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Understanding the Neanderthal

10 Jun 2014
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Z. Burian

Homo neanderthalensis is now an extinct species or subspecies within the genus Homo and closely related to modern humans. They are known from fossil specimens dating to the Pleistocene period and found in Europe and parts of western and central Asia. The term 'Neanderthal' comes from the modern spelling of the Neander Valley in Germany where the species was first discovered, in the Feldhofer Cave. Homo neanderthalensis existed from 600,000 to 25,000 years ago, with the final area of occupation in Gibralter.

However, 'the Neanderthal' has been stereotyped. In the Washington Post Terrence McCoy explains why these stereotypes are now being discredited.

According to Fred H. Smith, a physical anthropologist at Loyola University, 'In the minds of the European anthropologists who first studied them, Neanderthals were the embodiment of primitive humans, subhumans if you will. They were believed to be scavengers who made primitive tools and were incapable of language or symbolic thought.'

However, new research shows that Neanderthals were not less intelligent than anatomically modern humans or that such intellectual inferiority spurred their demise. Research indicates that inbreeding and assimilation may be the reason they vanished.

In a study, co-authored by researchers Paola Villa of the University of Boulder and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, they argue that 'the disappearance of the Neanderthals is routinely explained in terms of 'superiority' of modern humans, who had developed in Africa the ability to evolve complex cultural traditions and had become equipped with cognitive capabilities which allowed them to expand globally and replace all others. Inferiority has been at the core of many explanations for the demise of the Neanderthals. But the evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there.'

Planning: the myth that Neanderthals couldn't plan is false because evidence suggests hominids hunted in groups. In southwestern France, they herded  hundreds of bison to their death by steering them into a sinkhole. Another Neanderthal site yielded five woolly rhinoceroses at the base of a deep ravine, indicating that they could deploy complex hunting strategies.

 Tools: the myth that Neanderthals could not fashion tools using adhesives like humans is false. Neanderthals used a purified, distilled plant resin as an adhesive. Neanderthals also used string and cordage.

Adaptability: Neanderthals were able to adapt to a wide variety of ecological zones, and capable of developing highly functional tools within these zones in order to adapt.

Culture: Neanderthals exhibited traces of culture. At Neanderthal sites, researchers have uncovered ornaments and ocher, an earth pigment likely used for body painting. As for art itself, it is as yet unproven. Joao Zilhao, an anthropologist at the University of Barcelona, believes they did paint in the caves, with recent uranium dating in caves in the El Castillo region of Spain.

'Everything you know about the Neanderthal is wrong'.

Terrence McCoy, The Washington Post, June 2014


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