Archeologists found the first Neanderthal fossils in 1856, in a limestone quarry in Dusseldorf, in the Neander Valley (Germany). Since then scientists have advanced many theories as to why Neanderthals “disappeared”. Recent Advances in dating techniques and genetic science have called into doubt many earlier theories about whether pre-historic humans eradicated Neanderthals.
Previously, archeologists only had fossils, and their own interpretations of those evidence on which to base their theories. However much humans try to be objective in judging historical evidence, evidence, personal preoccupations, subjective opinions, and considerations naturally intrude and no human opinion is ever completely objective. The first problem when looking back through time, especially a time as vast as that between a post Industrial revolution modern human and a Neanderthal, is that it is impossible to look at the Neanderthal’s life with the same understanding as a Neanderthal or early modern human.
Before examining whether pre-historic humans eradicated the Neanderthals, one should first establish the differences between Neanderthals and pre-historic man. Neanderthals were short and stocky, well adapted for living in Ice Age conditions. Some scientists formerly believed that Neanderthals were a sub-species of Homo sapiens; however, DNA evidence suggests that they were probably not. Neanderthals’ skulls were a different shape to modern humans. Neanderthals made and used stone tools. They also used spears as a thrusting weapon, rather than as a javelin like modern humans. They built shelters, used fire, wore animal skins and had most of the practical skills that early modern humans had. Neanderthals’ brains were slightly larger than Homo sapiens brains. They buried their dead with grave goods and so had some concept of an after-life. Neanderthals stood upright like modern humans.
Some scientists, especially in Victorian times, and popular literature portrayed Neanderthals as barbaric ape-like creatures, shuffling along in a simian way. Experts have since found that many early Neanderthal fossil specimens, which were found, were individuals, who suffered from crippling arthritis, and this, and their own outlook, distorted early scientists’ opinions.
One early “scientific” opinion was that Neanderthals were stupid and that Homo sapiens were more intelligent and more technologically advanced. Homo sapiens outwitted Neanderthals, getting the best resources and thus driving Neanderthals to extinction. This opinion believes that Homo sapiens were better hunters than Neanderthals. However, this theory is discredited, and current archeological thinking is that Neanderthals were competent toolmakers, hunters, gatherers, and had similar skills to Homo sapiens. Many archeologists now believe that thinking about Neanderthals in terms such as “stupid “or “less advanced” is unhelpful, because the truth is that Neanderthals were just different.
Another theory is that Homo sapiens hunted Neanderthals down and deliberately killed them to eliminate food competition. Some scientists believe that Homo sapiens sinister purpose in hunting Neanderthals was to eat them. The evidence for this was Neanderthal bones with butchery marks on them.
There is a theory that Neanderthals died out due to disease. This theory concludes that Homo sapiens in their advance into Europe from Africa carried with them viral diseases. Neanderthals’ immune systems, although well adapted to the germs in their own European environment, could not cope with these alien germs.
Some “scientists” advanced the theory that some races were descended from Neanderthals and others from Homo sapiens. People used this theory as a means of justifying and perpetuating racist notions. Nazi propaganda perpetuated this theory and others since have turned the Nazi theory on its head to advance their own warped ideology.
Other theories centre on the cross breeding theory, that Homo sapiens bred with Neanderthals and their different traits were gradually bred out. Other experts disputed the theory claiming that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens could not breed because they were anatomically different. Some scientists previously held that Neanderthals were an old form of Homo sapiens and that their different traits evolved others that Neanderthals were a different species to Homo sapiens.
One recent research project concludes that Homo sapiens had no part in Neanderthal extinction. The experts believe Homo sapiens did not eradicate Neanderthals because Neanderthals were nearly extinct, when Homo sapiens came out of Africa into Europe. Some experts believe that Neanderthals, perfectly adapted for the Ice Age, could not adapt to a warming climate, and the changes it brought to the landscape and animals.
The recent publication of the draft Neanderthal genome has set all these theories awry. Modern, cheap genetic sequencing techniques and new strategies for reducing and detecting modern human DNA contamination have produced a breakthrough in understanding. Modern European Homo sapiens have Neanderthal genes proving that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred, after the two species diverged from our common ancestor. Several attributes present in modern European Homo sapiens, such as wound healing, skin function, and cognitive development, came from Neanderthal ancestry.
Next, researchers hope to map ancient Homo sapiens genome. This will revive a long-standing debate about whether Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are separate species, or not. This new knowledge will help researchers trace how the human family spread around the Earth and test past theories about ancient humans.
Another recent discovery may also shed light on Homo sapiens and Neanderthal’s stories. Previously, experts believed that Neanderthals died out more than fifty thousand years ago, but in Gorham’s Caves, Gibraltar, researchers from the Gibraltar museum found evidence that Neanderthals still lived around 28,000 years ago.
These two discoveries are overturning cherished and long held theories, and it will cause much feather- ruffling in the academic community. Tools and other finds in Gibraltar also give the lie to those, who believe that Neanderthals were stupid or backward.
Recent discoveries will indeed shed light on ancient human history; however, they cannot tell whether early Homo sapiens eradicated Neanderthals. They will tell more about the human story. In learning about Neanderthals, we will learn more about our own story. Homo sapiens may have eradicated Neanderthals through hunting them, giving them disease, or grabbing resources, or perhaps Neanderthals could not adapt to changing climate and conditions. All of those things may have happened in different places but people do know that Europeans carry Neanderthal genes. Neanderthals live on in Modern Europeans DNA and are their ancestors.