Historians of the Stone Age fear that they will have to rip up their theories about Neanderthal Man after doubt has been cast on the carbon dating of skeletons by a leading German anthropologist.
|Not human? "There is just as much physiological difference between existing groups of Homo sapiens sapiens as between Neanderthal and non-Neanderthal human bones." This computerized reconstruction of a Neanderthal child's skull and face was generated by computer scientists at the University of Zurich by using computer graphics newly developed for this purpose. AFP-JIJI PHOTO|
Work by the flamboyant Professor Reiner Protsch von Zieten showed that Neanderthal Man existed in northern Europe. Calculations on skeletal remains found at Hahnofersand, near Hamburg, stated they were 36,000 years old.
Yet recent research at Oxford University's carbon-dating laboratory has suggested that they date back a mere 7,500 years. By that time, Homo sapiens was already well-established and the Neanderthals were extinct.
Chris Stringer, a Stone Age specialist and head of human origins at London's Natural History Museum, said: "What was considered a major piece of evidence showing that the Neanderthals once lived in northern Europe has fallen by the wayside. We are having to rewrite prehistory."
But Prof von Zieten, 65, the descendant of a famous 18th-century Prussian general, rejected the evidence from Oxford University last week.
"The new data from Oxford is all wrong," he told Germany's Der Spiegel. He said that the university's scientists had failed to remove shellac preservative from the specimens. As a result, the remains appeared to be much younger.
"Unfortunately, archaeologists and most anthropologists do not study physics or chemistry and therefore they cannot make judgments on carbon dating," he said. " Wrong measurements are made in all laboratories."
Prof von Zieten, who has a penchant for large Havana cigars and Porsche cars, has been considered an expert in carbon-dating techniques since the 1970s. He has tested hundreds of prehistoric bone finds from Europe and Africa over the past 30 years.
Now, however, important remains that Oxford scientists no longer believe are prehistoric include the female "Bischof-Speyer" skeleton, found near the south-west German town of Speyer with unusually good teeth. Their evidence suggests that she is 3,300 years old, not 21,300.
Another apparent misdating involved an allegedly prehistoric skull discovered near Paderborn in 1976 and considered the oldest human remain ever found in the region. Prof von Zieten dated the skull at 27,400 years old. The latest research, however, indicates that it belonged to an elderly man who died around 1750.
Germany's Herne anthropological museum, which owns the Paderborn skull, was so disturbed by the findings that it did its own tests. "We had the skull cut open and it still smelt," the museum's director, Barbara Ruschoff-Thale, said last week. "We are naturally very disappointed."
Concern about Prof von Zieten's carbon-dating estimates arose last year following a routine investigation of German prehistoric remains by the German and British anthropologists Thomas Terberger and Martin Street.
"We had decided to subject many of these finds to modern techniques to check their authenticity so we sent them to Oxford for testing," Mr Street told The Sunday Telegraph. "It was a routine examination and in no way an attempt to discredit Prof von Zieten."
In their report, though, both anthropologists described this as a "dating disaster".
The scandal engulfing Prof von Zieten goes further. Police are investigating allegations that he tried to sell 280 chimpanzee skulls from his university to buyers in America for $70,000 (£38,000).
Prof von Zieten denies the claims, saying that he legitimately obtained the skulls from a Heidelberg ethnologist in 1975. Frankfurt university last month suspended the professor from his post in the anthropology department while it runs its own inquiry....Telegraph. U.K. News
Neanderthals had hands and wrists with a full range of motion, claim the authors of a new digital analysis published in Nature March 27.
As there is no significant difference between Neanderthals and modern humans in the locations of their muscle and ligamentous attachments, there remains no anatomical argument that precludes modern-human-like movement of the thumb and index finger in Neanderthals.
The demise of the Neanderthals cannot be attributed to any physical inability to use or manufacture Upper-Palaeolithic-like (Chatelperronian) tools, as the anatomical evidence presented here and the archaeological evidence both indicate that they were capable of manufacturing and handling such implements.
“Digital analysis: Manual dexterity in Neanderthals,” was written by a team from Cal State San Bernardino and North Dakota State University, who begin their article saying, “These primitive people (sic)may have been as handy with their tools as modern humans are.”
Nature Science Update reports on this finding, and surmises that their demise was due more to social factors than physiological limitations.
Scientific American has illustrations of the hand and wrist bones, admitting that this study blurs the distinction between Neanderthals and moderns and making their demise harder to explain.
Also, the BBC News, agreeing that Neanderthals were not butterfingered, ham-fisted klutzes, and admitting “the popular image of Neanderthals as clumsy, backward creatures has been dealt another blow,” is not letting the news steal the show on premiere night. Walking With Cavemen is advertised on the same page, along with illustrations of brutish-looking Neanderthals, ostensibly from the series.
Imagine the anthropologists in Huxley’s day finding out that all the arguments for brutishness of Neanderthals have collapsed. These individuals were just as smart and handy as we are. Maybe they lived in hard times, or never developed sophisticated technology due to pagan superstition. But they were fully human, just as are living “stone-age” tribal peoples.
There is just as much physiological difference between existing groups of Homo sapiens sapiens as between Neanderthal and non-Neanderthal human bones. It is only evolutionary bias that has classified these our brothers into a different race.
Neanderthals are no longer of any value in evolutionary arguments. It’s time to drop the label, stop considering them as icons of evolving primates, and start calling them Bob, Sue, Bertha, and Albert – the neighbors.