Understanding the Neanderthal Debate

The Neanderthal Debate

Mass extinctions are more common than many realize. In fact, the scientific community has discovered evidence of five such extinctions throughout the 3.6 billion year history of life on this planet. Some speculate there may have been many more. In addition to this, most argue that extinction on any scale (whether it be a disappearance of a multitude of species or the loss of one) is a necessary component of evolution.

Now, as ugly as this may seem, without extinction, modern, cognizant hominids simply would not exist. This is a veritable truth. Folks may deny it, but if it were not for the impact of a sizeable asteroid, 65 million years ago, mammals would not have come to successfully fill their selective niche and ultimately dominate the planet. Even further, the dinosaurs themselves would not have been as adaptively successful if it were not for the extinction 190 million years previous to their own.

Thus, as a whole, change via extinction is an evolutionary universal. It is a necessity, and it is something that cannot be ignored. It is the crux of evolution, natural selection, and life itself. Nothing is excluded. Nothing is free of it. In all, if a species is unable to withstand changing, external, environmental pressure, it has no choice but to make room for something that can.

With this in mind, one can only imagine the excitement and awe when that first skull cap was discovered in the Neander Valley of Germany in 1856. What had been found was a remnant of a vanished species, and, although it appeared to reveal human qualities, it was like nothing uncovered before. The skull cap exhibited increased brow ridges that were dissimilar to Homo sapiens. These ridges were accentuated and more pronounced, and this indicated a burley and almost animalistic feature. However, the fossil also demonstrated a more contemporary quality. A cranial vault large enough to hold an intelligent, thinking brain could be clearly observed. As perplexing as this was to these early archeologists, this indicated a possible relation to our own species.

Immediately, the new find was aptly named Homo neanderthalensis, in tribute to the location of its discovery, and the search continued. In time, more evidence of this species was established. In Israel, an entire skeleton was unearthed. In Iraq, they found nine skeletons. In Croatia, they discovered the remains of forty-five. The quest continued, but, unfortunately, the fossil record of Homo neanderthalensis was never completed. It seldom ever is. Nevertheless, as the years wore on, connections were made, archaeological sites were found, and a history and story were slowly pieced together about who these Neanderthals were and how they must have lived. Perhaps, more importantly, serious emphasis began to be placed on the desire to understand why they disappeared.

Today, there is intense debate over the intelligence capabilities of the Neanderthal. After all, due to their brain size of about 1,500 ml (equivalent to modern Homo sapiens), they were a species capable of intelligent thought and self-awareness. This is exemplified in the fact that they might have mourned over and buried their dead. Indeed, “at least thirty-six Neandertal sites show evidence of intentional internment of the dead, and in some graves there were remains of offerings-stone tools, animal bones, and, possibly, flowers” (Park 302). In contrast, Jeffrey Sommer (University of Michigan) proposes a different theory. Specifically, he believes the flower pollen, analyzed through the use of intensive palynological techniques, can be attributed to another source: Meriones persicus. Hence, according to Sommer, rodents were to blame:

“These interesting creatures apparently store large numbers of entire flowers heads, neatly clipped from their stems in the side tunnels of their burrows. Sommer points out that the number of flower heads that this rodent routinely stores is more than enough to account for the amount of pollen” (Thomas 283).

The ability to produce complex language and, in turn, attach symbolic meaning to that language has long been seen as a sign of increased intelligence. Concerning the language capacity of the Neanderthal, however, what constitutes language and the facilities to construct it are not without argument. Philip Lieberman, an award winning professor of Anthropology, doubts the ability of the Neanderthal to have produced the amount of sounds necessary. Liebermann argues:

“The Neanderthal vocal tract cannot produce produce a, i, or u. The absence of these vowels from the vowel systems of chimpanzee, newborn human, and Neanderthal man thus is an indirect way of showing that the vocal tracts of these creatures cannot form the abrupt area functions that are necessary for these vowels” (Lieberman 298).

Taken at face value, Liebermann’s observations are reasonable, and they do carry some intellectual weight in the scientific community. Still, on a more humorous note, observe the candid observations of Steven Pinker, an author and professor of cognitive sciences, concerning Lieberman’s analysis. Take special care to notice the last sentence of the following:

“Lieberman suggests that until modern Homo sapiens, language must have been quite rudimentary. But Neanderthals have their loyal defenders and Lieberman’s claim remains controversial. In any case, e lengeege weth e smell nember ef vewels cen remeen quete expresseve, so we cannot conclude that a hominid with a restricted vowel space had little language” (Pinker 365).

Simply put and translated, according to Pinker, a language with a small number of vowels can remain quite expressive. Pinker is stating here that Neanderthal language need not have involved the exact, same sounds as a modern human. The fact that a species is capable of complex communication is what is important. Further, how that species goes about communicating is secondary. Thus far, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest the Neanderthal did not possess complex language as Liebermann would like to believe. On the contrary, all current evidence states otherwise, and, according to Pinker, the Neanderthal may have been more than capable.

Neanderthals did have families. They may have cared for both their young and their old. This suggests social cohesiveness and group identity. All together, through this social and collective identity, Neanderthals cooperated, experimented, and fashioned their tools:

“Among the well-established accomplishments of the Neandertals is an elaboration on the Levallois stone toolmaking technique. Called the Mousterian technique, after the site of Le Moustier in France, it involved the careful retouching of flakes taken off cores. These flakes were sharpened and shaped by precise additional flaking, on one side or both, to make specialized tools [. . .] The Neandertals may have been the first to haft a stone point” (Park 299).

Physiologically, Neanderthals possessed squat, well-muscled bodies. It might surprise readers to find that the Neanderthal really “wasn’t all that different from a modern human being [. . .] with a shave, a bath, and a new set of clothes, a typical Neandertal could travel incognito on the New York subway system” (Shreeve 49). All the same, there was enough phenotypical difference between the two groups to allow the Neanderthal to retain heat to a much greater degree than their Homo Sapien cousins who were/are much taller. Perhaps, due to this survival trait, they were able to endure the harsh cold of Ice Age Europe. Current estimates indicate the Neanderthal did so for almost 200,000 years. Their extinction reached its final stages approximately 30,000 years ago.

Anthropologists suggest that it was the last, declining Ice Age that eventually did the Neanderthal in. In particular, as the Pleistocene began to wane, and the climate began to change, archaic Homo sapiens, already well adapted to a temperate environment, moved northward into the warming areas of Europe and came into direct contact with the Neanderthal. In turn, this created competition between the two groups and put added pressure on them. In due course, the non-migratory Neanderthal, unable to resist and adapt to these environmental changes, dispersed into smaller groups and eventually died out. This is the most likely scenario of what put an end to the Neanderthal, and most anthropologists are in agreement with it.

Still, as forthright as this explanation is, some do attempt argument. More moralistic/humanistic challengers state that archaeological evidence shows “no signs of war or rapid displacement. So far, the evidence suggests that there was plenty of room for both groups for thousands of years” (Gibbons 114). Proponents of this view offer a theory of seemingly peaceful coexistence. Moreover, this paradigm runs on the axiom that one must rely exclusively on the fossil record (again, an incomplete fossil record), and, in so doing, assumes that since there is no evidence of “war” between the two groups, this implies that there was no conflict. Certainly, this is an ethical assumption concerning our species, and it has many serious drawbacks.

To elaborate, first ask, when has there ever been an extended period without war or conflict for modern humans? The answer to this is relatively simple and requires no response. It is a rhetorical. There has been (and, perhaps, always will be) conflict. Second, despite this assumed “thousands of years” of peaceful coexistence, it must be noted that, more often than not, an extinction of a species does not happen instantaneously. A “rapid” displacement seldom occurs. If one were to examine current, developing extinctions (take the modern gorilla for instance), damaging encroachment of one species upon another does take time. A species will not simply roll over on its back and die out in the face of adversity. In particular, an intelligent species, like the Neanderthal, may well have been more apt to remove itself from a harmful environment rather than face complete annihilation. Hence, it is more likely, as climatic conditions worsened and competition increased with our archaic ancestors, “Neandertals hung on to prime real estate in Europe before splitting up into retreats in southern Italy, Greece, Iberia, and the hilly Balkans and Caucasus” (Gibbons 114). In other words, they held on to Europe for as long as they were able, but, in time, were forced to relocate further south. Surely, by no means, does a successful species ever seek its own demise. (If continuance is the goal of all life, what would be the point to do so?) At any rate, shortly after this caustic split, their fate was firmly sealed. The Neanderthal lost all survival advantage and disappeared.

Finally, there are two, opposing views concerning Neanderthal genes. Both views have been hotly debated. What happened to these genes and where they ultimately ended up is one of the biggest questions to anthropology today. Additionally, as always seems to be the case with these types of things, both sides feel that they have a legitimate argument. However, only one side is firmly grounded in science. The other is mere conjecture.

The scientific argument ascertains Neanderthals were an entirely different species than ourselves. As a consequence, Neanderthals were not capable of interbreeding and producing living offspring from sexual, reproductive exchange with modern humans. This is best exemplified in a news article written by Curt Suplee. The article conditions “unprecedented DNA tests on a famous Neanderthal skeleton indicates that the creatures were almost certainly a separate species” ( Suplee A22). To refer to Neanderthals as “creatures” is a bit out of line, but the science of the debate is here.

In contrast, and unlike the different species model, less scientific challengers believe Neanderthals were the same species as modern humans. Further, many of these challengers state that when the two groups came into contact, which they often did, they interbred repeatedly. Proponents of this theory have no problem asserting that both groups interbred with such zeal and determination that the sheer numbers and breeding potential of our ancestors may have completely incorporated all Neanderthal traits into the present, European gene pool. Consequently, anyone that claims European ancestry, and this includes Euroamerican ancestry, has an awfully good chance of claiming Neanderthal ancestry, as well. At any rate, the only real evidence offered supporting this view has been the remains of a 24,500 year old child:

“The child’s mandible displays a protruding chin and proportionally small front teeth, diagnostic of modems. The postcranial bones, however, are robust, with proportionally short lower arms and legs, diagnostic of Neandertals [. . .] the boy represents a hybrid, the result of an interbreeding between a Neandertal and modern humans-making these two groups, by definition, members of the same species” (Park 329).

As interesting as this Paleolithic child may seem, first, it is extremely difficult to argue with the previously mentioned DNA tests. Second, in relation to the data obtained from the current fossil record, this 3 1/2 year old child is not a proper representation of the human population at the time. It is simply one instance of phenotypical difference, and, although difference is certainly not a bad thing, the child would be more appropriately seen as an exception. In all, unless the DNA tests have been wrong, there is absolutely no concrete evidence to support the claim Neanderthals were the same species as modern humans.

To conclude, where does all this leave the Neanderthal debate? 1) As has been demonstrated, the Neanderthal were intelligent. This issue is not debatable. Beyond their increased brain size, this can be clearly seen in the fact they fashioned tools. Further, the Neanderthal were, at the very least, capable of complex language. 2) Despite outrageous claims, the Neanderthal were an entirely different species than Homo Sapiens. This surely means they never interbred and produced reproductive offspring with Homo sapiens. Finally, 3) Extinction is a necessary component of evolution. It is an inevitable requirement of life itself.

Thus, in summary, although Homo neanderthalensis was not wiped out by an asteroid like the one that put an end to the dinosaurs, it was wiped out by another natural cause. And, to finish the job, this cause, coupled with a changing climate, had to have been fiercely intelligent; intensely nomadic and mobile; and dangerously competitive. Archaeological evidence may not include its involvement in this extinction (just yet), but, for any ethnoarchaelogist that crosses our path, the current conditions of modern Homo sapiens are a reminder of how ruthless a species can be. There is very little doubt “we” were there:

“The males had gathered their hunting equipment and were huddled together, uncertain what to do. Suddenly, they found themselves surrounded by the strangers, who lept into their midst with fearsome yells, spears jabbing. The surprised Neanderthals responded vigorously but had clearly been outwitted by the agile newcomers. As his companions fell around him, the Last Neanderthal crept from the fray. A yell told him that he had been spotted, and he sprinted for the nearest cover. After a long chase through country familiar to him but not to his pursuers, the unformed thought came to him that he might be safe. But for how long?” (Tattersall 9)

Works Cited
Gibbons, Ann. “The Riddle of Coexistence.” Science 2001:291.
Lieberman, Philip. “Phonetic Ability and Related Anatomy of the Newborn and Adult Human, Neanderthal Man, and the Chimpanzee.” American Anthropologist 74 (1972): 287-307.
Park, Michael Alan. Biological Anthropology (Fourth Edition). New York: McGraw Hill, 2005.
Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. New York: Harper, 1995.
Shreeve, James. The Neandertal Enigma. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995.
Suplee, Curt. “DNA tests keep Neanderthals out of the family tree.” Denver Post 11 July 1997: A22.
Tattersall, Ian. The Last Neanderthal. New York: Macmillan, 1995.
Thomas, David Hurst. Archaeology (Fourth Edition). Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.