The Modern Neanderthal

30 Aug

Neanderthals have come a long way. When bones were discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany, quarry workers originally thought they had unearthed a bear. The pronounced jaw and sloping forehead visible from their skulls brought to mind an uncultured cave dweller. In the fin-de-sicle hubris, we thought ourselves to be the pinnacle of evolution and neanderthals our unfortunate cousin. In 1866, Ernest Haeckel tried to name them Homo sapiens stupidus, the barely thinking man.

But these people were not as dumb as popular culture suggests. Research in 2009 unearthed painted shells and beads on the lower coast of Spain. Roughly 50,000 years old, these ornaments were created a full 10,000 years before modern humans would arrive on the scene. It could only have been made by Neanderthals. And this jewelry wasn’t just simple colors on rocks, the dyes and tars used would have required a complicated cooking and refining process. Perhaps they could have made it in their kilns. These items would have carried symbolic value, representing hierarchies, families, or other abstract ideas, hinting at a much more metropolitan culture than we had previously thought. We previously knew that Neanderthals buried their dead, now that we know they could think in complicated symbols, this practice takes on a much deeper, perhaps religious meaning. It seems that just as we’ve been surprised at our own ancient ingenuity, we’ve also habitually underestimated the intelligence of our close relatives as well.

And perhaps they’re closer than we think. Neanderthals disappeared completely 30,000 years ago. We cannot say for certain what finally made them go. Theories range from climate change to competition from modern humans. But in 2010 another theory gained incredible support. As the Neanderthal genome was sequenced we found that 1-4% of our own modern DNA can be traced back to interbreeding with Neanderthals. We did not wholly run them off their range. Instead we at least partially assimilated them. As the article above suggested, humans and Neanderthals definitely met and contributed cultural artifacts with each other.

It seems that they also contributed a bit more.

Other Sources: National Geographic, NPR, Time Magazine, Discovery, Wikipedia

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Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Anthropology


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