Thursday, 15 August 2013

Did Cultural Conflict Exterminate Neanderthals?

Neanderthal range.
(May have extended further north than this map shows)
First bone tools suggest Neanderthals taught us skills - life - 12 August 2013 - New Scientist

A fascinating report in New Scientist gives added weight to the idea that modern Homo sapiens may not only have co-existed with Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis) in Euro-Asia and interbred with them, forming a de facto ring species, but that they also exchanged elements of their culture.

It has long been recognised that soon after H. sapiens arrived on the scene in Europe, H. neanderthalensis started using more sophisticated tool which, it has always been assumed, they copied from H. sapiens. Now however, it seems the traffic in ideas and tool-making techniques (and use) may not have been all one way.
A team of archaeologists has found evidence to suggest that Neanderthals were the first to produce a type of specialised bone tool, still used in some modern cultures today. The find is the best evidence yet that we may have – on rare occasions – learned a trick or two from our extinct cousins.

The bone tool in question, known as a lissoir, was used for making animal skins more pliable so they could be used to make clothes and is still used in some human cultures today.

The recent finds in south-west France have been dated to between 45,000 and 51,000 years ago, which is just before the earliest known appearance of H. sapiens, hence the assumption that H. neanderthalensis invented the tool and we acquired it from them.

Of course, it is always possible to argue that we invented it independently or that we arrived in Europe earlier than is thought, but given that H. neanderthalensis lived for 200,000 years in Europe, which places them there during the whole of the last Ice Age (between 110,000 - 10,000 years ago) it's hard to imagine that they hadn't invented a way to make clothes from animal skins which they could actually bend. Apart from stone tools such as spear-points, hand-axes and skin scrapers it is highly likely that they would have had tools for making clothes. It's hard to see how they could have survived in the harsh conditions of arctic tundra they would have endured for close on 100,000 years without decent clothing.

For us as a single global species it's hard to imagine existing in a relationship with another species so close to us that we could not only interbreed but also exchange cultural ideas. For example, did H. neanderthalensis teach us to make the clothes we needed to survive at the tail-end of the last Ice Age for about 40,000 years in Europe, in a prequel to the way the Native Americans helped the first settlers from Europe get through their first winter? It would be nice to think so.

But how would we have viewed these people? Would we have regarded them as just another animal, like we regard elephants and horses, or even our present-day closest relatives, the chimpanzees? Or would we have regarded them as just other people? To have interbred with them and to have exchanged cultural ideas with them suggests the latter and yet interbreeding seems to have been a rare event and no modern male human has yet been found with a Neanderthal Y chromosome, which we would expect if we had a male Neanderthal ancestor.

And how would a religion which has a creator god and which places its believers at the centre of creation or even the purpose of it, like Christianity or Islam, which presents humans as separate from all the other species, cope with having at least two species of human? Would they regard the other humans as an earlier mistake or as the creation of a lesser god or a demonic attempt to copy their god's special creation? Would they launch a genocide in the name of their god, urged on by their priests and shamans, as the biblical Hebrews believed they were authorised to do in the 'Promised Land'?

Is this what finally exterminated the Neanderthals, like the European settlers in the New World tried to exterminate the people who had helped them survive the first winter because they believed their god had crossed the Atlantic with them and the land was theirs by right because they were the superior people?

'via Blog this'

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1 comment :

  1. I find the idea of homo sapiens and neanderthals living in the same area at the same time really interesting.

    I wish there was a way we could know more about it, but it seems like the amount of possible knowledge is necessarily limited.

    Thanks for another great blog post on this topic!


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