Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Neanderthals Were Not Primitive

The wooden pointed tool immediately following its recovery.
Found the oldest Neanderthal wooden tools in the Iberian Peninsula | CENIEH - Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana

Coincidentally, the subject of Neanderthals being in some way more primitive that the modern humans with which they are now know to have interbred, came up in a Facebook group today. Apparently, there are some Africans who make the racist claim that somehow non-Africans interbreeding with Neanderthals in Eurasia resulted in non-Africans incorporating 'backward' features, leaving Africans more highly evolved.

This is, of course, nonsense and is exactly the reverse of the thinking that Europeans used to try to justify the slave trade and the European nations annexing most of Africa, the New World, East Asia and Oceania on the grounds that these places were inhabited by inferior, under-developed and less highly evolved people. It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding, or deliberate misrepresentation of the Theory of Evolution.

The fact is that everything alive today has been evolving for the same length of time and so is as well or badly adapted to its current environment as anything else, because the degree of adaptation is entirely in the context of the population's environment. Given the rate at which early European explorers died of diseases in Africa and South and Central America, a much better case can be made that they were much less well adapted to that local environment than the local population.

In the early days of European exploration of West Africa, there was a popular saying, "Beware, beware the Bight of Benin! Few come out though many go in". The Bight of Benin is the bay where the west coast of Africa first turns south after going East under the 'bulge' at the top. So many of the sailors who landed in or south of the Bight of Benin died of tropical diseases that it held back European exploration for some considerable time and only the lucrative slave trade tempted them further south.

Now back to the Neanderthals after that brief excursion into Africa.

I say coincidentally because almost immediately afterwards news of this new research finding from Spain popped into my reading list. It adds to the growing evidence that Neanderthals were in fact culturally sophisticated and made tools from wood by cutting a suitable piece, splitting it lengthwise then shaping it and hardening it to a durable point by treating it with fire and shaping it with flint blades, some 90,000 years ago. This comes on top of recent evidence that they very probably had speech, drew symbolic abstract figures deep inside caves and probably had religions of some sort.

These simple digging stick may seem primitive by today's standards but by the standards of the time, they were the equal of anything anatomically modern human hunter-gatherers were making. The Neanderthals modern humans came into contact with when they made it out of Africa and into the Middle East were their technological and probably intellectual equals. This was not a more intelligent, more advanced culture exterminating a backward and less intelligent one which spoke in grunts and couldn't work out which way to run.

They were excavated by researchers working for the Spanish Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (National Centre for Human Evolution Research) working in the Aranbaltza site in the northern Spanish Basque Country.

Aranbaltza is an archaeological complex formed by at least three open-air sites. Between 2014 and 2015 a test excavation carried out in Aranbaltza III revealed the presence of a sand and clay sedimentary sequence formed in floodplain environments, within which six sedimentary units have been identified. This sequence was formed between 137–50 ka, and includes several archaeological horizons, attesting to the long-term presence of Neanderthal communities in this area. One of these horizons, corresponding with Unit 4, yielded two wooden tools. One of these tools is a beveled pointed tool that was shaped through a complex operational sequence involving branch shaping, bark peeling, twig removal, shaping, polishing, thermal exposition and chopping. A use-wear analysis of the tool shows it to have traces related with digging soil so it has been interpreted as representing a digging stick. This is the first time such a tool has been identified in a European Late Middle Palaeolithic context; it also represents one of the first well-preserved Middle Palaeolithic wooden tool found in southern Europe. This artefact represents one of the few examples available of wooden tool preservation for the European Palaeolithic, allowing us to further explore the role wooden technologies played in Neanderthal communities.

Although this is the first such example of a Neanderthal digging stick, as the accompanying press release points out:

The preservation of wooden tools associated to neandertals [sic] is very rare because wood degrades very quickly. Only in very specific environments, like the waterlogged sediments from Aranbaltza, it has been possible to find evidence of wooden technology. As it was suggested by indirect evidence, this type of technology was relevant in neandertal [sic] daily life.

The problem for creationists here, in addition to those posed for their human origin myth by the fact of H. sapiens-Neanderthal interbreeding, is that all this archaeology simply should not be there. Not only is it older than they believe the Universe to be but it should all have been swept away in their legendary global flood. Not only is it embarrassingly there, but it also shows that another species of intelligent humans lived on Earth at the same time as our recent ancestors. Strangely, those who wrote the Abrahamic creation myths seem not to have known anything about these other humans.

[Update]: While I was writing this New Scientist released news that a similar situation to that of non-African H. sapiens and Neanderthals probably occurred in West Africa where ancestors of modern Yuruba interbred with an as-yet unknown species of hominin. Some eight percent of Yoruba carry the DNA of this other species and, just as with Neanderthal DNA in Eurasians, this ingressed DNA seems to have been differentially eliminated except around particular loci, suggesting that interbreeding was often unsuccessful.

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