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Thursday, March 31, 2005

NATURAL SELECTIONS

NEW LIGHT ON NEANDERTHALS

Boning up on a Man much maligned


Quarry workers in the Neander Valley in Germany dug up more than limestone when, in 1856, they came across parts of an old skull and skeleton. By 1864, other similar specimens had been found and studied, and the archaic human was recognized as a new species: Homo neanderthalensis. (Neander Tal means "Neander Valley" in German.)

News photo
The reconstructed skeleton of a Homo neanderthalensis (above left) now on display in New York clearly shows their bulk and stockiness relative to modern Homo sapien that would have helped keep them warm.

Back then, Neanderthals didn't have the image problem they do now. That came about at the beginning of the 20th century, when a leading French paleoanthropologist, Marcellin Boule, published the results of an extensive study of a complete skeleton found at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. Boule's monograph was wildly popular all over the world, but unfortunately, it gave a wildly skewed description.

The skeleton from La Chapelle was of an old man who died -- and was buried -- some 50,000 years ago. Boule concluded: "Neanderthal Man must have possessed only a rudimentary psychic nature, superior certainly to that of the anthropoid apes, but markedly inferior to that of any modern race whatsoever. He had, doubtless, only the most rudimentary language."

Later analysis of the "Old Man of La Chapelle," as he became known, showed that he had severe arthritis, and damage to the left hip, toe, rib and kneecap. Yet he lived to an old age: Obviously he was well cared for by other members of his species. Plus, his cranial capacity was 1,625 cc, which is more than modern humans.

It's not known why Boule didn't report these things, but he didn't, and the image of the brutish, grunting Neanderthal was born.

It is an image that persists in the public imagination, despite having been long refuted by scientists. Here's anthropologist Blaine Maley of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.: "In the scientific community, most of Boule's work was debunked in the 1950s, but for some reason this has had real trouble catching in the public sphere."

Maley's own work is aimed at fostering a more objective understanding of Neanderthals. To that end, he has constructed the world's first complete articulated Neanderthal skeleton. It is currently on display at the Dolan DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., and will eventually go on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Maley describes the work in a paper in the journal Anatomical Record, out this month.

The reconstruction was built around a skeleton called La Ferrassie 1, which was found in France in 1909. Missing elements were obtained from other individual skeletons, all adult males, and in a few cases, from modern humans when Neanderthal parts were not available.

"There are a lot of small differences in Neanderthal characters when compared to modern humans, but most distinct characters fit within the range of modern humans," Maley told The Japan Times. "It is the suite of characters together that allows one to really differentiate the two groups -- this is why it was so valuable to articulate an entire Neanderthal skeleton."

The reconstruction, carried out with fellow anthropologist G.J. Sawyer from the American Museum of Natural History, was a kind of biological jigsaw puzzle that took two years to complete. "In bones like the pelvis, which is the amalgamation of three distinct bones plus the sacrum, you can imagine how complicated this was, especially when adding to the puzzle the challenge of symmetry," said Maley.

One immediately noticeable difference when the skeleton of a modern human is compared with the reconstruction is the stockiness and lack of a waist of the Neanderthal. That bulk -- note the bell-shaped rib cage -- would have helped them keep warm. Perhaps now Neanderthals will be thought of more kindly by their close relatives. We've portrayed them as knuckle-scraping idiots for years through something akin to racism (speciesism?) and as well as the injustice of that view, we might have other reasons for portraying them differently: We probably had sex with them.

Although we are not descended from Neanderthals (the two species diverged around 500,000 years ago), Maley sees no reason to think we didn't enjoy their close company from time to time. Neanderthals were big and strong, they wore clothes and jewelery, and were probably quite attractive to an early Homo sapien looking for a bit on the side.

However, according to an international team led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, Neanderthals did not make a significant genetic contribution to early modern humans. Any sex that went on really was only a bit of interspecies fun.

Also, it appears that we're not responsible for their extinction. Was that, as some have suggested, the first example of genocide committed by humans?

"Based on the fact that modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted in Europe for somewhere around 10,000 years, and there is nothing in the archaeological record that would indicate any kind of aggression or genocide, I would have to say no," said Maley.

So respect is growing for our extinct relatives. They had larger brains than us, and survived wildly fluctuating climatic conditions -- something we might need to do quite soon too.

A book of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese, "Nou to sekkusu no seibutsugaku (Evolution, Sex and the Brain)," is published by Shinchosha. Rowan Hooper is a biologist at Trinity College, Dublin. He welcomes readers' questions and comments at rowan.hooper@tcd.ie


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