Neandertals Hunted as Well as Humans, Study Says

January 25, 2006

Through the years dozens of theories have sprung up about why Neandertals (often spelled "Neanderthals") went extinct approximately 30,000 years ago.

Those heavy-browed, big-boned hominids who inhabited Europe and parts of Asia for roughly 200,000 years may have met their demise for any number of reasons.

Perhaps they were cognitively limited or couldn't adapt to a changing climate or weren't good enough hunters to compete with modern humans. (See an interactive atlas of the human journey.)

Now a team of U.S. and Israeli anthropologists working at the Ortvale Klde Rockshelter, a significant Neanderthal-modern human site in the republic of Georgia, has helped to dispel one such hunch.

Drawing on evidence from animal remains—largely the bones of a mountain goat species called the Caucasian tur—the scientists have determined that Neandertals at the site were as capable hunters as the modern humans who later lived in the area.

"[Neandertal] hunting patterns were indistinguishable in terms of the species they targeted and the ages of the animals they killed," said lead study author Daniel Adler, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

The study is described in the February 2006 issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

"Wolves With Knives"

Neandertals learned the migration patterns and grazing habits of the tur and how to hunt the biggest and fastest of the animals, according to scientists.

"These data are joining an increasing body of evidence that Neanderthal extinction was not due to any lack of ability to hunt," said John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

"There was no difference between what Neanderthals and modern humans could do [as hunters]," said Shea, who was not involved in the study. "Both of them were wolves with knives."

Previously scientists believed that modern humans evolved from Neandertals, and Neandertals were seen as lesser.

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