Friday, December 20, 2013

Will the Real Neanderthals Please Stand Up?

Neanderthals were incredibly strong, had brains bigger than today's average, and disappeared about 28,000 years back. We're learning more about how they lived: and maybe how they thought.
  1. Intentional Burial, Neanderthals, and Safety Coffins
  2. Handy With Tools
  3. Big Brains, Low Brows
  4. Getting a Grip About Neanderthals

Neanderthals: Real and Imagined


(From GEICO, via ZDNet, used w/o permission.)

A 'caveman' could have walked with hunched shoulders and spoken in grunts and shrieks: but so could the fellow wearing a necktie in that screenshot.

GEICO's caveman commercials weren't the first time that folks from prehistoric times were shown as articulated, sensible people: but stories like Isaac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy" were few and far between.

For quite a bit of the 20th century, many folks assumed that Neanderthals looked like a 1911 reconstruction: a "primitive" creature with an ape's posture and hand-like feet.

These days some scientists say that Marcellin Boule goofed because the man whose skeleton Boule used had severe arthritis. Others say that there wasn't enough of the skeleton left for an accurate reconstruction, so Boule filled in the gaps with a reasonable guess about what Neanderthals were like. I think Boule could have been a little too sure about evolutionary theory of his day: but that's mere speculation.

We've learned quite a bit since 1911, although there's still several opinions about who - or what - Neanderthals were.

Accepting Reality

I've become dubious about assumptions that Neanderthals and other early models of humanity weren't 'human.'

I don't doubt that somewhere along the line humanity started from matter that wasn't human. It's also obvious that they didn't look like folks do today. But we're learning that 'primitive' creatures like Neanderthals cooked their vegetables, made tools, and - almost certainly - created art.

That's the sort of thing people do. It even looks like we were using fire well over 700,000 years before the first Neanderthals appeared.

As I said last week, I take Genesis 2:7 seriously. I also understand that the Bible wasn't written by an American and isn't a science textbook. (June 9, 2012, January 14, 2011)

I prefer accepting reality as it is, and find it easy to believe that we've learned a little about this astonishing creation since the days when the Akkadian Empire flourished.

Not Perfect, Yet

I believe that God created, and is creating, the universe. (Genesis 1:1; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 279, 301-303)

That's not even close to assuming that the Almighty is obliged to accommodate a timetable published by a 17th century Calvinist.

God doesn't make junk, but this isn't a perfect world. Not yet. This creation is in a "state of journeying," which I think sounds cooler in Latin: "in statu viae." Part of our job is managing creation on that journey, and that's another topic. (March 17, 2013)

1. Intentional Burial, Neanderthals, and Safety Coffins


(From Beauval, Archéosphère company, via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"A pit in a French cave that may have been an intentional grave dug by Neanderthals to bury one of their number." Credit: C. Beauval, Archéosphère company
"Neanderthals May Have Intentionally Buried Their Dead"
Charles Q Choi, LiveScience (December 16, 2013)

"Are modern humans the only species that has ever dug graves? New research suggests the answer is no: Neanderthals also may have intentionally buried their dead. The new findings are further evidence that Neanderthals might have possessed complex forms of thought — enough for special treatment of the dead, scientists said.

"The first potential discovery of a Neanderthal tomb occurred in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. The well-preserved state of these 50,000-year-old bones led researchers to suggest that Neanderthals buried their dead well before modern humans arrived in western Europe. However, skeptics argued that the burials may not have been intentional.

"Neanderthals were known to bury their dead in the Middle East. However, these burials dated to a time when contact with modern humans (Homo sapiens) might have occurred, suggesting that humans' Neanderthal relatives might not have come up with this idea on their own. ..."
We've used cooking fires for at least 1,000,000 years, and kitchens of a sort for 800,000 or more. Neanderthals didn't look quite like the folks who live in Europe today: but I don't see why they wouldn't have buried their dead.

A certain degree of rational skepticism is important in science. In the long run, it keeps scientists from getting assumptions and facts confused. We may not have quite enough evidence to prove that Neanderthals showed respect for their dead more or less the way folks to today.

Then again, maybe the evidence is there, and not all scientists want to believe it.

Reading that Neanderthals may have "intentionally buried" their dead reminded me of safety coffins and other gadgets that enjoy occasional popularity: and that's yet another topic.


(From "Popular Mechanics" Magazine 1921, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

2. Handy With Tools


(From University of Missouri, via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"Researchers have discovered a 1.42-million-year-old hand fossil that possesses the styloid process, a vital anatomical feature that allows the hand to lock into the wrist bones, giving humans the ability to make and use complex tools."
"Human Hand Fossil Turns Back Clock 500,000 Years on Complex Tool Use"
Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience (December 16, 2013)

"The discovery of a 1.4-million-year-old hand-bone fossil reveals that the modern human ability to make and use complex tools may have originated far earlier than scientists previously thought, researchers say.

"A critical trait that distinguishes modern humans from all other species alive today is the ability to make complex tools. It's not just the extraordinarily powerful human brain, but also the human hand, that gives humans this unique ability. In contrast, apes — humans' closest living relatives — lack a powerful and precise enough grip to create and use complex tools effectively.

"A key anatomical feature of the modern human hand is the third metacarpal, a bone in the palm that connects the middle finger to the wrist...."
'It happened earlier' seems to be a recurring theme as we learn more about our ancestors. The earliest verified use of fire goes back about 1,000,000 years and we've apparently had a very 'human' knack for throwing stuff for almost 2,000,000 years.

It's likely that this hand bone comes from someone who lived about 1,420,000 years ago. That's not surprising, since by then folks had been making stone hand axes and cleavers for 380,000 years.

I'm strongly inclined to see homo erectus, Neanderthals, and our other early ancestors, as people. I don't look quite like them, but I don't look quite like my more recent forebears, either.

Driven by Inadequate Impulse Control???


(From BodyParts3D, DBCLS; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)

Theses pictures show the third metacarpal in red. The styloid process is a sort of small flange on the back side, by the wrist.

The last I heard, there's still debate about whether bigger brains drove tool making and tool-ready hands, making tools encouraged bigger brains and more dextrous hands, or hands came first.

I've jokingly suggested that we got 'all of the above' because our remote ancestors had trouble with impulse control.

3. Big Brains, Low Brows


(From Neanderthal Museum (Mettmann, Germany), via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"Neanderthals had a characteristic 'bun head' shaped skull which allowed for expanded visual processing in the back of the brain. That left them less head space for the frontal lobe, which governs social cognition."
"Neanderthals Doomed by Vision-Centered Brains"
Tia Ghose, LiveScience (March 12, 2013)

"Neanderthals' keen vision may explain why they couldn't cope with environmental change and died out, despite having the same sized brains as modern humans, new research suggests.

"The findings, published today (March 12) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that Neanderthals developed massive visual regions in their brains to compensate for Europe's low light levels. That, however, reduced the brain space available for social cognition.

" 'We have a social brain, whereas Neanderthals appear to have a visual brain,' said Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, who was not involved in the study...."
I give Clive Gamble credit for saying "appear to have." He's probably right, since Neanderthal brains were almost certainly organized along the same lines as ours. Assuming that large eye sockets mean large eyes is probably right, too: although I'd like to see supporting evidence, like muscle attachments that make more sense if the eyeball was bigger than today's version.

What the team Dunbar was on concluded about Neanderthals' frontal lobes may be right, too: and could help explain why folks who look like us are still around.

"Social cognition" isn't just about knowing what to say at a party, or which fork to use. It's the sort of thinking we do whenever we work, relax, or trade with other people.

Among other things, we may be wired with a sort of 'cheater detector' that helps us learn to tell when another person isn't being honest with us. Maybe Neanderthals had trouble telling the difference between a good bargain and a disastrous tradeoff.

Art and Assumptions

In a perfect world, nobody would be dishonest: but this isn't a perfect world: yet. That brings up free will, original sin, and more topics than I want to cram into this post.

Gamble also said that what the Royal Society published explains why Neanderthals didn't decorate themselves or make art. Maybe there's so much getting published these days, that an expert can't keep up.

Back in December of 2009, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published an article by folks who were studying "Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals."

Maybe Gamble believes that Neanderthals in what's now Spain couldn't have used body paint or shells, so the cosmetics must have belonged to someone else. Or he hasn't gotten around to skimming the PNAS article yet.

There's good reason to think that Neanderthals made some cave art, although it's not up to Cave of Altaira standards. I think we have a lot more to learn about what sort of folks Neanderthals were.

4. Getting a Grip About Neanderthals


(From Smithsonian Magazine, used w/o permission.)
"Indicating that Neanderthals buried their dead, a stone-lined pit in southwest France held the 70,000-year-old remains of a man wrapped in bearskin. The illustration is based on a diorama at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. (Stan Fellows)"
"Rethinking Neanderthals"
Joe Alper, Smithsonian magazine (June 2003)

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

"Bruno Maureille [anthropologist at the University of Bordeaux] unlocks the gate in a chain-link fence, and we walk into the fossil bed past a pile of limestone rubble, the detritus of an earlier dig. We're 280 miles southwest of Paris, ... where for three decades researchers have been uncovering, fleck by fleck, the remains of humanity's most notorious relatives, the Neanderthals.

"We clamber 15 feet down a steep embankment into a swimming pool-size pit. Two hollows in the surrounding limestone indicate where shelters once stood. I'm just marveling at the idea that Neanderthals lived here about 50,000 years ago when Maureille, .... points to a whitish object resembling a snapped pencil that's embedded in the ledge. 'Butchered reindeer bone,' he says. 'And here's a tool, probably used to cut meat from one of these bones.' The tool, or lithic, is shaped like a hand-size D.

"All around the pit, I now see, are other lithics and fossilized bones. The place, Maureille says, was probably a butchery where Neanderthals in small numbers processed the results of what appear to have been very successful hunts. That finding alone is significant, because for a long time paleoanthropologists have viewed Neanderthals as too dull and too clumsy to use efficient tools, never mind organize a hunt and divvy up the game. Fact is, this site, along with others across Europe and in Asia, is helping overturn the familiar conception of Neanderthals as dumb brutes. Recent studies suggest they were imaginative enough to carve artful objects and perhaps clever enough to invent a language...."
I'll agree that Neanderthal probably weren't the brutish not-quite-people that paleoanthropologists first imagined. On the other hand, writing that maybe "...they were imaginative enough ... and perhaps clever enough..." may still be a bit condescending.

As I've said before, "sly and clever," isn't the quite same as saying "shrewd and smart."

Conventional Wisdom and Megaliths

"...Around 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals innovated again. In what passes for the blink of an eye in paleoanthropology, some Neanderthals were suddenly making long, thin stone blades and hafting more tools. Excavations in southwest France and northern Spain have uncovered Neanderthal tools betraying a more refined technique involving, Kuhn speculates, the use of soft hammers made of antler or bone.

"What happened? According to the conventional wisdom, there was a culture clash. In the early 20th century, when researchers first discovered those 'improved' lithics—called Châtelperronian and Uluzzian, depending on where they were found—they saw the relics as evidence that modern humans, Homo sapiens or Cro-Magnon, had arrived in Neanderthal territory. That's because the tools resembled those unequivocally associated with anatomically modern humans, who began colonizing western Europe 38,000 years ago. And early efforts to assign a date to those Neanderthal lithics yielded time frames consistent with the arrival of modern humans.
(Joe Alper, Smithsonian magazine)
Most historians, archeologists, and paleontologists sincerely want to sort out what really happened: my opinion. Sometimes, as they collect new data, and learn new ways of analyzing what's been learned before, they have to change their minds.

For example, I remember when textbooks said that ancient Egyptians were the first folks to use huge stone blocks in structures. We knew more about the ancient Mediterranean civilizations than the 'natives' who lived in Europe when Pharaohs ruled.

It was fairly obvious that Europeans had built places like Stonehenge, but academics weren't quite ready to believe that 'natives' could have done it on their own.

Assumptions and Pyramid Builders

Ancient Egypt got started around 5,000 years ago, and built the big pyramids during the Old Kingdom. That's roughly 4,700 to 4,200 years back. Work on Stonehenge's final phase didn't start until about 4,000 years ago, so historians and archeologists figured that the "primitive" Europeans imitated what they'd learned by trading with Egypt.

That assumption still worked, even after we learned that the stone part of Stonehenge didn't start until about a century after the Old Kingdom started. On the other hand, it looks like work on the Giza pyramids didn't start until about 4,500 years back: after stonework at Stonehenge started going up. We were also learning that folks in Asia Minor and elsewhere used large stones even earlier.

A sort of compromise position was that techniques for using really big pieces of rock developed independently. Maybe so, or maybe we weren't quite ready to accept the notion that 'primitive' people might have taught the ancient Egyptians how to build pyramids.

"Primitive" People: Who Learned What, How and When?

"But more recent discoveries and studies, including tests that showed the lithics to be older than previously believed, have prompted d’Errico and others to argue that Neanderthals advanced on their own. 'They could respond to some change in their environment that required them to improve their technology,' he says. 'They could behave like modern humans.'

"Meanwhile, these 'late' Neanderthals also discovered ornamentation, says d’Errico and his archaeologist colleague João Zilhão of the University of Lisbon. Their evidence includes items made of bone, ivory and animal teeth marked with grooves and perforations...."
(Joe Alper, Smithsonian magazine)
We're probably even less ready to accept the idea that Neanderthals taught folks who looked like us how to upgrade their stone tech. Maybe Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, and others, developed new and improved stone tools independently.

Or maybe it was a cooperative effort: sort of like what's happening in information technology today. No one country seems to have a monopoly on new ideas, and that's not quite another topic.

Successful as Neanderthals: Eventually

"...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...."
(Joe Alper, Smithsonian magazine)
Riding out 250,000 years of Earth's current glacial epoch is no small accomplishment. Looking at what we're learning about the human genome, I suspect that Neanderthals aren't exactly "extinct." 'Neanderthal' DNA is still in folks whose recent ancestors lived in Europe.

Their unique characteristics apparently were overwhelmed when folks with bulging foreheads hit their stride. Make that "our stride." Like most folks living today, I look more like the pointy-chinned Cro-Magnons than their huskier contemporaries.

I think there's a very good chance that we'll last at least as long as the Neanderthals, although folks living 125,000 years from now may not look quite the same. Humankind had a very long history when Neanderthals faded from the scene. We don't always make wise decisions: but we almost always learn from our mistakes. Eventually.

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