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Rethinking Neanderthals

Research suggests they fashioned tools, buried their dead, maybe cared for the sick and even conversed. But why, if they were so smart, did they disappear?

Contrary to the view that Neanderthals were evolutionary failures—they died out about 28,000 years ago—they actually had quite a run. “If you take success to mean the ability to survive in hostile, changing environments, then Neanderthals were a great success,” says archaeologist John Shea of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “They lived 250,000 years or more in the harshest climates experienced by primates, not just humans.” In contrast, we modern humans have only been around for 100,000 years or so and moved into colder, temperate regions only in the past 40,000 years.

 

Though the fossil evidence is not definitive, Neanderthals appear to have descended from an earlier human species, Homo erectus, between 500,000 to 300,000 years ago. Neanderthals shared many features with their ancestors—a prominent brow, weak chin, sloping skull and large nose—but were as big-brained as the anatomically modern humans that later colonized Europe, Homo sapiens. At the same time, Neanderthals were stocky, a build that would have conserved heat efficiently. From musculature marks on Neanderthal fossils and the heft of arm and leg bones, researchers conclude they were also incredibly strong. Yet their hands were remarkably like those of modern humans; a study published this past March in Nature shows that Neanderthals, contrary to previous thinking, could touch index finger and thumb, which would have given them considerable dexterity.

 

Neanderthal fossils suggest that they must have endured a lot of pain. “When you look at adult Neanderthal fossils, particularly the bones of the arms and skull, you see [evidence of] fractures,” says Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at WashingtonUniversity in St. Louis. “I’ve yet to see an adult Neanderthal skeleton that doesn’t have at least one fracture, and in adults in their 30s, it’s common to see multiple healed fractures.” (That they suffered so many broken bones suggests they hunted large animals up close, probably stabbing prey with heavy spears—a risky tactic.) In addition, fossil evidence indicates that Neanderthals suffered from a wide range of ailments, including pneumonia and malnourishment. Still, they persevered, in some cases living to the ripe old age of 45 or so.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, Neanderthals must also have been caring: to survive disabling injury or illness requires the help of fellow clan members, paleoanthropologists say. A telling example came from an Iraqi cave known as Shanidar, 250 miles north of Baghdad, near the border with Turkey and Iran. There, archaeologist Ralph Solecki discovered nine nearly complete Neanderthal skeletons in the late 1950s. One belonged to a 40- to 45-year-old male with several major fractures. Ablow to the left side of his head had crushed an eye socket and almost certainly blinded him. The bones of his right shoulder and upper arm appeared shriveled, most likely the result of a trauma that led to the amputation of his right forearm. His right foot and lower right leg had also been broken while he was alive. Abnormal wear in his right knee, ankle and foot shows that he suffered from injury-induced arthritis that would have made walking painful, if not impossible. Researchers don’t know how he was injured but believe that he could not have survived long without a hand from his fellow man.

 

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