Stories tagged Neanderthals


Help this little boy find his parents: Sorry. I couldn't find any pictures from Encino Man.
Help this little boy find his parents: Sorry. I couldn't find any pictures from Encino Man.Courtesy cote
It’s a weird suggestion, I know, because you probably give a lot of thought to whom the various cavemen had sex with anyway, regardless of the weather. But give it a little extra thought today. Because it’s nice out, and the dark corners of your brain could use the sunlight.

So, you guys all know that we aren’t the only human species ever to exist, right? The human family tree had other branches before it got to us (take a look at our Human Spark feature for more on that), and there were times when more than one species lived in the same area, and—in all probability—had interactions with each other. Neanderthals, for instance, lived alongside modern humans for many thousands of years in ice age Europe. Keep in mind, “Neanderthal” isn’t just a synonym for “cave-man.” Neanderthals were a distinct species—they had heavier, longer skulls, and thick, strong bodies. The modern humans of ice age Europe would have looked, more or less, like us. And because the two species were living in the same area for so long, it seems pretty likely that they interacted. But did those interactions include, you know, dinner, dancing, and romantic music?

Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany says yes, for sure they were having sex.

On one hand, these are sort of fightin’ words. People have suggested that Neanderthals faded into extinction as they interbred with modern humans, but when human DNA was compared with a sequence of Neanderthal DNA, it didn’t look like there was any overlap. That is, if there was any interbreeding, the Neanderthal contributions to our genes have been so diluted with human genes that it doesn’t appear that we have any Neanderthals in our family at all.

On the other hand… Well… I mean… People do all sorts of stuff… We all just want someone to love, right? Or, you know, just think of what a puppy will do to a piece of furniture. And humans and Neanderthals are a lot more similar to each other than puppies and ottomans. Too much? I don’t think so. Look at ligers. Or tigons. Or mules. Similar animals interbreed all the time, but very often they have infertile offspring. And that would explain why we don’t see any Neanderthal genes around today—everybody could have been doing it like it was 2012, but if the offspring couldn’t reproduce it wouldn’t matter to future generations.

Another factor that could explain the lack of genetic overlap (despite Paabo’s certainty of caveman/Neanderthal sexiness) is that our Neanderthal DNA sample just isn’t good enough. Mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthals doesn’t show up in modern humans, and while that’s an incredibly valuable genetic marker, it only makes up a tiny fraction of an organism’s total DNA. The Neanderthal genome hasn’t been completely sequenced yet, and that’s what Paabo means to do. Once we can fully compare the genomes, we can see if the two species became at all mixed.

Because they were definitely doing it.


Neanderthal skulls: They're speaking to each other, but we can't understand. Or we don't want to.
Neanderthal skulls: They're speaking to each other, but we can't understand. Or we don't want to.Courtesy leted
Imagine how a Neanderthal would have sounded. Do it.

Maybe something along the lines of Darth Gorilla? That was my thought. Anyway, hold that sound in your head… and forget it. Here, for the first time in 30,000 years, you can hear a single syllable of Neanderthal speech. Click here, and listen to a voice from the depths of time…

Um, what? Let’s try that again. The ghosts of the distant past whisper their secrets to us

I see… Well that was a little… underwhelming. Underwhelming and vaguely familiar… What could it possibly be that I’m thinking of? What could I have heard in my short life that might sound anything like a might Neanderthal? What indeed?

Well, like it or not, that mind-blowing audio simulation is the product of a recent study by an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Based on skeletal remains, Dr. Robert McCarthy has reconstructed Neanderthal vocal tracts to simulate what their voices might have sounded like.

While it’s likely that Neanderthals could speak (there’s some evidence that they used pigments to decorate themselves, which suggests at least basic communication), McCarthy says they would have sounded a “bit different,” and would have been unable to produce “quantal vowels.”

Quantal vowels are the basis for much of human speech, and allow, for example, us to distinguish a word like “beat” from a similar word, like “bit.” So here’s the same type of simulation with a human voice producing an “E” sound.

And, once again, here’s the stentorian bellow of the Neanderthal, attempting to produce the same sound. The Neanderthals must have lived in a confusing world, with fate being put in their shoes, and sandwiches full of mate.

Even though people would probably have a difficult time understanding each other without the use of quantal vowels, many anthropologists believe that the anatomy of the throat and mouth is less important for language than the “neuronal control over it.” Even if Neanderthals were physically unable to speak quite like modern humans, that doesn’t necessarily imply that they were less effective communicators. In fact, Neanderthals have been shown to share the gene “FOXP2” with humans—something other primates don’t possess. When a person is missing a copy of FOXP2, they suffer from language and speech disorders, leading some to believe that its presence in Neanderthals is an indicator of the capacity for speech.



Oh my God! She's doing it right now!: Each to their own, but...
Oh my God! She's doing it right now!: Each to their own, but...Courtesy wallyg
According to a new paper in the journal Medical Hypotheses, cannibalism and its associated neurodegenerative diseases may have contributed to the extinction of Neanderthals 30,000 years ago.

The cause of the Neanderthals’ extinction has long been something of a mystery to science. Even the rate at which they disappeared is unclear—some scientists believe that their extinction as a species was gradual, and due to an inability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, or because of interbreeding with Cro-Magnon people over an extended period of time. Others believe that the extinction was relatively rapid, and could have been caused by direct, violent confrontation (or at least competition) with the Cro-Magnon, or by a strong susceptibility to certain diseases.

The new cannibalism theory fits in with this last idea to some extent. Combining fossil evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism with ethnological data on the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, the author of the new paper thinks it’s likely that some form of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (or TSE, brain mushing diseases like Mad Cow Disease) could have greatly reduced the Neanderthal population and contributed to their ultimate extinction.

The Fore people were known to have practiced cannibalism to some extent for some time, but beginning around 1900 anthropologists began to observe a neurodegenerative condition called “Kuru” taking hold among the Fore. By the 1960’s, Kuru had reached “epidemic levels” and killed over 1,100 people. Eventually it was discerned that Kuru was a type of TSE, contracted by eating the brains or nervous tissue of other infected individuals, or even by using reusing the tools employed for this type of butchery (even mdern sterilization techniques don’t always remove the prions that cause TSE’s from surgical implements.)

Some fossil evidence in France seems to suggest that Neanderthals, on occasion at least, consumed the flesh of others of their species, including their brains. If cannibalism were prevalent among Neanderthals and a TSE was introduced into the food chain, as it were, the effects could have been devastating on the population.

Which brings me back to my titular point: the major hole in this theory is that no one in their right mind (although TSE’s probably redefine “right mind”) would want to eat a Neanderthal, even other Neanderthals. I mean, they look so… lumpy. Yuck. Of all the primates, extant and otherwise, Neanderthals are probably the least appetizing to me. Would I eat an orangutan? I certainly would. Java Man? In a heartbeat. And, really, the only thing keeping me from eating bonobos is geography. But a Neanderthal? Bleh. Their brains probably taste like wet towels and fish aspic.

I suppose the author of the paper has a response to this not covered in the article I saw (paprika, maybe?), but, as far as I’m concerned, a recipe can only take you so far. Next theory, please.