Neanderthals R Us?

Posted by Chris Parker
Apr 05 2006

Anthropology.netテつ

Photo: Computer Generated from Child “Neanderthal”

For close to half a million years our nearest human cousins, the Neanderthals, successfully survived in the often difficult environment of Europe and the near east. Then, about 40,000 years ago, the first modern humans began to move into the Neanderthals’ homeland, and within 10,000 years the Neanderthals were gone. For generations researchers have puzzled over what happened to these distant relatives and whether we humans were responsible for their extinction.

The picture has changed recently, due to a shift in the way we see Neanderthals. Dr. Ariane Burke, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Montreal, says that the old caricature of the primitive Neanderthal is fading away.

We now understand them as a sophisticated and advanced human species. In fact, according to Dr. Erik Trinkaus, a professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, there’s no biological evidence to suggest that the Neanderthals were inferior to modern humans in any way, which deepens the mystery of how they disappeared.

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New research on climate has provided some potential answers. Dr. Chris Stringer, an anthropologist from the Natural History Museum in London, has found that climate models show that the time at which the Neanderthals disappeared would have been one of the most unpleasant periods of extended climate change in Europe.

Dr. Burke suspects the communication skills of modern humans, skills the Neanderthals might not have had, could have made a critical difference in allowing the humans to survive while the Neanderthals perished.

Dr. Trinkaus, on the other hand, doesn’t believe the Neanderthals died off. He’s convinced they simply joined the new human population settling in Europe and that, as a result, the Neanderthals still walk among us today.

Dr. Hendrik Poinar, an assistant professor of Anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton has been involved in testing this idea, by looking for Neanderthal DNA in the human genome. That work continues, but so far hasn’t found any evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred.テつ

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