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: Arlette, L-G. 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