Poor Neanderthals. No matter how many wonderful things we learn about them, they remain our lesser predecessors, dismissed as stupid and coarse.
The problem began with their discovery. In 1856, workers in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany came across a skull that looked human, except it had a prominent brow ridge, large eye sockets, and a flattened cranium. Thick fossilized bones were discovered nearby. At first, experts thought the bones belonged to humans with rickets. They explained the flattened head by suggesting it had been deformed by repeated blows.
After the Neander valley find, scientists realized similar bones had already been uncovered in Belgium in 1829 and Gibraltar in 1848. Thus, they decided the bones represented a sub-set of humans who suffered from rickets, a vitamin D deficiency that results in the softening and distortion of bones. (Curiously, several Neanderthal skeletons do show evidence of severe arthritis.)
Anglo Irish geologist William King suggested the name Homo neanderthalensis, based on the location of the German find. (This blog post uses both Neanderthal and Neandertal since both terms are in common use.) He decided Neanderthals were incapable of complex thought.
While many people in 19th century Europe accepted the Biblical story of creation, in which God created all creatures at once, some scientists had already questioned it. They knew some species, like the dinosaurs, had gone extinct, so there must be some mechanism for the progression of species. In 1809 Jean Baptiste Lamarck published Philosophie Zoologique, in which he argued that nature is governed by certain laws that lead to a progression of more advanced types of organisms through environmental change. While his theories were seen as quite radical, they stirred a good deal of debate.
In 1859 (only three years after the Neander valley find), Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection. He pointed out that more young are born each year than can survive. Those with an advantage, something that allowed them to be more successful in their environment, were more likely to survive and reproduce. Since longer-necked giraffes could reach higher branches, they got more to eat, so they would be healthier. They could chase off rivals, mate, and reproduce. Those offspring were more likely to inherit the longer neck. In the case of the famous finches in the Galapagos that now bear his name, he saw that various finch species had developed different beak shapes in order to better access and process their selected foods.
Knowing that The Descent of Man, his treatise on human evolution, would shock those who believed in the Bible creation story, Darwin held off publishing it until 1871. In this, he argued that all life forms, including people, evolved from simpler ones. He used the metaphor of the tree. While a tree may have many branches that grow from the same roots, some survive and grow while others shrivel and die. He suggested that far back in time, apes and humans shared a common ancestor. Some, like the Neanderthals, did not thrive.
In the public imagination, those two works combined in the simplified format of “Survival of the Fittest.” Or “Only the strong survive.” That provided a reason that Homo sapiens survived and Homo neanderthalensis didn’t: we were clearly better, stronger, brighter, more inventive, more adaptive, and definitely prettier. Or so it seemed.
From 1899 – 1905, a Croatian paleontologist named Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger assembled a huge collection of animal fossils, stone implements, and Neanderthal bones he found on Husnjak hill, near the town of Krapina. He made careful, extensive notes about the stratigraphy, geology, hydrology, and paleoclimatology, in an era when many others simply dug up bones. He felt these hominids, whom he named Homo primigenius (later known as Homo neanderthalensis) were the ancestors of Homo sapiens.
Unfortunately, his studies were eclipsed in Europe by the discovery of a Neanderthal skeleton at La Chapelle aux Saints, in France. But more about Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger later.
The Boule image
In 1908, after the discovery of the skeleton of an old Neanderthal man, along with remains of wooly rhinoceros, reindeer, ibex, hyena, bison, and wild horse at La Chapelle aux Saints, Marcelline Boule, the influential French paleontologist, concluded that the Neanderthal was brutish, bent-kneed, and did not stand fully upright. The illustration he had made by Frantisek Kupka (pictured on the left) shows a hairy gorilla-like figure with opposable toes.
All of this makes sense, I suppose, given the rise of “Survival of the Fittest” theories and the search for “The Missing Link.” The public loved it. The powerful but brutish ape-man appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 story, “The Lost World,” and later in H. G. Wells’ 1921 story “The Grisly Folk,” in which Neanderthals are hideous, primitive cannibals.
The most famous personification of the brutish ape-man is King Kong, who was described as “neither beast nor man.” The original film (1933) sets up Kong as the King of Beasts on Skull Island, an island lost in time, where giant dinosaurs roam. Kong is captured and taken to New York, where he’s exhibited as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Things do not go well, and Kong winds up being shot down by airplanes as he climbs to the top of the Empire State Building in an attempt to abduct (or protect) Ann Darrow, a white woman in a filmy dress. (Photo, right)
The concept proved so popular, it reappeared many times, including Son of King Kong, King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives, and the most recent King Kong (2005). (In the Peter Jackson remake, Kong is a silverback gorilla, not an ape-man). More King Kong films are in the works, including Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla vs. Kong.
King Kong, or something very similar, even wound up in a Superman comic (pictured, left).
Boule’s theories about Neanderthals and the terrible illustration that accompanied them still stick in the public mind, even in the face of contradictions. Recent studies have shown that Neanderthals had a robust build and a larger brain than Homo sapiens. A 2007 study of the Neanderthal genome in several individuals, led by Carles Laleuza-Fox and published in Science, suggested that Neanderthals had varied skin pigmentation and eye color, just as modern humans do.
And no language
When I was in college, one psychology class used a textbook titled The Difference in Man and the Difference It Makes. One of its theses was that only Homo sapiens had complex speech. That was part of what separated us from the other animals. This despite the evidence from whales and dolphins of varied, complex, even regional vocal patterns. Doesn’t matter. If we can’t understand them, they don’t count.
So it’s not surprising that experts decided that Neanderthals didn’t have complex language skills. As a matter of fact, Neanderthals were often dismissed as mute. But the fact is the Neanderthal hyoid bone, which was used as evidence of their lack of language is, according to new research, “virtually indistinguishable” from our own. A study published in PLOS ONE showed that Neanderthals used their vocal tract the same way modern humans do.
“By analyzing the mechanical behavior of the fossilized bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that includes the intricate internal structure of the bone, “Stephen Wroe, one of the authors, said. “From this research, we can conclude that it’s likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought.”
So what is true about Neanderthals?
They spread out over a very large area, from North Africa around the entire Mediterranean up to the ice sheets that covered northern Europe. They arrived sometime around 250,000 years ago, though some sources say “proto-Neanderthals” arrived far earlier – up to 600,000 years ago.
They are closely related to modern humans, differing in DNA by only 0.12%.
They co-existed with modern humans for 2500 to 5000 years, depending on the location, and interbred with them. Most of us carry between 1% and 4% of Neanderthal DNA, though the parts we share vary.
They started making stone tools about 300,000 years ago. By 170,000 years ago, they had a sophisticated tool set.
They practiced burial rituals and apparently cared for their wounded.
They lived in social communities and built buildings and watercraft, probably crossing the Mediterranean Sea as early as 110,000 years ago.
They were skilled hunters, able to bring down deer, reindeer, ibex, even aurochs.
They dried fresh meat
They also cooked their vegetables.
They painted on cave walls and used personal adornment.
They went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago, at the start of a very cold period in Europe, about the time modern humans arrived. Theories explaining their extinction vary widely.
The eagle talon necklace
Back in 1899, Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger (Remember the paleontologist from Croatia?) discovered a very rich Neanderthal fossil site near Krapina. His many specimens (hundreds of bones and teeth, over 800 stone tools, over 2000 animal remains) were subsequently stored in the Department of Geology and Paleontology at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb. One of these finds was a set of polished eagle talons. A 2015 study by Davorka Radovic and others, published in PLOS ONE, shows that these eight talons from Krapina, dating to 130,000 years ago, show clear signs of human manipulation (cuts and polishing). The authors note in their abstract:
“These features suggest they were part of a jewelry assemblage, – the manipulations a consequence of mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet. An associated phalanx articulates with one of the talons and has numerous cut marks, some of which are smoothed. These white-tailed eagle bones, discovered more than 100 years ago, all derive from a single level at Krapina and represent more talons than found in the entire European Mousterian period. Presence of eight talons indicates that the Krapina Neandertals acquired and curated eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose. Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans. These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neandertals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe, extending ornament production and symbolic activity early into the European Mousterian.”
Since other Neanderthal sites have included twisted fibers, it’s reasonable to suggest that Neanderthals strung together the eagle talons in a pattern consistent with the wear on the talons.
Neanderthals had an eagle talon necklace 130,000 years ago!
Perhaps it’s time we gave the Neanderthals an image makeover. They certainly deserve it.
Sources and interesting reading:
“A Tree of Life for Gene Flow within Species,” Charles Darwin’s 1837 sketch, Scientific Blogging, Science 2.0, http://science 20.com/news/articles/tree-life-gene-flow-within-species-100622
Begun, David (ed.) A Companion to Paleoanthropology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
D’Anastasio, Ruggero, Stephen Wroe, and others, “Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implication for Speech in Neanderthals,” PLOS ONE, 18 December 2013, http://jounrals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082261#references
“Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragutin_Gorjanovi%C4%87-Kramberger
Graham, Ruth. “Our lost cousins, the Neanderthals,” The Boston Globe, 13 February 2015.
Hawks, John. “Infographic: Field guide to Pleistocene hookups,” from John Hawks’ blog, 21 December 2013, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/humor/field-guide-pleistocene-hookups-2013.html
Hogenboom, Melissa, Science reporter. “Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests,” 20 December 2013, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25465102
“Homo Neanderthalensis,” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Human Origins, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-neanderthalensis
“King Kong,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Kong
Lalueza-Fox, Carles and others, “A Melanocortin Receptor Allele Suggests Varying Pigmentation among Neanderthals,” Science, 318, 1453-5.
Lents, Professor Nathan H. “Did Neanderthals Speak?” on The Human Evolution Blog, 9 February 2015, http://thehumanevolutionblog.com/2015/02/09/did-neanderthals-speak?
“Marcellin Boule,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org.Marcellin_Boule
Martinez and others, “Human hyoid bone from the middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain)” Journal of Human Evolution, January 2008, 118-124, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004724840700139X
McKie, Robin, Science editor. “Why did the Neanderthals die out?” The Guardian 2 June 2013, http://www.the guardian.com/science/2013/jun/02/why-did-neanderthals-die-out
Mintz, Zoe. “Did Neanderthals Speak? 60,000-Year-Old-Hyoid Bone Is ‘Virtually Indistinguishable’ From Our Own,” International Business Times, 3 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/did-neanderthals-speak-60000-year-old-bone-virtually-indistinguishable-our-own-1559113
Morelle, Rebecca, Science reporter. “Hunter-gatherer European had blue eyes and dark skin,” BBC World Service, 27 January 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25885519
“Neanderthal,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal
“Neanderthal Man,” Sheppard Software. http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Eruopeweb/factfile/Unique-facts-Europe15.htm
“Neanderthals Made Jewelry with Eagle Talons,” Archaeology magazine, 11 March 2015, http://archaeology.org/news/3077-150311-croatia-neanderthal-jewelry
“New Dates for Italy’s Neanderthals,” Archaeology magazine, 5 November 2015, http://archaeology.org/news/3858-151105
“Paleogenomics Lab, Group members,” http://www.ibe.upf-scic.es/research/research-labs-lalueza-fox.html
Radovcic, Davorka, and others, “Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina,” PLOS ONE, 11 March 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0119802
Spencer, Frank (ed.) History of Physical Anthropology, vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1997.