PHOTOGRAPH BY JOE MCNALLY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL STEPHENS, AP
Published May 2, 2014
Neanderthals have traditionally been viewed as human evolution's also-rans. Yes, they had brains as big as ours, made fairly complex stone tools, and flourished across a huge expanse of Eurasia for nearly 300,000 years. But they vanished, while our ancestors not only survived but also took over the planet.
This discrepancy has led scientists for decades to try to pinpoint what specific inadequacy led to the Neanderthal's demise—or, put the other way around, what special property it is that makes us fully human and them not quite ... enough. Was it complex language that they lacked? Hunting prowess? The capacity to innovate?
In a recent paper in the journal PLOS One, Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands review the archaeological evidence for these and other often-touted Neanderthal inferiorities. In every case, they find no evidence to support the contention that Neanderthals were any different than the modern human beings living in Africa and the Middle East at the same time. In Villa and Roebroeks' view, the Neanderthals never really went extinct at all. They are us—or at least they live on in the genomes of modern humans living outside Africa today. (See "Why Am I Neanderthal?")
Is this the last word on a debate that has gone on for decades? Unlikely. We asked paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London for his take. Long a leading authority on Neanderthals and the origins of modern humans, Stringer's most recent book is Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth.
Twenty years ago or so, the story of modern human origins seemed pretty simple: Homo sapiens arose in Africa and replaced everybody everywhere else including the Neanderthals, who went extinct. Can you briefly say what's changed to complicate that picture now?
My version is that we had our origins in Africa maybe 150,000-200,000 years ago; we came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and replaced all the other groups living outside of Africa. Twenty years ago I would have said the interbreeding between us and them was insignificant. That was certainly wrong. We know now that there was interbreeding going on, at least on a small scale, not only between us and the Neanderthals, but also between us and the Denisovans, another form of archaic human known from DNA from a cave in Siberia. (Read "The Case of the Missing Ancestor" in National Geographic magazine.)
Paolo Villa and Wil Roebroeks argue that the Neanderthals weren't so much replaced as absorbed into the larger modern human population. Would you agree?
We know that the Neanderthals disappeared soon after modern humans came into western Europe over 40,000 years ago. We don't know exactly when the Denisovans disappeared, but after 40,000 years ago, only modern human fossils are known from eastern Asia. There was also a population of a very small human-like species on the island of Flores in Indonesia—often called "hobbits." It had been thought they were around until about 17,000 years ago, but unpublished evidence suggests they could have disappeared earlier, in which case the spread of modern humans might correlate with their demise.
I think I see where this is leading...
The common factor in all three disappearances is the arrival of modern humans. Villa and Roebroeks have been as fair as possible to the Neanderthals, and they've come to the conclusion that there were no strong behavioral differences between them and modern humans. But that isn't necessarily the whole story.
What parts are missing?
Well, even small differences in behavior could have been significant under the stressful conditions that prevailed much of the time for Neanderthals. For instance, we know that modern people had eyed sewing needles in Europe 35,000 years ago. If you have something like that, you can make tailored clothing, or a tent covered with sewn hides, and you get better insulation. You can keep your babies warm more reliably, which is absolutely critical for the survival of the next generation. I'm sure the Neanderthals had some kind of clothing—it would have been essential in Ice Age Europe. But having a sewing needle could make a big difference.
What about art?
Neither the Neanderthals nor the moderns in Africa had representational art before 60,000 years ago, so if we take that as the basis of comparison, there's no difference. But look at the statuettes from [the early Upper Paleolithic] in Germany beginning 40,000 years ago. You've got humans, animals, mythological creatures that combine human and animal parts.
So this would argue for a symbolic way of thinking that would express some behavioral advantage?
It suggests a really complex way of thinking. Neanderthals were certainly intelligent, and technologically they were very well equipped. They could make resins for mounting points on handles, they buried their dead—they have that level of complexity. But representational art suggests for some people a whole spiritual and religious dimension.
Then there's music. There is one flute that some researchers say is associated with Neanderthals from a site in Slovenia, but it's very disputed; a number of people who studied it think it's a natural object with some holes in it made by bear teeth. But when you get to the sites in Germany, there are undoubted, complete flutes made from the wing bones of vultures and from mammoth ivory, several of them 35,000-40,000 years old.
But when comparing Neanderthals to the modern humans around at the same time as they were, Villa and Roebroeks don't see any difference in symbolic behavior.
To be fair, yes, we don't find flutes in Africa 60,000 years ago—and representational art, you can't find that either. I can see where they're coming from. And I agree with them that there is no one thing that led to our success and the Neanderthal's demise. In my earlier books, I took the view that there was a major behavioral gap between the Neanderthals and us. Recent evidence has considerably narrowed that gap—but I don't think it has completely closed.
So why did they go extinct, if they were very much like us?
Neanderthals disappeared at different times in different parts of Eurasia. The reasons why they disappeared from Britain could differ from the reasons why they disappeared in Gibraltar or the Middle East. People were looking for a single cause. It's got to be more complicated.
You mentioned that conditions were very stressful for Neanderthals through much of their time. What role did climate play in their disappearance?
We know that the climate was extremely unstable from about 70,000 years ago to about 12,000 years ago. Every few thousand years, the climate switched, often very rapidly. In northern Europe and Asia, at times it could change in less than ten years from being almost as warm as the present day, to being so cold there would be icebergs floating in the Mediterranean Sea. Imagine in the lifetime of a Neanderthal in Europe, or a Denisovan over in Siberia, suddenly everything you're familiar with, all the animals and plants—they're all gone. Lots of those populations of humans are going to die out; they can't adapt to such rapidly changing conditions.
Wouldn't that apply to modern humans as well?
Modern humans suffered too. They also seem to disappear if it's extremely cold. But their overall population history is quite different.
The genetic evidence suggests that half a million years ago, the Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans had the same effective population size: They were all a single population, which I think of as belonging to the species Homo heidelbergensis. Through time, it split into three distinct populations: In western Europe and Asia it became the Neanderthals, in east Asia the Denisovans, and in Africa it became us, Homo sapiens.
The genetic data suggests that the Neanderthal and Denisovan population numbers sank steadily until they go extinct some 50,000 years ago. There was never a long-enough period of stability for them to build their numbers up to a large size. Whereas in Africa, the modern humans' numbers are maintained, even for a while increasing. If temperatures drop 5-10 degrees in Africa, you're not going to die; there may be changes in rainfall and desert and forest and so forth, but that temperature drop probably won't kill you.
In Britain, or Siberia, these populations were constantly under pressure. When it was really cold, they were surviving in pockets in the south—in the Iberian Peninsula, the Italian peninsula, the Balkans, maybe in India and Southeast Asia. All the area to the north would empty of people. Then when it warms up, people would start to expand north and grow their numbers. But often they only had 3,000 years before the temperature dropped all the way back again. So I think it is the climate that was shutting down the diversity of those populations; they couldn't maintain large numbers because of the climate wearing them down.
So it wasn't that the Neanderthals and Denisovans were cognitively disadvantaged. They just had a harder row to hoe.
Keeping your numbers low is bad news for cultural diversity as well. Think about modern populations today: There are so many of us, we are so well networked and have so many ways of storing information, that when something innovative appears, it takes root and gets built upon. But go back 50,000 or 100,000 years and it simply wasn't like that. You have small groups of people at times isolated from each other. That was certainly true of the Neanderthals. They lived in small groups and were not well networked. Under those circumstances, when your population crashes, you can lose cultural information. (See "Neanderthals Lived in Small, Isolated Populations, Gene Analysis Shows.")
Imagine a tribe of 30 Neanderthals, and there are two or three people who are specialists in making fire. Imagine a disease hits, or there's an accident, and those three firemakers die. Now no one in the group knows how to make fire. So until the group can reconnect to another Neanderthal group, they've lost that knowledge. We see this in the modern hunter-gatherer groups who at times lose the knowledge of making fire at will, or the knowledge of making boats. As Villa and Roebroeks are arguing, it's not necessarily that the Neanderthals were stupid. They had the dice weighted against them.
What do you think happened when Neanderthals and modern humans met?
My model is that modern humans came out of Africa 60,000 years ago and moved very quickly into the territory of the Neanderthals, later into the territory of the Denisovans, and soon after that into the territory of the "hobbits." Within 20,000 years, as far as we can tell, those other populations have gone, all of them. Modern humans moving into those areas would be hitting the same environment, gathering the same plants, wanting to live in the best sites. There would have been economic competition.
But the genetic evidence clearly shows that these groups were interbreeding with each other. Doesn't that suggest they weren't outcompeted as much as assimilated?
Obviously there was some interbreeding, or we wouldn't have that ancient DNA showing up in people outside Africa today. But the amount is quite low, [at] about 2 percent of Neanderthal DNA and about 4 to 5 percent Denisovan DNA in people living today in Australia, New Guinea, and nearby. But that amount could have come from just a few interbreeding events. It doesn't have to be widespread interbreeding over the whole range; you can argue that there's no evidence of any interbreeding in western Europe at all.
What do you think accounts for our unending fascination with Neanderthals?
It's this whole question of having a population of humans that are in some ways like us, and yet so different—and the fact that they died out and we're still here. And of course the fascination of the last five years is that they didn't go 100 percent extinct, because we've all got a little bit of them inside us.
You've been immersed in the study of Neanderthals your entire career. If you were able to go back and meet one, what would you most like to ask him?
I'd ask him to tell me a story, and I'd see how complex that story was. Because obviously, one of the unknowns is how similar their minds were to ours. Villa and Roebroeks aren't alone in saying there's no evidence that their minds were any different from ours. But I'm not sure. I'm sure they had speech and language, but I'm guessing it was much more a language for the here and now, a more practical language for survival. I doubt they would have expressed complicated things like, "Well, what if I did this differently, what then would happen?" The kind of hypothetical reasoning that leads to modern inventions. Maybe Neanderthals didn't have so much of that.
I might also ask the Neanderthal if he had ever seen those funny people with those high foreheads and dark skin—our modern human ancestors—and if he had, what did he think? Would he fancy one as a partner?
I know plenty of authentic Homo Sapiens who couldn't tell you a story to save their life, and a few who barely know what a story is.
My theory is that the flute and paintings were only formed in the North around 40,000 years ago because that is when the progeny of the first offspring of the mating between Neandertal and Homo Sapiens started their ascendency. It is only through the mating of Neandertal and Homo sapiens that the right genetic cocktail to allow modern intelligence was formed.
You read it here first.
By the way, my first name is Know.
People today forget the major reason while groups/cultures feared outsiders: disease. The last major example of what just one small group of outsiders can do to a whole population is what happened to the American Indians in both N and S America. Within 50 years of our arrival in very small numbers at various places, 90% or more of the Amerindians died. We utterly destroyed their civilizations in just the short time between the arrival of small numbers of explorers and the beginning of our settling here. I grew up in a place where disease was wiping out 4 out of 5 children before the age of five. Believe me, this was a root cause of fear of outsiders that was endemic in the past. The Americas was an extreme and unusual case, due to the length of time the civilizations were separated. I have always wondered what history would be like if the disease caused population crash had gone the opposite way... I find it sad that we never got to meet the Mississippian culture that existed when the explorers arrived, but was completely gone by the time the second wave of exploration occurred.
This is a lot of dancing around the obvious. The European variant of homo sapiens is more than anything, when dealing with other types of people, a racist. With the track record European homo sapiens have around the globe meteing out "fate" to other darker cultures, the caucasian enslaves or loots or murders or all of the above, which is exactly what their larger numbers did to the Neanderthal. "Economic competition did in the Neanderthal" indeed! This confused and intentionally confusing cover-up reads like a defense of a Southern US slaveholder. "We don't know why all those Indians died. They just mysteriously vanished. Then we innocently moved onto their land." So goes the type of research the great inhuman murdering force on the planet disgorges to keep the obvious from being spelled out.
I have Neanderthal and Denisovan in my mother's linage from Nat Geo Geno 2 study, 2.5% for both, and on my father's side (my brother) Nat Geo Geno 2, there is also 2.2% from both Neanderthal and Denisovan...Explain that one.....
My male first cousin and I were both tested as part of the National Genographic project and had very similar results. We expected and got Neanderthal results of 2.5 percent in my case and about 3 percent in his case. What came as a shock is that we both had a higher percentage of Denisovan than Neanderthal genes. We are both entirely of northern and central European recent ancestry. Nothing in our family history suggests that any of our people lived in present day Russia, much less Siberia. I think scientists need to rethink their hypotheses on where the Denisovans lived. Certainly, they were in Siberia but I would wager that they also lived in western Europe. Of course our tests were nothing but a snapshot. I hope scientists will consider the evidence from the ever expanding National Genographic Project data base to draw conclusions about where Denisovans lived. and much further scientific research regarding Denisovans would be welcome.
I think Homo sapiens were vastly more aggressive than either the Neanderthal or the Denisovans. I do not see aggression such as we exhibit in any species except snakes. In my opinion only about 2-5% of todays humans are mild mannered and non-aggressive enough to consistently work to find a middle way to resolving conflict. That leaves a whole lot of hyper irritable and aggressive humans to be intolerant of difference.
If my idea is correct that Homo sapians's aggression with incapacity to share with Neanderthals and Denisovans was the cause of the demise of both groups, then it might have taken awhile to wipe out the Neanderthals and Denisovans.
I wonder why this article wasn't titled Chris Stringer's take on "The Neanderthal/ Denisovan demise after Homo sapiens arrival?". It is not an even handed approach but essentially a monologue by Stringer.
We are fascinated with Neanderthal, because, we carry their genes. We are part Neanderthal. In South America, there are regions that most people are of European ancestry (prairies); other areas sometimes in the same country, are populated by Indians (Jungles or Andes); but there are regions that everybody is a "mestizo" (mixture of White & Indian). In the areas populated by mestizos, no pure White or pure Indian survived. The mestizo (mixture) carry the antibodies of illness of both White & Indian. In those areas, everybody is mixed, because, the 100% whites did not survived the illness transmitted by Indians, and the 100% Indians did not survived the illness transmitted by Europeans, but the hybrid have the antibody for both, the illness transmitted by Whites and by Indians, so they survived.
The hybrid Neanderthal - Early Home Sapiens survived; and both parents died. However, the number of Neanderthal were much smaller than the numbers of Homo Sapiens, so those hybrids end-up mixing with Home Sapiens that were coming constantly from the South.
There were no extinction, but assimilation or hybridization. Every-body in this world except very few % of world population (African South of Sahara) is a hybrid that carry Neanderthal genes.
He'd fancy anything strong and young on two legs. No strong mates, no offspring.
Anything else may had been seen as "food".
Perhaps the severe weather forced Neanderthals as well as Homo Sapiens to live in isolated groups which may had intermarried with their own brothers, sisters, cousins, etc., much like indigenous moderns that live today in similar environments such as some Inuts that live in isolation as one example.
Eventually after thousands of years, with no new mate exchange, the gene pool would become increasingly vulnerable to disease and other health issues.
Still speculate that if Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals did knock up it was more likely the result of rape rather than mate exchange since such hybrids were extremely rare.
IMO, both peoples did their best to avoid each other since their beliefs, language, mate preferrence, appearance was so great.
Some years back I heard an experimernt was made with a group of monkeys in a large zoo enclosure. One of the animals of that group was removed and it's fur was dyed into a new color. Think it was dyed green. It didn't take long for all of the other monkeys to attack and killed the unfortunate animal.
All ancient archaic humans were selfish and needed to be in order to survive especially when it came to food, land, water "rights".
There was no "Political Correctiveness" then. It was kill or be killed. Cannibalism was a common place.
Same applies for Homo Sapiens, which gave no quarter, not even in modern times.
Humanity is always "At War" about some issue.
I would swear I saw the Lady from the picture at Goodison Park last season!?
This is a fascinating article. I would go with these theories because they make perfect sense. I mean certain animals became extinct but their relatives ( th ones that adapted) survived. And we are all animals so why can't it happen to us?
of course the gap is narrowing. Neanderthals are just as human as any one else. the unproven theory of evolution is the only thing that keeps us from seeing things as they really are.
Let's face it - the only way we'll ever get to test their cognitive abilities, is to clone a Neanderthal. Sure, the required technology is still about 10-20 years away, but 10 years ago everyone said it was IMPOSSIBLE to ever decipher the full Neanderthal genome. Today it's been done. Remember, Neanderthal brains were much bigger (about 20% bigger than today's humans). Just read a very interesting thriller (even though it's fiction, it was well researched - ANCESTOR by RAYMOND STEYN) where such a scenario is explored. Bottom line - fact or fiction - this is a fasinating subject.
In other words, our intelligence might be the result of cross breeding around 50,000 years ago that produced a tremendously advantageous mutation. Something like complementation might have occurred.
In genetics, complementation occurs when two strains of an organism with different homozygous recessive mutations that produce the same phenotype (for example, a change in wing structure in flies) produce offspring with the wild-type phenotype when mated or crossed. Complementation will occur only if the mutations are in different genes.
This could have been expressed as a phenotypic change in a certain brain structure such as the size and capability of the corpus collossum, the connecting tissue that enables better communication between the brain hemispheres and is a trait that is now expressed in the females of our species.
@robbie butler and that is a bad thing .. why? ;-)
@Paul Levinson A recently published novel based on these discoveries is "Relic", by Jonathan Brookes.
@Michael Brooks and they where locked in reservations dont forget
that destoyed them too
@Michael Brooks In the science thriller I read (ANCESTOR by RAYMOND STEYN), disease is discussed by one of the characters as a possible reason for the Neanderthals' demise (and tropical Africa is definitely a breeding ground for exotic diseases!). Another character disagrees though, saying that one problem with this theory is that (according to current evidence) Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals lived side-by-side for thousands of years. Any major impact from disease would have been fairly immediate. Further, according to DNA evidence, it was actually the other way around. Modern humans inherited Neanderthal immune genes, which suggest that they helped us to combat disease.
@craig hill Baseless speculation.
@craig hill I would argue that while there probably was some racism of the type you describe, if you look at slavery in the Greek and Romans, for instance, it was not the racism of the American South. I met Bedouins and town arabs in the early 1960's, and what I perceived was a fear of ANY outsider.
@craig hill , nice post . Interesting how it's the earlier European variant of Homo Sapiens which seems to harbor the most Neanderthal DNA that still hold a deep seated racial hatred towards people of color?
Why is this? Were Neanderthals just as hostile in the same way?
Perhaps, and it came back to haunt both...in the genes?
@Susan Ford I did the same and I was 1% neanderthal and 3% Denisova and 90% Irish
We inherite genes from both our parents, but not necessarily the same genes. Only identical twins, inherit exactly the same genes.
@Susan Ford , perhaps the DNA test you took only covered your mtDNA ( female line, while your brother's test (Y-DNA) covered both sides.
@Jeffrey Ward according to my Nat Geo results,we migrated out of Africa into what is considered Eastern Asia, what is now Iran/Iraq/Turkey region. Then slightly northwest into what would be present day Georgia. It is here where they interbred with the Denisovans. I too am part Neanderthal & Denisovan, and was also surprised that I have a higher percentage of Denisovan. My family is of German descent, however, obviously mixed and interbred along the way.
@Jeffrey Ward , interesting, you just made me curious enough to try out this N.G. test myself.
@Maria OConnor if all the parents 'died' who was left to raise the offspring? It's not nearly as clear cut as you believe. Though in my opinion, you're right in that diseases transmission between the two species/cultures, likely played a large role in what genes survive in the current population.
@S S I don't think so - Crowding leads to the behavior you are discussing.
@Travis Isnthere It is only MDNA, which means it is purely maternal. Our males mated with their women, but not he other way around....
@james george , ever looked at a comparison of a classic Neanderthal skull and a modern European Homo Sapiens?
In all honestly they look nothing alike and untill we clone one we may never know what they really looked like.
@james george Evolution is long proven fact. The exact mechanism by which it occurs, ie the theory, is still being studied and developed. The semantics can be taken advantage of to confuse those who have not studied the science. It is rather like the theory of gravitation, which in some ways is less complete than the theory of evolution. Yet no one tries to say "Gravity - its only a theory".
@james george Much of what this article discusses further enforces the fact behind evolution. Also, you'll probably want to study the context and definition of the word theory before using the word again as you have.
@George Lyon , definitely agree, we need to clone the things already, both a male and female. Only then we'll get real answers.
@George Lyon I'm pretty sure the technology is available, it's more a of a
This hypothesis is supported by the fact that up until now, no paintings or musical instruments have been found in either Africa or Europe predating 40,000 years. Possibly neither so-called Moderns or Neandertals had the right chemistry for out-of-the-box thinking until they mated and combined their different genetic makeup for brain structure.
@George Lyon @Michael Brooks You are partly correct that modern humans acquired 'some' of their immune genes from the Neanderthals, but most of the negative traits like diabetes, heart and vascular diseases et al, were Neanderthal negative health genes that we inherited as well. The fact that we shared some rock art and flute making at the same time does not excuse the facts that there could have been other major social differences between the various hominid groups.
@George Lyon @Michael Brooks , interesting read, but the out come is clear, we're here and niether the original Africans that migrated north out of Africa nor Neanderthal.
So is it possible that the only survivors were the offspring of the hybrids that were more resistant to diseases?
@D Norris @S S , Over crowding?
Yeah, can recollect reading about one interesting experiment done with a group of rats. First the animals were calm with each other when placed in a large enclosure with enough room to keep them happy.
However when the same group of rats were moved into smaller then smaller pens along with flashing lights/sounds eventually they became so stressed they ended up doing one or two things. They either cannibalized each other or performed sex with members of the same sex in their group.
Similar tests were done with fish, like wise they too became extremely hostle attacking even killing each other.
@Will Hyres @Travis Isnthere , Hard to say which knock up whom but can recollect reading some earlier article that moderns did not inherit the mtDNA of Neanderthal which seems to indicate the opposite..
Reciently however there was a new find in Italy of a child's skeleton which seem to harbor physical traits of both Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens. Perhaps this "love child" may have had a Neanderthal mom?
Time will tell.
@Will Hyres @Travis IsnthereI don't think that can be inferred. Nothing I have read, anywhere, has lead to your conclusion. The procedures, science, etc is different for tracking the mitochondrial DNA - I understand that the mDNA is much more likely to survive in an old bone, and is easier to extract. That is the reason we see so much mDNA results published. The paternal component is simply harder to measure.
@James Birnie @George Lyon "Ethnic dilemma" - I believe you meant to say "ethical dilemma" - but I suppose ethnic could work here - I don't know what a neanderthal would be listed as ethnically, though.
@Dr. ItAll While it's an interesting hypothesis it is only that until you can provide some supporting evidence.
@D Norris , as themselves.
IMO just because many artists portray them more Homo Sapiens like than formerly doesn't mean they actually looked this way on the outside. They still may had been way hairier. Who really knows?
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