Anyway, according to the BBC a new study of Neanderthal remains, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that the Neanderthal diet was more sophisticated than previously thought. Researchers in the US have found grains of cooked plant material in their teeth. The original image of Neanderthals as meat eaters was based on chemical analysis of their bones that suggested vegetables were not on the menu. This perceived reliance on meat has oft been used as the reason for their extinction as more carnivorous entrees such as mammoth died out during the last Ice Ages.
The researchers found fossilized grains of vegetable material in their teeth and some of it was cooked. Although pollen grains have been found before at Neanderthal sites, there is now clear evidence that plant food was actually eaten by them. This latest study suggests that, far from being brutish savages, Neanderthals were more like us than we previously thought. Professor Alison Brooks, from George Washington University, told BBC News: "We have found pollen grains in Neanderthal sites before but you never know whether they were eating the plant, sleeping on them or what.” “What” presumably being a euphemism for leaving by the back door, dropping the kids off at the pool, that sort of thing. And did you know that when archaeologists and anthropologists excavate dig sites, and talk about coprolites, they’re actually using the word for fossilized feces. Sounds so much better don’t you think?
Still it’s good to know that old big head here had grain in his mouth. A little chew to mash it up, let it ferment a bit, add a little sugar and he’s on the slippery slope to oblivion. Mind you, looking at the usual artists’ impressions of Neanderman and some of the youth of today on a Saturday night out, we may not be as far apart on the tree of human evolution as we’d like to think.
From the first skull unearthed in 1856 in the Neander Thal (“Valley” in German) scientists have tried to distance themselves from this brooding, beetle-browed, hulk-like specimen, possessing what some politely call a robust bone structure and a presumed lack of intelligence. Not that this picture was helped by an early and incorrect analysis of neck bones that led to the stereotypically fire-plug lookalike with a large head apparently growing out of the top of his chest. Later research slowly began to correct our false impressions, even discovering that their brains were a tad larger not by much, but it was possibly significant. What did they use the extra “little grey cells” for one wonders? Solving the meaning of life, doing the crossword puzzle, Sudoku? Probably not.
By the 1950’s according to National Geographic scientists began to emphasize similarities between Neanderthals and modern humans, rather than their differences, and some even argued that they actually belonged to the same species, as do different racial and ethnic groups. As William Straus, Jr. and A.J.E. Cave wrote in a 1957 scientific article, if a Neanderthal “could be reincarnated and placed in a New York subway, provided that he were bathed, shaved and dressed in modern clothing, it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens.” Wishful thinking mate, obviously you haven’t ridden the subway recently!
So, quite a nice chap really, just the sort of person we might meet at a ball game. Or as the Brits call them, lager louts. You’ve seen these specimens before of course; in the pub.
In 2006, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany began working on a project to map the Neanderthal genome, using DNA fragments extracted from Neanderthal remains. Still a work in progress, but researchers have discovered that Neanderthals and modern humans had the same version of the FoxP2 gene, one associated with the use of language. Such a similarity would be difficult to explain if the two groups evolved separately, and raises the possibility that modern humans acquired the language gene by interbreeding with Neanderthals.
Also as explained by Nicholas Wade writing in the May 2010 New York Times, the Neanderthal Genome team has identified only about 100 genes, relating to cognitive function and bone structure, that have contributed to the evolution of modern humans since the split with Neanderthals. In other words, a little humanity goes a long way. If you have lemons, make lemonade, just ask Mary Shelley.
Although believed to more able to cope with a cold climate, the Neanderthals likely struggled when faced with rapidly changing climatic conditions eventually being marginalized, extinct and succeeded only by modern humans. But the good news, depending on your definition, is that between one and four percent of the DNA in non-Africans is inherited from Neanderthals (it is now thought that the development of Neanderthals occurred over 500,000 years ago, well before the “out of Africa” migration, which explains why the inherited DNA is so low, despite the fact that we are closer to Neanderthals then chimpanzees in overall DNA content). This is good to know when explaining that night on the town, inexplicable behavior, mooning at the stars, endless drinking competitions, and wheelies down the high street, that sort of thing. Your wife may not forgive you but at least you have some science to back you up.
So now it appears that we must embrace our inner Neanderthal. How odd, pretty soon they’ll have him quoting Shakespeare “Shall I compare thee to summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Or not. Of course, in the olden days, when big head here was all the anthropological rage the gentlemen scientists of the day tried hard to disassociate themselves from his lineage, not wanting to believe there could be any direct link with us humans; must have been a throwback, inter-breeding gone mad, an evolutionary dead-end, that sort of thing. Even that there could be other forms of prehistoric man was pretty anathema in those stuffy, Victorian, god-fearing days.
After all, the origin of man was the realm of the righteous, religious rulers who were generally anti-Darwin and his “On the Origin of Species”. Published in 1859 the book’s basic premise was that nature selected the best adapted varieties to survive and to reproduce, a process that has come to be known as natural selection, or “survival of the fittest”. Church of England Bishop Sam Wilberforce was opposed to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, remembered at a famous 1860 debate during which he is said to have asked Thomas Henry Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. And it is this, by the way, which is believed to be the derivation of the phrase “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle”. An outburst generally spoken by non-Darwinian believers, delivered with a degree of surprise, obviously.
Image via Wikipedia
Which reminds me, whilst trimming the tree this year on Christmas Eve and after her frustration with my frustration over the numerous attempts to ensure the perfect verticality of said tree, my wife turned to me and said “how did men ever leave their caves?” For the record, the correct answer is not “because the pubs are open”
For more information please read:
http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/episode/neanderthal-code-3228/04#tab-evolving-view-4; and http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/10/neanderthals/hall-text/10