristics of the skin and hair, such as color and thickness, which could help our species to colonize cooler areas. In fact some Neanderthals could be light-skinned and redheads.
But some diseases can be associated to that heritage: increased risk of biliary cirrhosis, lupus, diabetes, Crohn’s disease and even difficulty in quitting smoking (smokers: not worth using it as an excuse).
In short, it is exciting to think that we lived and even mated with a species so similar to ours and that somehow, still exist in each of us. We may not be as special as we thought.
Currently we are the only representatives of the genus Homo, but in ancient times it was not. Can you imagine a world where you would meet a Neanderthal in the street and tell them “good morning”?
- Roberts, Alice. Akal, 2012. Evolución: historia de la humanidad.
- La corta vida de dos especies de humanos arcaicos
- Los neandertales no eran idiotas
- Descifran el legado de los genes neandertales en los humanos actuales
- El neandertal que llevamos dentro
- Los neandertales usaban plumas de aves con fines ornamentales
- Los neandertales podrían ser los autores de las pinturas más antiguas del mundo
- ¿Cuánto tiempo coexistimos con los neandertales?
- Los neandertales también tuvieron lenguaje oral
- ¿Qué lengua hablaban los neandertales?
- El alucinante hombre de Altamura
- ¿Fue el sexo con humanos lo que provocó la extinción de los neandertales?
- Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implications for Speech in Neanderthals
- Cover image from Neanderthal Museum