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Neanderthals Out of Anthropological Doghouse?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

We predicted as much:  anthropologists are beginning to have a more positive attitude toward the role of Neanderthals in human prehistory. According to an article in today's Washington Post, "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 different from the limited, unchanging and ultimately doomed inferiors most commonly described in the past."

The article by Marc Kaufman is titled "Anthropologists Adopt a More Favorable View of Neanderthals," and appeared in the October 4, 2010 edition of the newspaper.

Earlier research this year noted that Europeans have, on average, 1-4% Neanderthal genes. That began the wheels of scientific thinking rolling. "Our picture of Neanderthals is likely to change radically now that we know they were among ancestors of ours, not a dead-end, primitive race," we wrote in the blog post "Most Humans Part Neanderthal" on May 12. DNA Consultants introduced its Neanderthal Index in June.

Neanderthal woman.
Joe McNally/Getty Images and Adrie and Alfons Kennis.

An important paper that is helping restore Neanderthals' position in prehistory is "A Niche Construction Perspective on the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in Italy," by Julien Riel-Salvatore (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory). Riel-Salvatore also has a blog on prehistoric toolmaking and related subjects. Among his perceptions is that Neanderthal DNA was probably strong at first but got watered down in the course of time. That is confirmation for our targeting archaic populations to measure your Neanderthal Index.


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Steve C. commented on 28-May-2012 12:29 AM

Considering human history as we know it, I don't know if I can believe in the "peaceful coexistence" of Homo Sapiens and our burlier cousins. That Neanderthals were largely meat-centric in their diet would mean they would require much more territory per
capita than the more omnivorous Homo Sapiens. It would be in the interest of the more physically powerful Neanderthals to keep homo sapiens well clear of their hunting grounds, and they might very well have done so, for a while. But when the over-specialized
and the generalist meet, especially during times of wide climactic swings, the first are the more likely to lose out. The same patch of ground that could support one Neanderthal might support ten (or some similar multiple of) homo sapiens. It would seem that
the initial migration of Homo Sapiens out of Africa was a relatively small group, which would have given them reason to stay well clear of the Neanderthals (going east, not north). Once Homo Sapien populations had increased and they could more readily invade
and establish themselves in the same territory, Neanderthals would have had little choice but to pull up stakes and leave. The conflict, I suspect, was probably akin to that between humans and bears - while the individual human might have reason to fear a
bear it meets on a trail, it is bears, as a species, who have much greater reason to fear their demise at the hand of the human. Of course, one wonders if the Neanderthals, driven into the highlands and other less productive lands, might have making similar
resort to that which bears are prone to do today - raid our trash heaps and garbage dumps. In the case of the Neanderthals, however, I doubt they were trapped, darted, and relocated. More likely they were treated the same way the white settlers treated the
aborigines of Tasmania, who were hunted down and slaughtered like animals, every man, woman, and child.

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