Anthropologists adopt a more favorable view of Neanderthals

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 5:40 PM

Scientists are broadly rethinking the nature, skills and demise of the Neanderthals of Europe and Asia, steadily finding more ways that they were substantially like us and quite different from the limited, unchanging and ultimately doomed inferiors most commonly described in the past.

The latest revision involves Neanderthals who lived in southern Italy from about 42,000 to 35,000 years ago, a group that had to face fast-changing climate conditions that required them to adapt.

And that, says anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore, is precisely what they did: fashioning new hunting tools, targeting more-elusive prey and even wearing identifying ornaments and body painting.

Traditional Neanderthal theory has it that they changed their survival strategies only when they came into contact with more-modern early humans. But Riel-Salvatore, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver writing in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, says that was not the case in southern Italy.

"What we know is that the more-modern humans lived in northern Italy, more-traditional Neanderthals lived in middle Italy, and this group that adapted to a changing world was in the south - out of touch with the northern group," he said.

"Because of this Neanderthal buffer, it seems very unlikely that the southern Italy Neanderthals learned from the more-modern humans," he said. "They needed to change, and did, apparently by themselves."

He says this finding - along with recent investigations that have determined that between 1 and 4 percent of the human genome in Europe and Asia has Neanderthal genes - means that these often disparaged humans are actually "more like our brothers and sisters than even our cousins."

Handsome redheads?

Neanderthals roamed Eurasia from current-day Portugal to Siberia and from England to Jordan for almost 200,000 years. With brain sizes comparable to modern humans and bodies more barrel-chested but otherwise similar, they thrived during a time of relatively stable climate. They were not known to be advanced in toolmaking, but some argue that was because their surroundings didn't require it.

Named after the Neanderthal, the German valley where their remains were first excavated in 1856, they evolved from the African hominid Homo erectus. They were stockier than Homo sapiens and had thicker bones and protruding foreheads. Early study of Neanderthals described them as very hairy, brutish, unable to talk or walk like more-modern humans. Later discoveries overturned those views, and recent finds suggest quite a few in central Europe were handsome redheads.

More-modern humans began entering the same area from Africa 40,000 to 50,000 years ago and, within 10,000 years, the Neanderthals largely disappeared as a subspecies. This led many researchers to conclude that the Neanderthals were unable to change and compete with modern humans and as a result dwindled and died out.

More-recent thinking suggests that they faced a number of challenges between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago, not all of which came from the newcomers.

Stressful conditions

The long hot and cold cycles that had prevailed in Eurasia for centuries sped up during this time, making it more necessary and more difficult to adapt. In addition, a series of major volcanoes erupted in Italy and what is now Eastern Europe, further degrading the environment.

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