Images of Neanderthal Man have changed over the years, but there has been a reluctance to portray them as our near-cousins. Neanderthals have been treated as a separate species within the Homo family, and usually described as slow and clumsy, with a limited capacity for creative thinking. The evolutionary context is typically presented in terms of Modern Man's superiority, so that when Homo sapiens migrated from Africa into Europe, it was the Neanderthal population that died out. However, does the evolutionary approach provide the appropriate framework for understanding these events? Recent discoveries suggest that Neanderthals do not fit the descriptions found in the textbooks and the media, and that the evolutionary agenda is actually a negative influence. The presuppositions and perspectives of the evolutionists are proving to be systematically wrong. This blog draws attention to three research papers that document "surprising" findings - i.e. the conclusions run counter to evolutionary expectations.
A reconstruction of how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could have been used to prepare hides to make them more supple, lustrous and impermeable. The natural flexibility of ribs helps keep a constant pressure against the hide without tearing it. The bottom half of the figure illustrates how the downward pressure ultimately results in a break that produces small fragments like three of the reported bones. (Image copyright Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l'Aze, larger image can be sourced here)
Specialised bone tools are documented for African humans prior to their migrations into Europe, but these are limited to pointed bone tools. Then, after entering Europe, the human population started using smooth shaped tools made from deer ribs. The new research reports that these smooth shaped tools were used by Neanderthals prior to the migrations of Homo sapiens.
"[The tools ] are similar to a tool type well known from later modern human sites and still in use today by high-end leather workers. This tool, called a lissoir or smoother, is shaped from deer ribs and has a polished tip that, when pushed against a hide, creates softer, burnished and more water resistant leather. The bone tool is still used today by leather workers some 50 thousand years after the Neandertals and the first anatomically modern humans in Europe." (Source here)
No one has doubted that Neanderthals used animal skins for coverings, belts, footwear and for dwelling utilities. The new research implies that the skins were worked with tools and that artefacts were produced using more significant mental and manual skills. Also, the question arises: who learned from who?
"The bones reported here demonstrate that Middle Paleolithic Neandertals were shaping animal ribs to a desired, utilitarian form and, thus, were intentionally producing standardized (or formal) bone tools using techniques specific to working bone. These bones are the earliest evidence of this behavior associated with Neandertals, and they move the debate over whether Neandertals independently invented aspects of modern human culture to before the time of population replacement." (source here)
Of course, technologies can be invented independently, and that may be relevant in this case. But anthropologists do tend to favour cultural traits being passed from the originators to later practitioners. Neanderthals, having a less rich materials culture, have been presumed to be 'less fit' by Darwinists.
"The idea that technologies or traditions passed from Neanderthals to humans has been raised before, says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London. "For example, it is not clear which population first started the tradition of burial of the dead." Joao Zilhao at the University of Barcelona in Spain, meanwhile, has argued that the fashion among early humans for wearing pendants of animal bone and teeth originally came from Neanderthals. He says he has no problem, in principle, with humans learning new tool technologies from our extinct cousins. But in general, most researchers - including Stringer and McPherron - think that the bulk of any cultural exchange passed the other way, from humans to Neanderthals." (Source here)
The second research paper has the title: "Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus". We have been brought up to think of Neanderthals as hunter/gatherers, but with an emphasis on hunting. Did Neanderthals do anything more than pick edible berries? The answer appears to be yes. The new research has found dramatic evidence of Neanderthals cooking and eating plant foods for nutrition and also imbibing plants for medicinal use.
"[We have identified] material entrapped in dental calculus from five Neanderthal individuals from the north Spanish site of El Sidron. Our results provide the first molecular evidence for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. We also offer the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual. The varied use of plants that we have identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidron had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants." (Source here)
An alternative explanation for this dental calculus data has been proposed by Buck and Stringer (2013). They write: "Here we offer an alternative hypothesis for the occurrence of non-food plants in Neanderthal calculus based on the modern human ethnographic literature: the consumption of herbivore stomach contents." Apparently, several human groups regard eating the stomach contents of animals as a desirable practice. Of course, eating chyme (partly digested plant food) is a likely occurrence for carnivores, but there are some questions about how medicinal plants were present in sufficient quantities to leave a signature in dental calculus.
The third research finding is evidence of a tumor in a rib from a Neanderthal skeleton said to be more than 120,000 years old. The tumour is described as a fibrous dysplastic neoplasm. Fibrous dysplasia is a rare type of benign tumor found in the ribs and other bones of modern humans.
"Human paleontologist Fred Smith of Illinois State University [. . .] says that, while he is not surprised by the existence of a Neanderthal tumor of this sort, the finding "underscores in some ways the fact that these Neanderthals basically [had] the same kind of biology that we have and they [were] subject to the same kind of growth and developmental processes, even abnormal." "It is important to know that the very same kind of change associated with this tumor is something that we share with Neanderthals," agrees Monge. "That has a very, very deep history within the human lineage and very much ties us - in terms of disease pathological processes - to Neanderthals."" (Source here)
These three research findings are just part of an on-going journey of discovery that Neanderthals are our human cousins, and they do not belong in a story of the origins of humanity. Rather, they are a chapter in the history of humanity. Interestingly, one of the co-authors of the fibrous dysplasia paper is David Frayer, who has championed the true humanity of Neanderthals for much of his career.
"If David Frayer has his way, the word "Neanderthal" will one day no longer be an insult. For some 25 years, Frayer has fought against the old view that Neanderthals, the human ancestors who populated Europe and some of the Middle East between 35,000 and 200,000 years ago, were a lesser race that lost the evolutionary war. The Kansas University professor of anthropology has argued that Neanderthals were more closely related to today's humans than people realized." (Source here)
In May of this year, Frayer wrote a challenging article for the New York Times, from which the following excerpt is taken:
"But in the last 10 years there has been a major reassessment of the Neanderthals, and it turns out they share a lot of the behavior and capabilities of people in Europe today. This revolution in the way academics think about Neanderthals arises from discoveries in archaeology, re-evaluations of their anatomy and revelations about their genetic makeup.
The most amazing is the extraction of nuclear DNA sequences from Neanderthal remains, which show that Europeans derive up to 4 percent of their genes uniquely from Neanderthals. Some 80 gene sequences come directly from Neanderthals and include regulators of smell, vision, cell division, sperm integrity and smooth muscle contraction.
One gene we share with Neanderthals is FOXP2, part of the gene complex associated with language production. We know variants of this gene in modern people cause language dysfunction and it was long assumed Neanderthals had a non-modern form. This was partly based on the general assumption that Neanderthals were not like us - and some argued that Neanderthals lacked the ability to produce the essential vowels of language - "a," "e" and "u." New anatomical work refutes this, and the evidence from FOXP2 shows that Neanderthals had the exact genetic sequence found in fully vocal moderns." (Source here)
The "long assumed" perspectives and the "general assumption" about Neanderthals derive from evolutionary theory and the desire for a story of human evolution. Neanderthals have long been part of the story that gets presented to children, students, the public and the intelligentsia. But evolutionary theories about Neanderthals have been tested and found wanting. They are not helpful for structuring thought about human history. What is needed now is an atmosphere of academic freedom to propose alternative hypotheses to explain the data associated with the Homoremains. For too long, Darwinism has had an unhealthy influence in anthropology. For the sake of science in general, this hegemony must be broken.
Neandertals Made the First Specialized Bone Tools in Europe
Marie Soressi, Shannon P. McPherron, Michel Lenoir, Tamara Dogandzic, Paul Goldberg, Zenobia Jacobs, Yolaine Maigrot, Naomi Martisius, Christopher E. Miller, William Rendu, Michael P. Richards, Matthew M. Skinner, Teresa E. Steele, Sahra Talamo, Jean-Pierre Texier
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 27, 2013, vol. 110 no. 35, 14186-14190 | doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302730110
Abstract: Modern humans replaced Neandertals ~40,000 y ago. Close to the time of replacement, Neandertals show behaviors similar to those of the modern humans arriving into Europe, including the use of specialized bone tools, body ornaments, and small blades. It is highly debated whether these modern behaviors developed before or as a result of contact with modern humans. Here we report the identification of a type of specialized bone tool,lissoir, previously only associated with modern humans. The microwear preserved on one of these lissoiris consistent with the use of lissoirin modern times to obtain supple, lustrous, and more impermeable hides. These tools are from a Neandertal context proceeding the replacement period and are the oldest specialized bone tools in Europe. As such, they are either a demonstration of independent invention by Neandertals or an indication that modern humans started influencing European Neandertals much earlier than previously believed. Because these finds clearly predate the oldest known age for the use of similar objects in Europe by anatomically modern humans, they could also be evidence for cultural diffusion from Neandertals to modern humans.
Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus
Karen Hardy, Stephen Buckley, Matthew J. Collins, Almudena Estalrrich, Don Brothwell, Les Copeland, Antonio Garcia-Tabernero, Samuel Garcia-Vargas, Marco de la Rasilla, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Rosa Huguet, Markus Bastir, David Santamaria, Marco Madella, Julie Wilson, Angel Fernandez Cortes and Antonio Rosas.
Naturwissenschaften, August 2012, Volume 99, Issue 8, pp 617-626 (pdf here)
Abstract: Neanderthals disappeared sometime between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago. Until recently, Neanderthals were understood to have been predominantly meat-eaters; however, a growing body of evidence suggests their diet also included plants. We present the results of a study, in which sequential thermal desorption-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (TD-GC-MS) and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (Py-GC-MS) were combined with morphological analysis of plant microfossils, to identify material entrapped in dental calculus from five Neanderthal individuals from the north Spanish site of El Sidron. Our results provide the first molecular evidence for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. We also offer the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual. The varied use of plants that we have identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidron had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants.
Fibrous Dysplasia in a 120,000+ Year Old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia
Janet Monge, Morrie Kricun, Jakov Radovcic, Davorka Radovcic, Alan Mann, David W. Frayer.
PLoS ONE, June 2013, 8(6): e64539 | doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064539
Abstract: We describe the first definitive case of a fibrous dysplastic neoplasm in a Neandertal rib (120.71) from the site of Krapina in present-day Croatia. The tumor predates other evidence for these kinds of tumor by well over 100,000 years. Tumors of any sort are a rare occurrence in recent archaeological periods or in living primates, but especially in the human fossil record. Several studies have surveyed bone diseases in past human populations and living primates and fibrous dysplasias occur in a low incidence. Within the class of bone tumors of the rib, fibrous dysplasia is present in living humans at a higher frequency than other bone tumors. The bony features leading to our diagnosis are described in detail. In living humans effects of the neoplasm present a broad spectrum of symptoms, from asymptomatic to debilitating. Given the incomplete nature of this rib and the lack of associated skeletal elements, we resist commenting on the health effects the tumor had on the individual. Yet, the occurrence of this neoplasm shows that at least one Neandertal suffered a common bone tumor found in modern humans.
Who're You Calling a Neanderthal?
By David Frayer
New York Times: May 2, 2013
First paragraph: Most Westerners think of Neanderthals as stumbling, bumbling, mumbling fools who aimlessly wandered the landscape eking out a miserable, forlorn existence. Yet Neanderthals lived longer in Europe than modern humans have, by several hundred thousand years, and survived good and bad times.
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