Discuss the importance of the Neanderthal fossils for understanding human evolution.

Khalil Betz-Heinemann – SE302
Discuss the importance of the Neanderthal fossils for understanding human evolution.
Since the mid-19th century, when the first Neanderthal fossils where unearthed and recognised
as belonging to a hominid group distinctive from humans (Clark-Howell: 1957), there has
been writhing debate over the relationship between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis.
The debate has tended to fall into two categories: those that see Neanderthal’s evolution as
closely linked to our own and those that see it as more of a distant cousin-like relationship. As
this debate is centred around archaeological evidence of Neanderthal’s and Modern human
ancestry, this essay will try to chronologically map the importance of each of the most
important discoveries pertaining to human evolution and the changing opinions that have
arisen.
Neanderthals were first seen as the ape-like predecessor to Homo sapiens. A savage animal
like creature whose morphology possessed similarities to human’s but was animal in nature.
However as more and more fossil evidence came to light this was a hard view to stick by. As
early as 1886 flint tools, requiring precise manufacturing abilities (Debenath & Dibble: 1994
pg 57-66), were found alongside Neanderthal fossils suggesting higher cognitive abilities
than had been believed. A whole collection of these Mousterian artefacts were consequently
unearthed or recognised across Europe (Debenath & Dibble: 1994, pg 182). The geographical
spread and variety of these tools required that Neanderthals be able to pass on detailed
knowledge and learning, while further studies of them revealed that they were not merely
rocks that were used to bash things but high precision implements for their time.
From 1899 onwards many other archaeological findings revealed further revelations about
Neanderthal life. Neanderthal skeletons were found in positions suggesting purposeful burial,
along with purposefully placed cultural artefacts (Arlette 1975) including a manufactured
flute (Fink: 1997). Further studies confirmed that Neanderthal man did not walk with a stoop
half way between man and chimpanzee but also walked upright (Trinkhaus: 1986), albeit
having a more stocky morphology. Fossils of Neanderthals that had sustained multiple
skeletal injuries requiring considerable healing time, along with individuals that had reached
infirmity but still carried on living for a considerable amount of time (Davies & Underdown:
2006), have produced a more enlightened picture of Neanderthals. Living in groups that had
the abilities and consciousness to support and care for each other during incapacitation
suggests a species with more than primal instincts but what we might almost call humanity.
In 1987 some even more surprising fossil evidence was revealed. A dating technique called
Thermo-luminescence found that Neanderthal fossils at Kebara in Israel were dated from
60,000 years ago, while human fossils at Qafzeh (also in Israel) were from 90000 years ago
(Bar-Yosef & Vandermeersch: 1992). This was later confirmed again using the more modern
Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) dating technique in 1991, along with additional human
fossils found in Es Skhul dating from 80000 years ago. This shows that, not only were
Neanderthals not the predecessor of humans, but that humans were contemporary to
Neanderthals and could have possibly pre-dated them.
As the view of Neanderthal’s became more complete the debate over their part in
evolutionary history became less focused on what Neanderthals’ were like themselves, but
what their importance to human evolution is. Mellars (1992, pg 2) describes the three
opinions of the scientific community quite succinctly; “1) Neanderthals were a separate
species from modern humans, did not interbreed, and became extinct (due to climate change
or interaction with humans) and were replaced by early modern humans travelling from
Africa. Competition from Homo sapiens probably contributed to Neanderthal extinction. 2)
Neanderthals were a contemporary subspecies which incidentally bred with Homo
sapiens and disappeared through absorption. 3) Neanderthals never split from Homo
sapiens and are the ancestors of some anatomically Modern humans.”
More recently mitochondrial DNA analysis of Neanderthal remains, along with the vast array
of studies on their morphology, revealed that Neanderthals’ were clearly a separate species
from Homo sapiens Furthermore - to date - no genetic evidence has been found to suggest
that contemporary human’s carry any Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA or otherwise (Serre:
2004). Clearly opinion three (see above) is not a viable argument in light of this. Additionally
opinion one (above) is also mainly incorrect, as evidence mentioned previously (Kebara and
Qafzeh fossils) shows that Modern human’s existed in areas that Neanderthals’ consequently
populated as well. This is visa-versa to the view that human’s burst ‘Out of Africa’ and
decimated the Neanderthal population. Nonetheless Neanderthals’ as a distinct species did
become extinct around a similar time-period that a large increase in the Modern human
population of Europe happened. Therefore there are implications that human’s may have had
a hand in their extinction.
However what is of importance here is what the fossil evidence can tell us about the
fluctuations in Neanderthal and Human populations across Europe, in comparison to each
other and other species. It seems that Homo heidelbergensis entered Europe after Homo
erectus and subsequently Homo neanderthalis appeared (Harvati: 2007), with a morphology
more adapted to the colder and harsher climes. Homo heidelbergensis is also the most likely
candidate from which humans evolved in Africa (Harvati: 2007). The fossil record then
shows a period of around 20,000 years where Cro-Magnon’s entered Europe and lived
alongside Neanderthal man, whilst Neanderthals’ moved into the Middle-east (Bar-Yosef &
Vandermeersch: 1992). It is only later when a break in an Ice Age in Europe happened, that
fully Modern humans entered Europe in greater numbers (O’Neill: 2010). This roughly
coincides with Neanderthals’, as a distinct species, starting to disappear.
As Modern humans were more adapted to the new warmer climate in Europe, they would
have been far better at surviving. Moreover fossil records show that as Modern humans
spread across the globe mass extinctions of many animals followed (O’Neill: 2010). This
insinuates efficient hunting methods and consequently rapid population expansion by
humans, in comparison to the other hominid species already inhabiting these regions. As a
selection of fossils from this time period containing morphological features of both Modern,
Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal features exist (Caramelli: 2008), it is most probable that either
the competition from Modern human’s was too much for other hominid groups that they
either were out-competed in environmentally harsh periods, directly assaulted absorbed into
Modern humanity or a combination. It is then possible that any genetic evidence of
interbreeding during absorption may have been lost by this swamping of humans and genetic
drift over the following years (Serre: 2004). This theoretical scenario is more recent than the
others suggested and fits better with both genetic and archaeological evidence. It has been
dubbed the Assimilation model (Zilhao: 2006) for understanding how human evolution
happened with regards to other contemporary hominoids, most importantly Neanderthals.
Conclusively the human population has continued to evolved and expand. But what seems to
be of greatest importance to human evolution today, in reference to Neanderthal fossil
remains and all that we have learnt from them is this; that as we evolve and spread into
further corners of the earth with our increasingly sophisticated tools, and come across other
cultures and species, that we do not need to destroy them but can assimilate and learn from
them. In doing this we stand a better chance of maintaining an environment to evolve in and
not one that leads to our extinction. Let us ensure that one day ‘something’ will not have to
dig us up and wonder who wiped who out, but someone will be around to dig up our bones in
hope of learning about their past.

Bibliography:
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Mount Carmel’. Current Anthropology 33.5, pp.497-546.
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