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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?

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“This was really the first demonstration that Neanderthals behaved in what we think of as a fundamentally human way,” says Trinkaus, who in the 1970s helped reconstruct and catalog the Shanidar fossil collection in Baghdad. (One of the skeletons is held by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.) “The result was that those of us studying Neanderthals started thinking about these people in terms of their behavior and not just their anatomy.”

 

Neanderthals inhabited a vast area roughly from present-day England east to Uzbekistan and south nearly to the Red Sea. Their time spanned periods in which glaciers advanced and retreated again and again. But the Neanderthals adjusted. When the glaciers moved in and edible plants became scarcer, they relied more heavily on large, hoofed animals for food, hunting the reindeer and wild horses that grazed the steppes and tundra.

 

Paleoanthropologists have no idea how many Neanderthals existed (crude estimates are in the many thousands), but archaeologists have found more fossils from Neanderthals than from any extinct human species. The first Neanderthal fossil was uncovered in Belgium in 1830, though nobody accurately identified it for more than a century. In 1848, the Forbes Quarry in Gibraltar yielded one of the most complete Neanderthal skulls ever found, but it, too, went unidentified, for 15 years. The name Neanderthal arose after quarrymen in Germany’s NeanderValley found a cranium and several long bones in 1856; they gave the specimens to a local naturalist, Johann Karl Fuhlrott, who soon recognized them as the legacy of a previously unknown type of human. Over the years, France, the Iberian Peninsula, southern Italy and the Levant have yielded abundances of Neanderthal remains, and those finds are being supplemented by newly opened excavations in Ukraine and Georgia. “It seems that everywhere we look, we’re finding Neanderthal remains,” says Loyola’s Smith. “It’s an exciting time to be studying Neanderthals.”

 

Clues to some Neanderthal ways of life come from chemical analyses of fossilized bones, which confirm that Neanderthals were meat eaters. Microscopic studies hint at cannibalism; fossilized deer and Neanderthal bones found at the same site bear identical scrape marks, as though the same tool removed the muscle from both animals.

 

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