Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Neanderthals in the News

It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct. ~Sigmund Freud

In recent years, Homo Sapiens has developed an increased interest in Homo Neanderthalis, based on what the Sapiens writing this blog sees. In the last three or so years, there have been a number of programs and articles delving into how the Neanderthals lived, how they may have dealt with the Cro-Magnons, and whether they are capable of buying auto insurance online.

Neanderthals were misunderstood for a long time. This was due to the basic error of making a lot of deductions from one set of bones. Based on the original Neanderthal skeleton that was found, it was determined that the species walked hunched over, almost dragging his knuckles in the dirt. From that it was assumed that he was brutish and stupid. Unfortunately for the learned gentlemen who made these determinations, the skeleton they had found was that of an old man severely afflicted with arthritis. He certainly would have walked in a stooped manner, but his peers, as it turns out, did not.

As more bones and artifacts turned up, the opinion of Neanderthal flipped 180 degrees. Now he was athletic, strongly built, and admirably adapted to the harsh climate of his time. He was pretty successful, too, lasting for around 200,000 years before dying out sometime around the time that Cro-Magnon made it into Europe. At least one enthusiastic scientists said, on a Science Channel program, that Neanderthals were built like Mr. Universe. If the image of a body builder with the head of a Neanderthal bothers you, join the club.

It now appears that the period of coexistence might have been longer than anyone expected. A site has been discovered in Gibraltar that was inhabited by Neanderthals as recently as 24,000 years ago What with Homo Sapiens coming to Europe around 35-40,000 years ago, that allows for a considerable period of overlap during which the two groups would have coexisted and perhaps interacted. The possibility has even been raised that the two species might have interbred. So far, though, although there have been a couple of tantalizing discoveries, genetic data seems to speak against the possibility.

So why all the interest in this character? Well, perhaps one reason is to make up for all the misinterpretations of years gone by. It's almost as though there's been a pro-Neanderthal movement to make up for the maligning of those folks for so many years. To be sure, the picture of these ancient men and women has become a good bit clearer in recent years.

As the picture has become better defined, it's also possible that scientists are more concerned about the role Cro-Magnon played in the demise of the older species. Given what we know of our own behavior, it's not out of the question to imagine that Homo Sapiens showed up and started wiping out Neanderthals willy-nilly.

Having been recently cleared of the great Mammoth Murder Caper (it's pretty well determined that climatic changes did the bulk of the damage to the woolly mammoth), it would be a shame to find that we killed off another human species.

It's certainly not out of the question for modern man to have had a hand in the demise of the older species, but it's unlikely in my mind that Cro-Magnons did all of the damage, just as they did not do all the damage to the mammoths.

Neanderthal was ideally suited to a particular set of climatic conditions himself, so it was not good when the cold conditions began to change. Yet one would think that the species would adapt, if for no other reason than his big brain. Neanderthal brains were actually slightly bigger than ours, so they certainly should have had the smarts.

Maybe they didn't. Consider that over 200,000 years, Neanderthal culture changed little if at all. In just 40,000 years, Homo Sapiens has gone from hunter-gatherer to sending robots to visit the planets. It's as though Neanderthal brains were hard-wired with all the right instructions to be a successful caveman in the ice ages, but they carried no instructions for dealing with a changing environment or improving their methods of doing business.

There's a great deal of debate over whether Neanderthal could speak. The physical key to speech is a tiny bone called the hyoid that's somewhere in the vicinity of the larynx (sorry, my knowledge of anatomy stinks). Without it, you can't make most of the important noises needed to make complex words. Until the last frew years, it was thought that Neanderthals didn't have hyoid bones, but at least one has been discovered. Therefore, they did have the physical capability of speech. Brain casts, though, paint another picture in that the areas associated with human speech don't seem to be very well developed.

Now it's no sure thing that speech was a great determiner in progress, but the ability to communicate ideas in abstract terms has to be an important factor. If Neanderthal couldn't progress beyond some grunts and gestures, it might explain his slow, almost stalled, development.

Interestingly, some new research is looking at the human family tree in a different light. Traditionally, the line from primates to Homo Sapiens is pretty direct with some offshoots, of which Neanderthals are one. In other words, we're the culmination of the evolutionary process, while species like Neanderthals were just dead ends. Now, the view is being put forth that the line actually runs direct to Neanderthals, while it's Homo Sapiens that is the offshoot.

Modern humans have many unusual anatomical differences from other hominid species. For example, with the exception of the occasional middle linebacker or nose tackle, modern humans completely lack the strong brow ridges that characterizes species all the way back to chimpanzees. It turns out there are many other examples. In other words, we're the ones who diverged from the primate family tree, not the Neanderthals. We're the mutants.

It's an interesting supposition. No one knows why modern humans suddenly appeared, although climate changes in Africa were certainly a factor. But there must have been some other factors that gave us the adaptable brain, speech, planning skills, and all the other things that have led to us getting where we are. But we should also keep in mind that with a species lifetime of under 100,000 years, we're still evolutionary teenagers compared to Neanderthals and positive infants compared to Erectus, for example. Given our own upcoming climate change, ever increasing population, and changing social and economic conditions, I'd say we're going to find out just how adaptable we are.

It would be a shame to be just another evolutionary dead end.

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