More To Explore

sufficiently advantageous, this behavioral novelty could then have spread rapidly by cultural contact among populations that already had the potential to acquire it. No population replacement would have been necessary to spread the capability worldwide.

It is impossible to be sure what this innovation might have been, but the best current bet is that it was the invention of language. For language is not simply the medium by which we express our ideas and experiences to one another. Rather it is fundamental to the thought process itself. It involves categorizing and naming objects and sensations in the outer and inner worlds and making associations between resulting mental symbols. It is, in effect, impossible for us to conceive of thought (as we are familiar with it) in the absence of language, and it is the ability to form mental symbols that is the fount of our creativity. Only when we are able to create such symbols can we recombine them and ask such questions as "What if...?"

We do not know exactly how language might have emerged in one local population of H. sapiens, although linguists have speculated widely. But we do know that a creature armed with symbolic skills is a formidable competitor— and not necessarily an entirely rational one, as the rest of the living world, including H. neanderthalensis, has discovered to its cost. 05

Dark Caves, Bright Visions: Life in Ice Age Europe. Randall White. W. W. Norton/American Museum of Natural History, 1986.

Language and Species. Reprint edition. Derek Bickerton. University of Chicago Press, 1992. The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution. Ian Tattersall. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Getting Here: The Story of Human Evolution. Updated edition. William Howells. Compass Press, 1997.

African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity. Reprint edition. Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie. Henry Holt, 1998.

The Origin and Diversification of Language. Edited by Nina G. Jablonski and Leslie C. Aiello. University of California Press, 1998.

The Last Neanderthal: The Rise, Success and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relatives. Revised edition. Ian Tattersall. Westview Press, 1999.

Who Were the


Controversial evidence indicates that these hominids interbred with anatomically modern humans and sometimes behaved in surprisingly modern ways

By Kate Wong

REFLECTION OF THE PAST reveals a face that is at once familiar and foreign. The 130,000-year-old skull of an adult female from the Krapina rock-shelter in northwestern Croatia inspired this Neandertal reconstruction.

It was such a neat and tidy story.

No match for the anatomically modern humans who swept in with a sophisticated culture and technology, the Neandertals—a separate species—were quickly driven to extinction by the invading moderns. But neat and tidy stories about the past have a way of unraveling, and the saga of the Neandertals, it appears, is no exception. For more than 200,000 years, these large-brained hominids occupied Europe and western Asia, battling the bitter cold of glacial maximums and the daily perils of prehistoric life. Today they no longer exist. Beyond these two facts, however, researchers fiercely debate who the Neandertals were, how they lived and exactly what happened to them.

The steadfast effort to resolve these elusive issues stems from a larger dispute over how modern humans evolved. Some researchers posit that our species arose recently (around 200,000 years ago) in Africa and subsequently replaced archaic hominids around the world, whereas others propose that these ancient populations contributed to the early modern human gene pool. As the best known of these archaic groups, Neandertals are critical to the origins controversy. Yet this is more than an academic argument over certain events of our primeval past, for in probing Neandertal biology and behavior, researchers must wrestle with the very notion of what it means to be fully human and determine what, if anything, makes us moderns unique. Indeed, spurred by recent discoveries, paleoan-thropologists and archaeologists are increasingly asking, How much like us were they?

Comparisons of Neandertals and modern humans first captured the attention of researchers when a partial Neandertal skeleton turned up in Germany's Neander Valley in 1856. Those remains—a heavily built skull with the signature arched browridge and massive limb bones—were clearly different, and Neandertals were assigned to their own species, Homo neanderthalensis (although even then there was disagreement: several German scientists argued that these were the remains of a crippled Cossack horseman). But it was the French discovery of the famous "Old Man" of La Chapelle-aux-Saints some 50 years later that led to the characterization of Neandertals as primitive protohumans. Reconstructions showed them as stooped, lumbering, apelike brutes, in stark contrast to upright, graceful Homo sapiens. The Neandertal, it seemed, represented the ultimate "other," a dim-witted ogre lurking behind the evolutionary threshold of humanity.

Decades later reevaluation of the La Chapelle individual revealed that certain anatomical features had been misinterpreted. In fact, Neandertal posture and movement would have been the same as ours. Since then, paleoanthropologists have struggled to determine whether the morphological features that do characterize Neandertals as a group—such as the robustness of their skeletons, their short limbs and barrel chests, prominent browridges and low, sloping foreheads, protruding midfaces and chinless jaws—warrant designating them as a separate species. Researchers agree that some of these characteristics represent environmental adaptations. The Neandertals' stocky body proportions, for example, would have allowed them to retain heat more effectively in the extremely cold weather brought on by glacial cycles. But other traits, such as the form of the Neander-

0 0

Post a comment