The Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy 40,000 years ago was one of the largest volcanic cataclysms in Europe and injected a significant amount of sulfur-dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere. Scientists have long debated whether this eruption contributed to the final extinction of the Neanderthals. This new study by Benjamin A. Black and colleagues tests this hypothesis with a sophisticated climate model.
Black and colleagues write that the CI eruption approximately coincided with the final decline of Neanderthals as well as with dramatic territorial and cultural advances among anatomically modern humans. Because of this, the roles of climate, hominin competition, and volcanic sulfur cooling and acid deposition have been vigorously debated as causes of Neanderthal extinction.
They point out, however, that the decline of Neanderthals in Europe began well before the CI eruption: "Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well."
"While the precise implications of the CI eruption for cultures and livelihoods are best understood in the context of archaeological data sets," write Black and colleagues, the results of their study quantitatively describe the magnitude and distribution of the volcanic cooling and acid deposition that ancient hominin communities experienced coincident with the final decline of the Neanderthals.
In their climate simulations, Black and colleagues found that the largest temperature decreases after the eruption occurred in Eastern Europe and Asia and sidestepped the areas where the final Neanderthal populations were living (Western Europe). Therefore, the authors conclude that the eruption was probably insufficient to trigger Neanderthal extinction.
However, the abrupt cold spell that followed the eruption would still have significantly impacted day-to-day life for Neanderthals and early humans in Europe. Black and colleagues point out that temperatures in Western Europe would have decreased by an average of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius during the year following the eruption. These unusual conditions, they write, may have directly influenced survival and day-to-day life for Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans alike, and emphasize the resilience of anatomically modern humans in the face of abrupt and adverse changes in the environment.
As we know, Neanderthals have gotten a bad rap over the years. This presumption was that they were comparatively stupid, just ate meat and waddled around with clubs.
But here is what appears to a necklace made out of eagle talons, found in Croatia. That means that Neanderthals thought abstractly, artistically, if you will. And it's dated around 130,000 years ago, or around 80,000 years before modern homo sapiens showed up in Europe.
Krapina Neandertals may have manipulated white-tailed eagle talons to make jewelry 130,000 years ago, before the appearance of modern human in Europe, according to a study published March 11, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by David Frayer from University of Kansas and colleagues from Croatia.
Researchers describe eight mostly complete white-tailed eagle talons from the Krapina Neandertal site in present-day Croatia, dating to approximately 130,000 years ago.
These white-tailed eagle bones, discovered more than 100 years ago, all derive from a single time period at Krapina. Four talons bear multiple edge-smoothed cut marks, and eight show polishing facets or abrasion. Three of the largest talons have small notches at roughly the same place along the plantar surface.
The authors suggest these features may be part of a jewelry assemblage, like mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet. Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans, but the presence of the talons indicates that the Krapina Neandertals may have acquired eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose. They also demonstrate that the Krapina Neandertals may have made jewelry 80,000 years before the appearance of modern humans in Europe.
"It's really a stunning discovery. It's one of those things that just appeared out of the blue. It's so unexpected and it's so startling because there's just nothing like it until very recent times to find this kind of jewelry," David Frayer said.
Of course, there was hanky panky between the two groups long before modern humans showed up in Europe. So here's the scoop:
Neanderthals and modern humans were both living in Europe for between 2,600 and 5,400 years, according to a new paper published in the journal, Nature. For the first time, scientists have constructed a robust timeline showing when the last Neanderthals died out.
Significantly, the research paper says there is strong evidence to suggest that Neanderthals disappeared at different times across Europe rather than being rapidly replaced by modern humans.
A team, led by Professor Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford, obtained new radiocarbon dates for around 200 samples of bone, charcoal and shell from 40 key European archaeological sites. The sites, ranging from Russia in the east to Spain in the west, were either linked with the Neanderthal tool-making industry, known as Mousterian, or were 'transitional' sites containing stone tools associated with either early modern humans or Neanderthals.
The chronology was pieced together during a six-year research project by building mathematical models that combine the new radiocarbon dates with established archaeological stratigraphic evidence. The results showed that both groups overlapped for a significant period, giving 'ample time' for interaction and interbreeding. The paper adds, however, it is not clear where interbreeding may have happened in Eurasia or whether it occurred once or several times.
Professor Thomas Higham said: 'Other recent studies of Neanderthal and modern human genetic make-up suggest that both groups interbred outside Africa, with 1.5%-2.1% or more of the DNA of modern non-African human populations originating from Neanderthals. We believe we now have the first robust timeline that sheds new light on some of the key questions around the possible interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans. The chronology also pinpoints the timing of the Neanderthals' disappearance, and suggests they may have survived in dwindling populations in pockets of Europe before they became extinct.'
In 2011, another Nature paper featuring Dr Katerina Douka of the Oxford team obtained some very early dates (around 45,000 years old) for the so-called 'transitional' Uluzzian stone-tool industry of Italy and identified teeth remains in the site of the Grotta del Cavallo, Apulia, as those of anatomically modern humans. Under the new timeline published today, the Mousterian industry (attributed to Neanderthals and found across vast areas of Europe and Eurasia) is shown to have ended between 41,030 to 39,260 years ago. This suggests strongly that there was an extensive overlapping period between Neanderthals and modern humans of several thousand years. The scientific team has for the first time specified exactly how long this overlap lasted, with 95% probability.
The Uluzzian also contains objects, such as shell beads, that scholars widely believe signify symbolic or advanced behaviour in early human groups. One or two of the Châtelperronian sites of France and northern Spain (currently, although controversially, associated with Neanderthals) contain some similar items. This supports the theory first advanced several years ago that the arrival of early modern humans in Europe may have stimulated the Neanderthals into copying aspects of their symbolic behaviour in the millennia before they disappeared. The paper also presents an alternative theory: that the similar start dates of the two industries could mean that Châtelperronian sites are associated with modern humans and not Neanderthals after all.
There is currently no evidence to show that Neanderthals and early modern humans lived closely together, regardless of whether the Neanderthals were responsible for the Châtelperronian culture, the paper says. Rather than modern humans rapidly replacing Neanderthals, there seems to have been a more complex picture 'characterised by a biological and cultural mosaic that lasted for several thousand years'. The Châtelperronian industry follows the Mousterian in archaeological layers at all sites where both occur. Importantly, however, the Châtelperronian industry appears to have started significantly before the end of Mousterian at some sites in Europe. This suggests that if Neanderthals were responsible for both cultures, there may have been some regional variation in their tool-making, says the paper.
Professor Higham said: 'Previous radiocarbon dates have often underestimated the age of samples from sites associated with Neanderthals because the organic matter was contaminated with modern particles. We used ultrafiltration methods, which purify the extracted collagen from bone, to avoid the risk of modern contamination. This means we can say with more confidence that we have finally resolved the timing of the disappearance of our close cousins, the Neanderthals. Of course the Neanderthals are not completely extinct because some of their genes are in most of us today.'
Previous research had suggested that the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) and the site of Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar, might have been the final places in Europe where Neanderthals survived. Despite extensive dating work, the research team could not confirm the previous dates. The paper suggests that poor preservation techniques for the dating material could have led to contamination and false 'younger' dates previously.
We weren't dumb. We had a varied diet. And the first folks from Africa must have found us sexy.
The widely held notion that Neanderthals were dimwitted and that their inferior intelligence allowed them to be driven to extinction by the much brighter ancestors of modern humans is not supported by scientific evidence, according to a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Neanderthals thrived in a large swath of Europe and Asia between about 350,000 and 40,000 years ago. They disappeared after our ancestors, a group referred to as "anatomically modern humans," crossed into Europe from Africa.
In the past, some researchers have tried to explain the demise of the Neanderthals by suggesting that the newcomers were superior to Neanderthals in key ways, including their ability to hunt, communicate, innovate and adapt to different environments.
But in an extensive review of recent Neanderthal research, CU-Boulder researcher Paola Villa and co-author Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, make the case that the available evidence does not support the opinion that Neanderthals were less advanced than anatomically modern humans. Their paper was published today in the journal PLOS ONE.
"The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there," said Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. "What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true."
Villa and Roebroeks scrutinized nearly a dozen common explanations for Neanderthal extinction that rely largely on the notion that the Neanderthals were inferior to anatomically modern humans. These include the hypotheses that Neanderthals did not use complex, symbolic communication; that they were less efficient hunters who had inferior weapons; and that they had a narrow diet that put them at a competitive disadvantage to anatomically modern humans, who ate a broad range of things.
The researchers found that none of the hypotheses were supported by the available research. For example, evidence from multiple archaeological sites in Europe suggests that Neanderthals hunted as a group, using the landscape to aid them.
Researchers have shown that Neanderthals likely herded hundreds of bison to their death by steering them into a sinkhole in southwestern France. At another site used by Neanderthals, this one in the Channel Islands, fossilized remains of 18 mammoths and five woolly rhinoceroses were discovered at the base of a deep ravine. These findings imply that Neanderthals could plan ahead, communicate as a group and make efficient use of their surroundings, the authors said.
Other archaeological evidence unearthed at Neanderthal sites provides reason to believe that Neanderthals did in fact have a diverse diet. Microfossils found in Neanderthal teeth and food remains left behind at cooking sites indicate that they may have eaten wild peas, acorns, pistachios, grass seeds, wild olives, pine nuts and date palms depending on what was locally available.
Additionally, researchers have found ochre, a kind of earth pigment, at sites inhabited by Neanderthals, which may have been used for body painting. Ornaments have also been collected at Neanderthal sites. Taken together, these findings suggest that Neanderthals had cultural rituals and symbolic communication.
Villa and Roebroeks say that the past misrepresentation of Neanderthals' cognitive ability may be linked to the tendency of researchers to compare Neanderthals, who lived in the Middle Paleolithic, to modern humans living during the more recent Upper Paleolithic period, when leaps in technology were being made.
"Researchers were comparing Neanderthals not to their contemporaries on other continents but to their successors," Villa said. "It would be like comparing the performance of Model T Fords, widely used in America and Europe in the early part of the last century, to the performance of a modern-day Ferrari and conclude that Henry Ford was cognitively inferior to Enzo Ferrari."
Although many still search for a simple explanation and like to attribute the Neanderthal demise to a single factor, such as cognitive or technological inferiority, archaeology shows that there is no support for such interpretations, the authors said.
But if Neanderthals were not technologically and cognitively disadvantaged, why didn't they survive?
The researchers argue that the real reason for Neanderthal extinction is likely complex, but they say some clues may be found in recent analyses of the Neanderthal genome over the last several years. These genomic studies suggest that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals likely interbred and that the resulting male children may have had reduced fertility. Recent genomic studies also suggest that Neanderthals lived in small groups. All of these factors could have contributed to the decline of the Neanderthals, who were eventually swamped and assimilated by the increasing numbers of modern immigrants.
A research team from PALAEO (Centre for Human Palaeoecology and Evolutionary Origins) and the Department of Archaeology at York offer a new and distinctive perspective which suggests that Neanderthal children experienced strong emotional attachments with their immediate social group, used play to develop skills and played a significant role in their society.
The traditional perception of the toughness of Neanderthal childhood is based largely on biological evidence, but the archaeologists, led by Dr Penny Spikins, also studied cultural and social evidence to explore the experience of Neanderthal children.In research published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, they found that Neanderthal childhood experience was subtly different from that of their modern human counterparts in that it had a greater focus on social relationships within their group. Investigation of Neanderthal burials suggests that children played a particularly significant role in their society, particularly in symbolic expression.
The research team, which also included Gail Hitchens, Andy Needham and Holly Rutherford, say there is evidence that Neanderthals cared for their sick and injured children for months and often years. The study of child burials, meanwhile, reveals that the young may have been given particular attention when they died, with generally more elaborate graves than older individuals.Neanderthal groups are believed to have been small and relatively isolated, suggesting important implications for the social and emotional context of childhood. Living in rugged terrain, there will have been little selection pressure on overcoming the tendency to avoid outside groups with a consequent natural emotional focus on close internal connections.
Dr Spikins, who has a new book on why altruism was central to human evolutionary origins, How Compassion Made Us Human, (Pen and Sword) published later this year, said: "The traditional view sees Neanderthal childhood as unusually harsh, difficult and dangerous. This accords with preconceptions about Neanderthal inferiority and an inability to protect children epitomising Neanderthal decline.
"Our research found that a close attachment and particular attention to children is a more plausible interpretation of the archaeological evidence, explaining an unusual focus on infants and children in burial, and setting Neanderthal symbolism within a context which is likely to have included children.
"Interpretations of high activity levels and frequent periods of scarcity form part of the basis for this perceived harsh upbringing. However, such challenges in childhood may not be distinctive from the normal experience of early Palaeolithic human children, or contemporary hunter-gatherers in particularly cold environments. There is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment."
Something like 20% of Neanderthals' DNA is found in modern humans, but not everyone was dealt the same Neanderthal DNA. Some of it was good, some bad. We've covered this before but Kate Wong, who writes for Scientific American, has a nice blog on the subject.
Over the past few years a number of studies of ancient and contemporary genomes have reached the same stunning conclusion: early human species interbred, and people today carry DNA from archaic humans, including the Neandertals, as a result of those interspecies trysts. Now two new analyses of modern human genomes are providing insights into how the acquisition of Neandertal DNA affected anatomically modernHomo sapiens tens of thousands of years ago and how it continues to affect people today.
In the first study, Sriram Sankararaman and David Reich of Harvard University and their colleagues compared a complete Neandertal genome sequence with 1,004 modern human sequences to see which regions of the modern genome contain Neandertal DNA. Like other researchers before them, they observed that Asians and Europeans have DNA from Neandertals, whereas Africans have little or no Neandertal DNA. The pattern is consistent with a scenario in which early modern humans mated with Neandertals they encountered when they migrated out of Africa and into Eurasia, where Neandertals had lived for hundreds of thousands of years.
Moreover, the team determined that Neandertal DNA is not distributed evenly across the genome. Some genes have a high proportion of Neandertal ancestry (which is to say, many people today carry the Neandertal versions of these genes). Those genes with the highest Neandertal ancestry are associated with keratin, a protein found in skin and hair. The Neandertal variants of these genes may well have helped early modern humans adapt to the new environments they found themselves in as they spread into Eurasia. But the researchers also found that people today carry Neandertal genes that are associated with diseases including Crohn’s, type 2 diabetes and lupus.
Intriguingly, other regions of the modern human genome have no or very low Neandertal contribution, notably the X chromosome and genes related to the functioning of the testes. According to Sankararaman, Reich and their collaborators, the absence of Neandertal genetic material in these regions suggests that male hybrids who inherited a Neandertal X chromosome were infertile, and thus unable to pass their genes along to the next generation. The researchers detail their findings in a paper published in the December 30 Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)
In the second study, published by Science, Benjamin Vernot and Joshua M. Akey of the University of Washington screened whole genome sequences from 665 living Europeans and Asians for telltale signs of Neandertal contributions. Their results show that although non-Africans individually inherited between 1 and 3 percent of their genomes from Neandertals, different people carry different bits of Neandertal genetic material. Together these sequences represent around 20 percent of the Neandertal genome.
Like the other team, Vernot and Akey found evidence that Neandertals passed along beneficial skin genes to modern humans, including some linked to pigmentation. And they, too, observed genome regions devoid of Neandertal contributions. One such region contains the gene FOXP2, which plays an important role in speech.
Vernot and Akey’s work is additionally interesting in that they were able to use statistical and computational methods to identify the Neandertal contributions in the genomes of modern-day people without using a Neandertal genome to guide their search. This work raises the possibility that simply by analyzing the genomes of people alive today, scientists will be able to discover and describe extinct human species that mated with early H. sapiens but that, unlike Neandertals, are unknown from the fossil record. Previous studies of genomes of living people have hinted at dalliances between early H. sapiens and unknown archaic humans in Africa. Perhaps this approach will shine a light on these mysterious skeletons in our closet.
Neanderthals, forerunners to modern humans, buried their dead, an international team of archaeologists has concluded after a 13-year study of remains discovered in southwestern France.
Their findings, which appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirm that burials took place in western Europe prior to the arrival of modern humans.
"This discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them," explains William Rendu, the study's lead author and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) in New York City.
CIRHUS is a collaborative arrangement between France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and New York University.
The findings center on Neanderthal remains first discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. The well-preserved bones led its early 20th-century excavators to posit that the site marked a burial ground created by a predecessor to early modern humans. However, their conclusions have sparked controversy in the scientific community ever since, with skeptics maintaining that the discovery had been misinterpreted and that the burial may not have been intentional.
Beginning in 1999, Rendu and his collaborators, including researchers from the PACEA laboratory of the University of Bordeaux and Archéosphère, a private research firm, began excavating seven other caves in the area.
In this excavation, which concluded in 2012, the scientists found more Neanderthal remains -- two children and one adult -- along with bones of bison and reindeer.
While they did not find tool marks or other evidence of digging where the initial skeleton was unearthed in 1908, geological analysis of the depression in which the remains were found suggests that it was not a natural feature of the cave floor.
As part of their analysis, the study's authors also re-examined the human remains found in 1908. In contrast to the reindeer and bison remains at the site, the Neanderthal remains contained few cracks, no weathering-related smoothing, and no signs of disturbance by animals.
"The relatively pristine nature of these 50,000-year-old remains implies that they were covered soon after death, strongly supporting our conclusion that Neanderthals in this part of Europe took steps to bury their dead," observes Rendu. "While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic, the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us."
Could I interest you in eating the partially digested stomach contents of a porcupine?
No? Maybe a spot of reindeer stomach, then. Still no? Well, that’s curious.
The Western aversion to these dishes is odd, because people around the world have long partaken of — even delighted in — the delicacy known to medical science as chyme. That’s what becomes of food after it’s chewed, swallowed and mushed around in the stomach for a while with a healthy dose of hydrochloric acid. And, researchers now suggest, Neandertals were no exception. Eating chyme may even explain the presence of some puzzling plant matter found in Neandertal’s tartar-crusted teeth.
Neandertals didn’t have great dental care, and in the last few years anthropologists have begun to take advantage of monstrous tartar buildup on fossilized teeth to figure out what the hominids ate. Various chemical signatures, starch grains and even tiny plant fossils called phytoliths get preserved in the tartar, also known as calculus.
Just what Neandertals ate has been more of a puzzle than paleo dieters might have you believe. Isotope analyses of fossilized bones and teeth suggest Neandertals ate very high on the food chain, with high-protein diets akin to those of wolves or hyenas. But wear marks on their teeth suggest the Neandertal diet consisted of more animals in colder high-latitude areas, and more of a mix of plants and animals in warmer areas. Tartar analyses support the idea that Neandertals ate their veggies, and have also suggested the presence of plants considered inedible, or at least unpalatable and non-nutritious. These include some plants like yarrow and chamomile with medicinal value, so one team suggested Neandertals self-medicated.
But now anthropologists Laura Buck and Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum suggest in Quaternary Science Reviews that instead, Neandertals may have picked up some of these plants by eating the stomach contents of their prey. That would explain the presence of plants with no obvious nutritional value to hominids.
They would hardly be unique. Consider explorer Fridtjof Nansen's 1893 description of Inuit eating reindeer chyme, as quoted by Buck and Stringer:
"It has undergone a sort of stewing in the process of semi-digestion, while the gastric juice provides a somewhat sharp and aromatic sauce. Many will no doubt make a wry face at the thought of this dish, but they really need not do so. I have tasted it, and found it not uneatable, though somewhat sour, like fermented milk."
The sourness would come from stomach acid; the pH of human chyme is around 2, similar to lemon juice. In other words, perfectly edible.
Only in today's warped food scene could people refuse to eat anything but boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The Inuit traditionally ate reindeer chyme because it was a source of plant matter, a rare commodity in their environment. Eating nothing but protein can be toxic, so letting the reindeer do the hard work of finding all the most tender mosses and lichens is pretty smart. The KhoeSan eat porcupine stomach because of the animals’ diet of medicinal plants.
Chyme has not died out as a culinary treat. A more palatable presentation for the Western palate is found in rigatoni con la Pajata (or con la Pagliata), a classic dish still found in Rome. To prepare it, the upper section of the small intestine of an unweaned, milk-fed calf is cooked with the chyme still inside. The enzyme mix rennet, used in cheese-making, is naturally found in the stomach and turns the chyme into a rich creamy sauce. With some rigatoni and tomato sauce, apparently it’s quite delicious.
My husband’s first response when I described the dish was, “Hmmm. I’d try that.” Now that’s the spirit.
A study by a postgraduate researcher at the University of Southampton has found that Neanderthals were more culturally complex than previously acknowledged. Two cultural traditions existed among Neanderthals living in what is now northern Europe between 115,000 to 35,000 years ago.
Dr Karen Ruebens from the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins (CAHO) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) examined the design of 1,300 stone tools originating from 80 Neanderthal sites in five European countries; France, Germany, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands.
Dr Ruebens' investigations uncovered new evidence that two separate handaxe traditions or designs existed -- one in a region now spanning south-western France and Britain -- the other in Germany and further to the East. In addition, she found an area covering modern day Belgium and the Netherlands that demonstrates a transition between the two.
She comments: "In Germany and France there appears to be two separate handaxe traditions, with clear boundaries, indicating completely separate, independent developments. "The transition zone in Belgium and Northern France indicates contact between the different groups of Neanderthals, which is generally difficult to identify but has been much talked about, especially in relation to later contacts with groups of modern humans. This area can be seen as a melting pot of ideas where mobile groups of Neanderthals, both from the eastern and western tradition, would pass by -- influencing each other's designs and leaving behind a more varied record of bifacial tools."
The University of Southampton research has revealed Neanderthals in the western region made symmetrical, triangular and heart-shaped handaxes, while during the same time period, in the eastern region, they produced asymmetrically shaped bifacial knives.
Dr Ruebens says: "Distinct ways of making a handaxe were passed on from generation to generation and for long enough to become visible in the archaeological record. This indicates a strong mechanism of social learning within these two groups and says something about the stability and connectivity of the Neanderthal populations.
"Making stone tools was not merely an opportunistic task. A lot of time, effort and tradition were invested and these tools carry a certain amount of socio-cultural information, which does not contribute directly to their function."
The study's extensive analysis also shows other factors which could have influenced handaxe design, such as raw material availability to Neanderthals, the function of their sites, or the repeated reuse and sharpening of tools -- didn't have an impact in this instance.