How Much Like Us Were the Neandertals?

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Science  20 Nov 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5393, pp. 1456
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5393.1456

Next to our own selves, there is no more interesting hominid than the Neandertal. Neandertals are the humans manqué, the evolutionary dead end: eerily like us, but different in major ways. And they are the subject of one of the hottest ongoing debates in anthropology.

How smart were these big-brained, stocky-bodied people, who inhabited Europe and the Middle East starting about 200,000 years ago? And what caused their relatively abrupt disappearance by 30,000 years ago? The Neandertals' reputation has oscillated over the years, and new evidence has sharpened the debate. Genetic data suggest a sizable gulf between Neandertals and modern humans, while recent discoveries hint that Neandertals had a brief technological golden age before vanishing.

Last year, DNA testing of a Neandertal bone showed that these beings probably branched off the human line a half-million years ago, perhaps qualifying them as a separate species (Science, 11 July 1997, p. 176). But other lines of evidence have encouraged speculation that they may have been like us in one crucial respect: speech. One is the discovery in 1989 of a Neandertal hyoid bone—the bone that supports the larynx—in Kebara cave in Israel. Because it is a lot like a human one, it indicates, says archaeologist Francesco d'Errico of the Institute of Quaternary Prehistory and Geology in Talence, France, that “Neandertal abilities were also quite similar.”

Earlier this year, anthropologists at Duke University reinforced that notion with a comparative analysis of the hole that carries motor nerves to the tongue, called the hypoglossal canal, in several hominid skulls. Chimp-sized in the 2-million-year-old australopithecines, the canal is significantly larger, falling in the modern human range, in both Neandertals and an earlier, 300,000-year-old skull. This suggests that “the vocal capabilities of Neandertals were the same as those of humans today,” Richard Kay and colleagues wrote in the 28 April Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman of Brown University disputes these claims. First, he says, you can't predict tongue shape—the critical factor for modern speech—from an isolated hyoid bone. Moreover, he says the Duke team based their calculations of the relative sizes of different species' hypoglossal canals on incorrect estimates of human tongue size and shape. Lieberman himself argues, from his 1971 analysis of a Neandertal skull from Chapelle-aux-Saints in France, that proportions such as the distance between the hard palate and the spinal column would have made it impossible for Neandertals to speak with the clarity modern humans possess.

Kay says that his finding still holds, and that Neandertals might have had speech “in every way as complicated as modern humans.” But others say Lieberman's conclusions are reinforced by Neandertals' other behavioral limitations. Harold Dibble of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, for example, says “the lack of art and the lack of clear evidence of symboling suggests that the nature of [Neandertal] adaptation [to their environment] was significantly different” from that of their successors. The difference shows up, for example, in their stone tools.

Neandertals could do stone-knapping with the best of them, says Stanford University archaeologist Richard Klein. But over thousands of years this practice never seemed to lead to clear differentiation in types of tools. “They didn't make tools in the [different] standardized patterns you see later,” coming from the modern people who arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago, says Klein. To him this difference suggests that the Neandertals “were only interested in a point or an edge” rather than conceptualizing a particular product.

Then there is the Neandertal hunting record. In a special Neandertal supplement of the journal Current Anthropology in June, for example, archaeologist John Shea of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, defends Neandertal hunting prowess. He argues that their tool assemblages show they engaged in “intercept” hunting, which would require a knowledge of animal migration routes. On the other hand, according to Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, the high rate of broken bones and early death among Neandertals suggests that they engaged in more close-quarter combat with large animals than did modern humans, who had figured out safer strategies.

In the past, some have claimed that Neandertals held ritual burials, which would have implied highly developed social behaviors and possibly even religion. But that belief was largely based on a 60,000-year-old Neandertal burial at Shanidar cave in Iraq, where pollen grains were taken to imply that the body had been covered with flowers. Many scientists now believe the plant material is an incidental intrusion. In reality, “the number of claimed Neandertal burials is extremely low,” and none has yielded convincing evidence for grave goods, says Dibble.

As archaeologists learned in 1996, however, the Neandertals in France and Spain showed surprising new talents at the end of their evolutionary career after 40,000 years ago. They began making more sophisticated and diverse tools, and even, at one site, an array of beads and pendants (see p. 1451). These artifacts have led to a new surge of debate over whether Neandertals were finally expressing their symbolic potential or were just imitating their modern human neighbors.

Whatever the answer, it may have been a case of too little, too late. For shortly after that, the Neandertal record vanishes. What drove them to extinction? Many scientists say that even without a difference in brainpower, the Neandertals would have been at a disadvantage. Archaeologist Ezra Zubrow of the State University of New York, Buffalo, has made a mathematical model based on skeletal data on the life-spans of the two populations. From it he concluded that with only a slight disadvantage in life expectancy, “it was easy to drive Neandertals to extinction under a wide range of conditions” because of their small populations. Shea adds that with their heavy frames and active lifestyle, their voracious energy needs might have hurt them “in competition with more energetically efficient modern humans.”

Debates about Neandertal abilities have become colored with notions of political correctness, say archaeologists. “I've been accused of being racist for saying the Neandertals couldn't speak like us,” says Lieberman. Clive Gamble of the University of Southampton in the U.K., for one, doesn't understand why people need to make Neandertals something they weren't. “Neandertals are fantastic ways of realizing the alternative ways of humanness.”

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