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Anthropologists adopt a more favorable view of Neanderthals
And finally, faced with the appearance of newcomers skilled in some ways they were not, the Neanderthals began to mate with them. Because Neanderthal numbers were low to begin with, Riel-Salvatore said, it was easy for them and their genomes to seemingly disappear into the population of more-modern humans.
"We have found no signs of conflict between the Neanderthals and the modern humans, but we do know the conditions that they lived in became more stressful," he said. "Neanderthals in southern Italy adapted well on their own for quite a long time, but ultimately succumbed."
At archaeological sites associated with the southern Italian Neanderthals, who are called Uluzzians, researchers have found pointed weapons, tools made from bones, ochre for coloring and possibly implements for fishing and small-game hunting - artifacts not previously associated with Neanderthals.
Research debunking the position that Neanderthals were "cognitively inferior" comes from Daniel Adler of the University of Connecticut and Metin Eren of Southern Methodist University.
In 2006, Adler described evidence that Neanderthals hunted just as well as Homo sapiens, even if their weapons were less sophisticated. In 2007, Eren replicated the making of Neanderthal disc-shaped tools, or "flakes," and found they were in some ways more efficient than Homo sapiens' blade-based tools. Both researchers said that while the Neanderthals did not make the transition to more advanced tools - which generations of researchers saw as proof of Homo sapiens' superiority - they were nonetheless well adapted to their environment.
"For many, the term 'Neanderthal' is still synonymous with 'knuckle-dragging thuggish brute,' " Adler said at the time. "We're going back and rehabilitating the image of the Neanderthals."
The research he conducted with an Israeli team focused on Neanderthal populations in the southern Caucasus. They found that the Neanderthals were able to hunt Caucasian tur, large mountain goats that took considerable skill to capture. They based their conclusion that Neanderthal and Homo sapiens weapons were roughly comparable in part on the fact that the tur killed by the Neanderthals were adults, the most difficult to track and bring down.
But while Adler argues strongly that late Neanderthals were more capable than traditionally believed, he is not convinced by Riel-Salvatore's scenario in Italy. He said the data described are limited, and he does not believe the southern group was uniformly Neanderthal.
"At the moment, the trend in our field is to think of the Neanderthals as being more like ourselves rather than the quintessential 'other,' " he said. "Julien's paper follows that trend, but it claims more than the data can actually deliver."
Dirty and smelly, but . . .
In 2007, Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis published research into prehistoric fossil remains in Europe that showed a significant number of attributes associated with both the Neanderthals and more-modern humans.
"Both groups would seem to us dirty and smelly, but, cleaned up, we would understand both to be human," he said when the paper was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "There's good reason to think that they did as well."
Subsequent research this year concluded that 1 to 4 percent of the modern human genome comes from Neanderthals, making the link tighter. And while the percentage may seem small, Riel-Salvatore says it has to be understood in context. Neanderthals, he said, probably never reached a total population greater than hundreds of thousands, while Homo sapiens came in far greater numbers.
"At one point I would imagine the amount of Neanderthal in modern humans was much greater," he said. "But with the numbers and generations, that percentage declined. Still, most Neanderthals were gone from the Earth by 28,000 years ago, but clearly some of them remain in many of us."