The Long Struggle against the Neanderthals

Unlike the still fragmentary evidence about the fate of Homo erectus, much more is known about the interactions of modern humans with the Neanderthals, the archaic humans who occupied Europe and the Near East. The Neanderthals, who evolved west of the Urals some 127,000 years ago, were a strikingly distinct variation on the human theme. Their bodies were stocky, with barrel chests and muscles like weightlifters'. They had large heads, with bony brow ridges on the front of their skulls, and strange buns or ridges on the back.

These special features may have been either a biological adaptation to cold, or the result of genetic drift, the random change in gene frequencies between generations. Genetic drift is especially powerful in reshaping small populations, as the early Neanderthals may have been. Neanderthal remains include many broken and healed bones, suggesting their lifestyle was physically taxing—whether because of hunting game or each other is hard to say. Some skeletons bear injuries so severe that their owners seem likely to have depended on others to survive, suggesting that Neanderthals looked after their sick. They also, on occasion, practiced cannibalism, to judge by the cut and burned bones found at several sites. In both their pleasant and less pleasant behaviors, in other words, they were quite human.

Their brain size covered the same range, and in some cases exceeded, that of modern humans.110 But their behavior was quite different. They used the same unvarying tool kit as anatomically modern humans, the forebears of the behaviorally modern people. They buried their dead in shallow graves, but there is no indisputable evidence that the burials were accompanied by ritual. At the Shanidar cave, in northwestern Iraq, a skeleton exhumed with large amounts of pollen pleasantly suggested floral tributes from fellow Neanderthals. But until any similar burial is found, the simpler explanation is that the pollen was imported by the rodents whose burrows honeycombed the grave fill.111 There is some evidence that the Neanderthals were less socially 112

cohesive. Although they seem to have displaced anatomically modern humans from the Near East 100,000 years ago, they were unprepared for the highly innovative behavior of the humans who arrived on their doorstep 45,000 years ago.

"It is not difficult to understand why the Neanderthals failed to survive after behaviorally modern humans appeared," writes the paleoanthropologist Richard Klein. "The archaeological record shows that in virtually every detectable aspect—artifacts, site modification, ability to adapt to extreme environments, subsistence and so forth—the Neanderthals were behaviorally inferior to their modern successors, and to judge from their distinctive morphology, this behavioral inferiority may have been rooted in their 113

biological makeup." It is impossible to tell from their skeletal remains whether or not Neanderthals could speak, but the crux of their behavioral inferiority may have lain in their possessing only a crude, syntax-free proto-language, or perhaps no language at all.

Some anthropologists have argued that the first modern humans may have interbred with Neanderthals. Given the hostility of human hunter-gatherer societies toward each other, and the extreme fear that the Neanderthals seem likely to have evoked in modern humans, it is hard to imagine that the two species enjoyed hanging out with each other, let alone that they would welcome an exchange of marriage partners. The human mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome trees each coalesce to a single ancestor in Africa, with no sign of a Neanderthal contribution in either lineage. The genetic separateness of Neanderthals was emphasized in 1997 in a dramatic feat of research by Matthias Krings and Svante Paabo, then of the University of Munich in Germany. They managed to extract mitochondrial

DNA from the original specimen of Neanderthal, some 40,000 years old, which was found in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf in 1856. The DNA of the chromosomes in the cell's nucleus degrades quickly after death but the little ring of mitochondrial DNA, with about 1,000 copies in each cell, has a better chance of surviving for long periods. The extraction of the DNA was a technical tour de force, which many others had attempted but failed to do, in part because the method for amplifying DNA is prone to increase not just the target DNA but, even more so, the contaminating samples of human DNA that abound in every laboratory and handled object.

The Munich team managed to decipher only a small segment of mitochondrial DNA but enough to show that it differed significantly in its sequence of DNA units from that of modern humans. Mitochondrial DNA has now been extracted from a total of four Neanderthal fossils, situated in Germany, Russia and Croatia. All have DNA similar to each other and different from that of modern humans. Pääbo and colleagues have shown that Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA also differs from that of early modern humans, which weighs against the likelihood that Neanderthals made some mitochondrial genetic contribution to the modern human gene pool that has since been lost.115

But mitochondrial DNA represents only a small fraction of the genome, so the possibility that some Neanderthal genes may have been incorporated elsewhere in the genome cannot at present be ruled out.^^6 Though a large scale intermingling of the two populations seems highly unlikely, modern humans may on occasion have enslaved and interbred with Neanderthal women. If so, Neanderthals, being adapted to the cold, would doubtless have had several useful genes to offer to modern humans and traces of these may yet be found even though the mitochondrial lineages have gone extinct. Krings and Pääbo estimate that the mitochondrial ancestress of humans and Neanderthals lived 465,000 years ago, give or take a couple of hundred thousand years either way. Genes usually split sometime before populations split, so this means Neanderthals split away from the hominid line sometime after 465,000 years ago. Their presumed predecessors, known as Homo heidelbergensis, are known in Europe from around 500,000 years ago, but it is not until 127,000 years ago that distinctive Neanderthal fossils appear. The Neanderthals' home territory stretched from Spain in the west to points east of the Caspian sea. In the Near East it included the lands that are now Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Perhaps modern humans first entered Neanderthal territory directly from Africa. But if, as suggested above, there was only a single emigration, the one that reached India, then modern humans would have arrived in Neanderthal territory by a route that led from northern India through Iran and Turkey. These invaders reached the Near East about 45,000 years ago and, according to the archaeological evidence, moved steadily across Europe.354

As the moderns advanced, the Neanderthals became restricted to peripheral refuges such as the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. With one puzzling exception, the Chatelperronian culture of 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals stuck to their unchanging Mousterian tool kit, never learning from the

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