Term Paper: Neanderthal Homo Sapien

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Neanderthal/Homo Sapien

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens: What Really Happened?

Neanderthals were the predecessors of modern Homo sapiens that inhabited Europe and parts of west and central Asia until about 30,000 years ago. An increasing number of researchers believe that the Neanderthals were driven to extinction following the arrival of modern Homo sapiens, but others maintain that the two species interbred and managed to survive in this fashion. To determine the facts in this case, this paper provides a review of the controversy concerning whether Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred or Neanderthals were driven to extinction by the arrival of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. A summary of the research and salient findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

They were a lot like us in many ways, and were well suited to their environment for thousands of years; however, Neanderthals became extinct about 30,000 years or so ago (this date continues to change based on new archaeological evidence as discussed further below) and many scientists believe it was because of the competition for resources from modern Homo sapiens that caused their demise. Some researchers believe that Neanderthals are simply a variant of Homo sapiens use the designation Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (Tattersail 7). The species got its name from the location of the cave where their remains were first discovered. For instance, in his book, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, Christian (2004) reports that, "The first Neanderthal fossils were found in 1856 in the Neander valley in Germany. Though Neanderthals were long assigned to the same species as modern humans (technically, they were known as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), recent genetic tests, using remnant DNA from Neanderthal fossils, suggest that the human and Neanderthal lines diverged perhaps as much as 700,000 to 550,000 years ago" (167).

The manner in which the Neanderthals prospered and then died out has been the focus of an increasing amount of research in recent years, and with good reason. According to Tattersail (1999), "Perhaps no extinct species in the entire human fossil record is as germane to the understanding of those origins as is Homo neanderthalensis. There is certainly no better way in which we Homo sapiens can judge our own uniqueness in the living world than by measuring ourselves against the Neanderthals and their achievements" (7). The popular conception of Neanderthals by many people today is one of brutish-looking, fur-clad cavemen wielding clubs and dragging their women by the hair into caves for fun and games, yet the conceptions are misguided. According to Tattersail, "Many scientists now prefer to minimize the differences between us and the Neanderthals, and clearly the dismal public image of Neanderthals demands rehabilitation" (7).

About 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals had disappeared from the fossil record following a period of more than 150,000 years of life in an enormous geographic region that spanned from the Atlantic to Uzbekistan. Given their relative successes at surviving during this harsh period in history, scientists remain puzzled concerning what happened to them. In this regard, Tattersail reports that the Neanderthals.".. had led hard lives, certainly: virtually none of the Neanderthal fossils known is that of an individual who survived beyond the age of about forty years, and few made it past thirty-five. Degenerative joint disease was common among these people, and many Neanderthal bones show evidence of injury" (198). The Neanderthals, though, had managed to successfully occupy a large region of the globe for a lengthy period of time during which climates fluctuated sharply; it is reasonable to assume, then, that their way of life was sufficiently diverse to allow appropriate responses to these drastically changing environmental conditions. Given this ability to adapt to a wide range of challenging conditions, Tattersail suggests that there can only be one logical explanation for the extinction of the Neandethals: "Their abrupt demise must thus have been due to an entirely new factor. And that factor, almost certainly, was us" (emphasis added) (198).

This observation is echoed by Hoffecker (2005) who reports that Homo sapiens were better equipped cognitively to adapt than their Neanderthal counterparts and because resources are by definition scarce, the outcome was predictable: "With fully developed cognitive abilities, sophisticated linguistic skills, and an ability to plan ahead, to conceptualize their world, Homo sapiens soon mastered the north" (ix). Notwithstanding these attributes and the Neanderthals' demonstrated ability to adapt to harsh climatic changes, Homo sapiens were still superior in terms of the technological innovations that gave them a competitive edge: "Highly mobile, armed with a very sophisticated technology that included the eyed needle and the layered, tailored clothing made possible by it, our Ice Age ancestors had colonized much of Eurasia by 25,000 years ago, before the last cold snap of the Weichsel glaciation that climaxed 18,000 years ago" (Hoffecker ix).

According to Bisson (2004), Neanderthals are presented as having cognitive abilities similar to anatomically modern Homo sapiens; however, the products of their minds differed. For instance, this author notes that, "Anatomically modern Homo sapiens used symbols to both communicate and solidify group identity. Neanderthals did not" (Bisson 711). There were other significant similarities between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals as well. For example, Christian (2004) reports that Neanderthals' brains were as large as, and perhaps even larger than, those of modern humans; however, their bodies were also more rugged and stockier. This author adds that, "They clearly had the ability to hunt, and this enabled them to occupy Ice Age landscapes that had not been inhabited by any earlier hominines -- for example, in parts of modern Ukraine and southern Russia. However, their hunting methods were inefficient and unsystematic in comparison with those of modern foragers, or even humans of the upper Paleolithic era" (Christian 168).

Some useful insights into the anatomical similarities between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals can be gained through the recent articulation of the first Neanderthal skeleton on te left compared with an anatomically modern Homo sapien on the right as shown in Figure 1 below. Gary Sawyer of the American Museum of Natural History in New York city and Blaine Maley at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri assembled the skeleton by taking casts of the La Ferrassie I specimen found in 1909 in the Dordogne valley in France, which is the most complete Neanderthal skeleton available; these scientists then filled in the blanks by taking casts from other Neanderthal collections from the same period (approximately 60-000 years ago). According to Sawyer, "It's the first time any human 'ancestor' has ever been fully reconstructed" (quoted in Graham-Rowe at 3).

Figure 1. First complete reconstruction of a Neanderthal.

Source: Graham-Rowe, Mousterian (Neanderthal) Sites (2007): http://donsmaps.com/mousterian.html.

Moreover, as Knight, Studdert-Kennedy and Hurford (2000) point out, a larger brain does not necessarily translate into increased intelligence, or at least intellect that might contribute to the likelihood that the Neanderthals could overcome the challenges represented by the emergence of Homo sapiens and the competition for resources that ensued. These authors note that, "There is a marked discrepancy between brain expansion and human mental powers which is amply revealed in the fossil record. When the brain doubled in size, hominids didn't get twice as smart" (Knight et al. 271).

The archaeological evidence found to date suggest that while their brains may have been as large or larger than Homo sapiens, Neanderthals were "stuck" in an evolutionary niche that they were unable to overcome: "Artefactual production and behavioral changes from Homo habilis to Neanderthals are insignificant compared to those found once our own species emerged, and unless there is no relationship whatsoever between intelligence and the products of intelligence (including tools and behavior), an enlarged brain did not, in and of itself, significantly enhance the former" (Knight et al. 271). These authors provide several possibilities concerning why Neanderthals failed to adapt or were otherwise driven to extinction, because it would appear that they had managed to survive alongside Homo sapiens for thousands of years, so there must have been an ultimate catalyst of some sort to account for their demise beyond competition with Homo sapiens as well. According to Knight and his colleagues (2000), "If brains of a critical size are crucial elements in the crossing of this threshold, then Neanderthals, with brains as large or larger than those of modern humans, should have had similar capacities to those of modern humans and, as the more adapted of the two (sub?) species to conditions in Ice-Age Europe, should not in so short a time have been driven to extinction" (280).

Some of the reasons these authors provide to explain the demise of the Neanderthals include:

Although Neanderthals may have been at least our equals in brain size, it is not clear that they were our equals in encephalisation. It seems likely that their stockier, less gracile bodies required a larger proportion of their brains for housekeeping tasks, leaving a correspondingly smaller area for the type of development envisaged here.

In certain areas such as the Near East, Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted for tens of thousands of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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