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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Generally, anthropologists and archaeologists today proffer two scenarios for how Neanderthals became increasingly resourceful in the days before they vanished. On the one hand, it may be that Neanderthals picked up a few new technologies from invading humans in an effort to copy their cousins. On the other, Neanderthals learned to innovate in parallel with anatomically modern human beings, our ancestors.


Most researchers agree that Neanderthals were skilled hunters and craftsmen who made tools, used fire, buried their dead (at least on occasion), cared for their sick and injured and even had a few symbolic notions. Likewise, most researchers believe that Neanderthals probably had some facility for language, at least as we usually think of it. It’s not far-fetched to think that language skills developed when Neanderthal groups mingled and exchanged mates; such interactions may have been necessary for survival, some researchers speculate, because Neanderthal groups were too small to sustain the species. “You need to have a breeding population of at least 250 adults, so some kind of exchange had to take place,” says archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University. “We see this type of behavior in all hunter-gatherer cultures, which is essentially what Neanderthals had.”


But if Neanderthals were so smart, why did they go extinct? “That’s a question we’ll never really have an answer to,” says Clive Finlayson, who runs the Gibraltar Museum, “though it doesn’t stop any of us from putting forth some pretty elaborate scenarios.” Many researchers are loath even to speculate on the cause of Neanderthals’ demise, but Finlayson suggests that a combination of climate change and the cumulative effect of repeated population busts eventually did them in. “I think it’s the culmination of 100,000 years of climate hitting Neanderthals hard, their population diving during the cold years, rebounding some during warm years, then diving further when it got cold again,” Finlayson says.


As Neanderthals retreated into present-day southern Spain and parts of Croatia toward the end of their time, modern human beings were right on their heels. Some researchers, like Smith, believe that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon humans probably mated, if only in limited numbers. The question of whether Neanderthals and modern humans bred might be resolved within a decade by scientists studying DNA samples from Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon fossils.



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