The Neanderthal Problem: Contemporary Theories of the Fate of Neanderthals

Well, I had intended to write a new post each week, but I have been busier this past month then I expected, and have been unable to find the time to write. I had at least planned to post the paper I wrote for my second assignment in my archeology class, but I lost my original document the day it was due (stupid Word), and the replacement I hastily wrote was so poor I would have been embarrassed to post it. So instead I am posting assignment number three… it is nothing special either, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

Introduction

The discovery of the first Neanderthal specimen in a cave in Germany in 1856 marked the beginning of the field of palaeoanthropology, but it also planted the seed of one of the longest-lasting controversies in the field of palaeontology. The French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule characterized the fossil as that of a brutish, bent-kneed biped who did not walk fully erect. According to descriptions and illustrations by Boule, the Neanderthal was a hairy, gorilla-like figure with opposable toes. It wasn’t until later that anthropologists determined that the specimen was that of a crippled individual plagued by an extreme case of arthritis, giving him the deformed and hunched-over appearance that resulted in the earlier misrepresentations of the species. Unfortunately this mistake has stuck with the general perception of Neanderthals even to this day.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and parts of the Middle East, between about 400,000 and 30,000 years ago. While anatomically modern homo sapiens had lived throughout most of the old world since about 250,000 years ago, it wasn’t until about 40,000 years ago that they migrated into Europe. After a few thousand years during which both populations seem to have co-existed in Europe, all traces of the Neanderthals disappeared. However there is a lack of sufficient evidence to be certain of what happened to the Neanderthals at that time, or even if they were a species distinct from modern humans. This is the basis of the Neanderthal Problem.

The Neanderthal Problem

The ultimate fate of Neanderthals is still not really known, although many different theories prevail on this topic. These theories generally fall into two categories – those that hypothesize that Neanderthals were totally distinct from modern homo sapiens and went completely extinct with no living descendents, and those that instead theorize that there was some degree of interbreeding and that Neanderthals are direct descendents of at least some of the modern humans. However there has so far been insufficient evidence to bolster any particular theory on the fate of the Neanderthals.

Extinction Theories

There are several ways that the Neanderthals may have been driven to extinction, with theories ranging from gradual extinction due to competition, to rapid extinction due to violent conflict or disease.

Gradual Extinction

Neanderthals may have been out-competed by the more technologically advanced anatomically modern humans. These modern humans may have been more effective at hunting and gathering, and the Neanderthals would have had difficulty competing for food. The situation may have been exacerbated by global climate change. They may not have been able to adapt their hunting methods to the colder weather during the most recent Ice Age, while the better equipped modern humans were able to thrive compared to the Neanderthals[1]. Consequently they would have been poorly nourished, and would have become more frequent victims of starvation and disease.

Rapid Extinction

Another possible consequence of the spread of modern humans into Europe is genocide[2]. Neanderthals and modern humans may have become violent in their competition for resources, and the Neanderthals could have been vanquished by the modern humans with their more advanced weapons and tools.

Alternatively, the Neanderthals may have succumbed to infectious diseases introduced by the modern humans. Much like the Native Americans during the European conquest of the Americas, they would not have had adequate immunity to these diseases and would have been devastated by them.

A potential problem with rapid extinction theories such as genocide and disease is that the fossil evidence suggests a more gradual extinction, over the course of 10,000 to 20,000 years.

Interbreeding Theories

Another set of theories states that Neanderthals were not a completely different species, but instead interbred with modern humans to some extent. This theory therefore implies that the Neanderthals were not a distinct species from humans, as the extinction theories would imply, but rather a subspecies of humans that could interbreed with modern humans. There is evidence that Neanderthal and modern homo sapiens inhabited the same regions of Europe for thousands of years. Artifacts found at Neanderthal sites suggest that they may have traded with modern homo sapiens, rather than simply borrowing their technology.

Some late Neanderthal specimens suggest a transition from previous Neanderthals to modern humans. One skull in particular lacks a facial projection found on other Neanderthal skulls, which some anthropologists claim is evidence of a gradual transition between the two populations. Other fossils have also been found throughout Europe, which have been described as hybrids. This evidence would support the theory that Neanderthals did not simply go extinct, but were gradually blended in with the modern homo sapiens. To date, no evidence of Neanderthal lineage has been found in the DNA of modern Europeans. While this lack of evidence does not support the interbreeding theory, it also does not rule out the possibility that all such lineages died out more recently.

Conclusion

The current confusion and controversy about the nature and history of the Neanderthals may have initially been the result of bad timing and circumstance. The first widely-recognized Neanderthal fossil was found in 1856, three years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, so scientists of the time could not appreciate the significance of the find with regards to human evolution. Also, this first specimen also happened to be an atypical sample of the species, since it was of an individual suffering from advanced arthritis. However, much of the confusion perpetuates to this day due not only to these early misrepresentations of the species, but also due to a lack of sufficient evidence of any one theory regarding the fate of the Neanderthals.

The topic continues to be controversial, since the truth about what happened to this population of hominids has so much bearing on the understanding of the origins and history of our own species. Are we descended from Neanderthals, or is our species responsible for their demise? Or is it perhaps a combination of these factors, or even something entirely different? Surely we will someday find enough evidence to determine which of these theories best describes the ultimate fate of the Neanderthals.


Bibliography

Diamond, Jared. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. Harper Perennial, 1992.

National Geographic News, “Climate Change Killed Neandertals, Study Says”. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/02/0209_040209_neandertals.html

Neandertals: A Cyber Perspective. http://web.archive.org/web/20060409170743/sapphire.indstate.edu/~ramanank/


[1] National Geographic News, “Climate Change Killed Neandertals, Study Says”, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/02/0209_040209_neandertals.html

[2] Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (Harper Perennial, 1992).

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