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Neanderthals Archives - varnamvarnam
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Tag Archives | Neanderthals

The Battle over Neanderthals

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal male from the Neanderthal Museum.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal male from the Neanderthal Museum (via Wikipedia)

A NOVA documentary presented the hypothesis that Neanderthals knew how to fashion a tool, manufacture glue from birch bark, had language skills, and on top of it had ritual, art and symbolism. It turns out that this issue is not settled and there  is debate about the skill set of Neanderthals.

Where Zilhão sees a clear pattern, sceptics see uncertainties. Harold Dibble, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is re-examining supposed Neanderthal burial sites. At one, the French cave of Roc de Marsal, he says that what seemed to be a deliberately excavated grave is actually a natural pit. At another, La Ferrassie, he sees evidence that sediments swept into the cave by water — not grieving kin — could have buried Neanderthal remains.

As for the ochre crayons, Dibble is dismissive. “You see some wear on a piece of ochre and soon you’ve got Neanderthal body painting,” he says. “What a lot of logical leaps.” He and others say that the pigment has many possible uses: as an insect repellent, a preservative for food or animal skins, an ingredient in adhesives. Even Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, who found evidence for ochre use as early as 250,000 years ago at a Dutch Neanderthal site7, says that Zilhão “jumps too fast from the presence of ochre to body decoration”.

Ask Dibble, Hublin and other sceptics what would persuade them that Neanderthals had minds like ours, and their answer is simple: a pattern of art or other sophisticated symbolic expression from a time when no modern humans could possibly have been around. “But I don’t think it exists,” says Hublin. [Neanderthal culture: Old masters]

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Decoding Neanderthals (NOVA)

As humans left Africa and reached Europe, they found another hominid species which had left Africa much earlier — 800,000 years back — and had colonized specific parts of Europe. For about 10,000 years, humans and the Neanderthals co-existed; the magnificent Chauvet caves were built during this period. Then they just disappeared from the face of earth. Thus a species, which had survived for so long battling against an unforgiving nature, simply vanished and the reason behind that remains a mystery. Was it because they were now battling for the same resources as humans and could not win? Or was it because Neanderthals, who lacked art, language and technology, were wiped out by a superior species?

The new NOVA documentary, based on evidence from archaeology and genetic studies, does an image makeover of Neanderthals based on evidence from archaeology and genetics.

  1. It turns out that they had skills to use a set of carefully designed strikes to convert a flint stone into a flake with sharp edges. This flake could then be used to cut meat or as a weapon when attached to a pole.
  2. For attaching the flake to a pole, they brewed their own glue from birch bark using a dry distillation process which involved controlled heating.
  3. They had some language skills which was used to convey the above technologies to their peers.
  4. They also interbred with humans; everyone except Africans has a percentage of Neanderthal gene in them. Italians have the most.
  5. They had ritual, art and symbolism. They may have attempted body painting and also used grave goods as part of a burial ritual.

Since the program covered a lot of aspects of Neanderthal life, it fast-forwarded through one of the interesting questions about why they perished. One theory was offered: they were bred out by humans through interaction and absorption. Though it led to their extinction, this interbreeding might have helped us by providing with immunity to pathogens.

The entire program is available online

Watch Decoding Neanderthals on PBS. See more from NOVA.

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