Tag Archives: neanderthals

Neanderthals were the first to artificially transform the world, turning a forest into grassland 125,000 years ago

Credit: Pixabay.

Many scientists believe we’ve now crossed a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene, in recognition of the fact that, despite their short time on Earth, humans have fundamentally altered the physical, chemical, and biological makeup of the planet. Agriculture, urbanization, deforestation, and pollution have all caused extraordinary changes on Earth. But, perhaps, ironically it may have all started with a different, extinct species of humans.

The earliest evidence of ecosystem change at the hands of hunter-gathers has been pinpointed at a lignite quarry near Halle in Germany, where researchers found Neanderthal activities from 125,000 years ago transformed closed forests into open grasslands. The deforestation seems to have been mostly done through fire.

“Archeologists have long been asking questions about the character and temporal depth of human intervention in our planet’s ecosystems. We are increasingly seeing very early, generally weak signs of this,” says Wil Roebroeks, an archeology professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Roebroeks and colleagues have analyzed evidence collected over the decades at the Neumark-Nord quarry, including hundreds of slaughtered animals, numerous stone tools, and charcoal remains. Some 130,000 years ago, the region experienced a prosperous warm spell that promoted the growth of thick deciduous forests stretching from the Netherlands to Poland, which were inhabited by deer and cattle, but also elephants, lions, and hyenas.

These forest lands attracted communities of Neanderthal hunter-gatherers, who rapidly moved in, especially into areas with lakes. They effectively competed with other carnivores and occupied their own ecological niche until the region was occupied by advancing ice 115,000 years ago.

Compared to forested regions where Neanderthals didn’t live, the scientists found that the Neanderthal inhabited regions experienced a significant decrease in tree cover. Instead of dense forests, the Neanderthal habitat was much lighter and open. There are also signs that these ancient people settled at least semi-permanently in the region, which is unusual in itself since Neanderthals are thought of as highly mobile groups. Perhaps the open landscape, which attracted plenty of game and offered reasonable shelter, was attractive enough to keep some Neanderthal groups more or less settled in one place.

Stone tools found at the Neumark-Nord site in Germany. Credit: Eduard Pop/Leiden University.

However, there’s a chicken or egg problem. While it’s tempting to look at the charcoal data and imagine Neanderthal activity burned the local vegetation, they could have also moved into more advantageous open areas after wildfires did all the hard work for them.

Whether or not the Neanderthals initiated the deforestation, one thing is at least clearer: they kept these areas open, and they did so for at least 2,000 years. At similar neighboring lakes where there was no Neanderthal activity, such as hunting, collecting wood, making tools, and building shelters, the dense forest vegetation remained largely intact.

There’s ancient evidence that modern humans altered the landscape much in the same way, but these kinds of practices were seen only in the past 50,000 years. In contrast, the new findings point to much earlier artificial ecosystem changes at the hand of Neanderthals.

The ability of humans to alter nature is obvious today when our cities stretch over hundreds of square miles and carbon emissions from our activities have grown to such copious amounts that we’ve come to change the climate. The origin of this long process of changing the planet to suit our needs is typically considered the advent of agriculture, which appeared about 10,000 years ago. But recent research, such as the present study, increasingly suggests environmental alteration by hominins started much earlier, albeit at a smaller scale. Neumark-Nord is, perhaps, the earliest example of such interventions.

“It also adds something to the behavioral spectrum of early hunter-gatherers. They weren’t simply ‘primal hippies’ who roamed the landscape picking fruit here and hunting animals there. They helped shape their landscape,” says Roebroeks.

The findings appeared in the journal Science Advances.

Neanderthals likely spoke and understood language like humans

With each new study, scientists’ perceptions on Neanderthals have shifted away from that of mindless brutes to highly complex hominids — a new study is cementing the notion that our extinct cousins were very human-like. One central question in human evolution is whether spoken language was employed by other species in the Homo lineage. A study published today confirms that Neanderthals were indeed linguistically capable.

“This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career”, says Rolf Quam, an anthropology professor at Binghamton University and co-author of the new study. “The results are solid and clearly show the Neandertals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech. This is one of the very few current, ongoing research lines relying on fossil evidence to study the evolution of language, a notoriously tricky subject in anthropology.”

The Atapuerca Mountains in north-eastern Spain may not look like much. They feature gentle slopes and a rather dry landscape, interrupted from time to time by forests and the occasional river. But these mountains hold a karstic environment that is key to understanding how humans came to be, and what life was for our early ancestors.

The most important site is a cave called Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones). Anthropologists have recovered over 5,500 human remains which are at least 350,000 years old from this site. The remains belong to 28 individuals of Homo heidelbergensis, an archaic hominin that lived from approximately 700,000 years to 300,000 years ago. Scientists believe that H. heidelbergensis is the ancestor of Homo neanderthalensis.

For their study, Quam along with colleagues at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid performed high resolution CT scans of Atapuerca fossils in order to produce virtual 3D models of the ear structure. The scientists generated models for Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, as well as for the ancestors of the Neanderthals.

The ear models were then inputted into software that can estimate hearing abilities based on the structure of the ears up to 5 kHz, which is most of the frequency range of modern human speech sounds.

Compared with the Atapuerca fossils, the researchers found that the Neanderthals had slightly better hearing in the 4-5 kHz range, which closely resembles modern humans.

The study also assessed the frequency range of maximum sensitivity, also known as the occupied bandwidth, for each species. The wider this bandwidth, the easier it is to distinguish complex sounds and to deliver a clear message in the shortest amount of time.

Once again, compared to their Atapuerca ancestors, Neanderthals showed a wider bandwidth resembling modern humans.

“This really is the key,” says Mercedes Conde-Valverde, professor at the Universidad de Alcalá in Spain and lead author of the study. “The presence of similar hearing abilities, particularly the bandwidth, demonstrates that the Neandertals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech.”

This begs the question: what did a Neanderthal language sound like? According to the researchers, one of the most intriguing findings of the study is that Neanderthal speech likely included an increased use of consonants.

“Most previous studies of Neandertal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language. However, we feel this emphasis is misplaced, since the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates. The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors,” Quam said.

These documented improvements in auditory capacity in Neandertals mirrors increasing complexity in stone tool technology, domestication of fire, and possible symbolic practices. We know, for instance, that Neanderthals also painted, fashioned jewelry, and employed abstract thinking in which symbols or images are used to represent objects, persons, and events that are not present.

As such, the study suggests that increasingly complex behaviors coevolve with increasing efficiency in oral communication. More insights may be gleaned once the researchers extend this investigation to other species of Homo.

“These results are particularly gratifying,” said Ignacio Martinez from Universidad de Alcalá in Spain. “We believe, after more than a century of research into this question, that we have provided a conclusive answer to the question of Neandertal speech capacities.”

This 51,000-year-old Neanderthal bone carving may be one of the world’s oldest works of art

Inside a cave in the Harz Mountains of central Germany, paleontologists have come across a striking artifact. The 51,000-year-old toe bone belonging to a prehistoric deer was purposefully carved with lines by Neanderthals, quite possibly with a symbolic meaning. It may very well be the world’s oldest art, claim German researchers.

The engraved deer bone found at Einhornhöhle. Credit: V. Minkus.

The front side of the bone is carved with overlapping chevrons (inverted Vs) that point upwards with smaller incisions on the lower edge that might have served as a base. When the artifact was placed on its base, it didn’t tip over. “It was probably left standing upright in a corner of the cave,” said archaeologist Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony state office for Cultural Heritage.

Alongside the carved toe bone, archaeologists discovered the shoulder blade bones of deer, which may or not have belonged to the same animal, as well as the skull of a cave bear. These remains were, interestingly enough, discovered in Einhornhöhle, also known as ‘Unicorn Cave’, due to the fossilized bones found there since the 16th century which locals believed came from fabled unicorns.

Modern excavations at Unicorn Cave showed the site was inhabited by successive generations of Neanderthals from at least 130,000 years ago until 47,000 years ago when they went extinct. Only much later, starting about 12,000 years ago, did modern humans take over the cave.

MicroCT-scan of the engraved deer artifact. Credit: NLD.

The researchers are confident that the artifact was carved by Neanderthal hands rather than humans. Although humans and Neanderthals were acquainted by the time the bone was etched 51,000 years ago, our species had yet to make its presence known at Einhornhöhle. Neanderthals were the only hominids in that part of Europe (and Einhornhöhle specifically) at the time, the researchers claim in their study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Concerning the meaning of the chevron carvings, the archaeologists can only speculate. It may represent a female figurine, a mountain landscape, or some abstract art.

What seems more certain is that the bone was carved purposefully as an ornament rather than the result of butchery. The carvings are etched deep, which means the bone was likely boiled beforehand to make it softer. The deer species, Megaloceros giganteus, from which the bone came was quite rare in the region, which would have made the artwork all the more special.

This symbolistic artifact is not singular among Neanderthal culture. Previously, researchers uncovered a pendant made from ancient eagle talons and cave paintings in Spain made by Neanderthal artists. Together, these findings show that Neanderthals’ reputation as brutes is undeserved.

But this also raises an even more exciting possibility: since both humans and Neanderthals shared creative abilities, it’s possible that they both inherited them from a common ancestor. If this is the case, we might have to look even further — much further — down in history to find where these abilities first appeared. In the process, we may learn how humans came to develop the qualities we now endow to humanity.

Leder and colleagues plan on performing more digs at Einhornhöhle in the hope they might find other engraved artifacts, perhaps stashed away in some dark corner of the cave.

Power versus finesse: Neanderthals had powerful thumbs, while humans had finer control

How we think Neanderthals might have looked like. Credit: Erich Ferdinand.

A 3D analysis of the joints between the bones responsible for the movement of the thumb belonging to Neanderthals revealed how our extinct cousin might have grabbed objects. According to the analysis, the Neanderthal thumbs were better adapted to power squeeze grips, the kind you see when holding a hammer. However, this made it more challenging to employ precision grip, which may have given humans the upper hand during times when the two species of Homo were in direct competition for resources.

Neanderthals might have been able to hold a spear better than early humans, but they were lacking in other departments

Modern archaeological findings show that Neanderthals were not brutes many imagined them to be. They fashioned necklaces and other types of jewelry, and were just as elaborate and creative with their cave paintings as humans of the time. They made flower burial offerings, which points to a complex cultural heritage, as well as mastered fiber technology and likely grasped basic mathematics judging from the patterning of the yarn and cords.

By all means, Neanderthals and humans were much more similar than they were different. In fact, they interbred numerous time, a fact atested to this day by the 2% of our DNA that is of Neanderthal origin.

But, in the end, Neanderthals went extinct roughly 40,000 years ago, while humans went on to dominate the planet’s ecosystems, spreading onto all seven continents. So while Neanderthals were also clever and resourceful, humans may have had an extra edge in other areas.

Perhaps Neanderthals were more vulnerable to diseases which humans themselves may have brought with them from Africa and the Middle East. A new study published today in the journal Scientific Reports could point to a different conclusion: Neanderthals may have been overpowered technologically not because of their inferior wit but rather because of their working hands that were less adapted to precision grips.

Researchers led by Ameline Bardo of the University of Kent in the UK mapped the joints between the bones responsible for the movement of the thumb — collectively known as the trapeziometacarpal complex  — in five Neanderthals. The 3D digital models were compared to those of measurements from the same joints belonging to five early modern humans, the earliest of which lived about 95,000 years ago in present-day Israel. The comparative analysis also involved the thumb joints of 50 recently deceased modern human adults.

In Neanderthals, the joint that connects the wrist bone at the base of the thumb with the first bone in the thumb that joins the wrist was better suited for extension along the side of the hand. This thumb posture is more adapted to ‘power squeeze’ grips, the kind we would use to hold a hammer. The power squeeze grip must have come in handy for Neanderthals when they grasped spears used for hunting.

In contrast, modern humans have thumb joints that are generally larger and more curved than those seen in our extinct cousins. This configuration is more suited for gripping objects between the pads of the finger and thumb, such as holding a pen.

Ultimately, this precision grip may have helped humans develop better technologies. However, there is no way of knowing at the moment how dexterous Neanderthals truly were. After all, there’s quite a lot of variation in the dexterity of humans, and there’s no reason to believe why Neanderthals were any different. Perhaps a larger sample size would clear things up a bit.

“Results show a distinct pattern of shape covariation in Neanderthals, consistent with more extended and adducted thumb postures that may reflect habitual use of grips commonly used for hafted tools,” the authors of the study wrote.

“These results underscore the importance of holistic joint shape analysis for understanding the functional capabilities and evolution of the modern human thumb,” they added.

An unknown ancestor mated with ancient humans. Its DNA is found in living people to this day

The unidentified ancient human relative may have been Homo erectus. Credit: flowcomm, Flickr.

To say the sex lives of our ancestors was complicated would be an understatement. After they migrated out of Africa into Eurasia, humans interbred with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and at least one other group of archaic people belonging to our genus. Evidence of this latter interbreeding lives on in our genes, according to a new study by researchers in the United States. The identity of this group is still shrouded in mystery.

When Homo sapiens migrated in large numbers out of Africa through the Middle East into Europe and Asia, they came in contact with the Neanderthals, who had been masters of their domains for thousands of years prior to the arrival of anatomically modern humans. The two species interbred, the effects of which are still seen in the genomes of people alive today who are not of Sub-Saharan heritage. About 2% of the DNA in the genomes of modern-day people with Eurasian ancestry is Neanderthal in origin.

But the gene flow goes both ways, of course. In a new study, Melissa Hubisz and Amy Williams of Cornell University and Adam Siepel of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory performed a complex genomic analysis of the DNA of two Neanderthals, a Denisovan and two living African humans. The latter have no Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, as opposed to Caucasians, which helped the researchers differentiate patterns of ancient interbreeding.

The team of researchers employed a computational method that enabled them to identify recombination events, in which segments of the chromosomes from one individual become incorporated into the chromosomes of another. This clever method can map out the tree of relationships among individuals at every position along the genome.

In more practical terms, this approach enabled the researchers to uncover previous instances of mating nested in the genomes of living or extant species. For instance, if Neanderthals mated with some other human species, and later these descendants mated with modern humans, this method can uncover that initial instance of ancient interbreeding.

As it turned out, the study revealed some amazing instances of such nested insections of DNA. For instance, 3% of the Neanderthal genomes came from ancient humans, estimated to have occurred 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. This is additional evidence supporting the fact that humans left Africa in multiple waves before making a huge leap out of the continent primarily 50-60,000 years ago. These early migratory waves of humans were likely assimilated by Neanderthals or were wiped out one way or the other.

But the most striking finding was that 1% of the Denisovan DNA came from a yet unidentified species of ancient humans. The interbreeding occurred roughly one million years ago, a timeline that suggests the lover may have been Homo erectus. Sadly, no Homo erectus DNA has ever been found, so this hypothesis remains speculation at this point. It may very well have been some different, yet to be identified species altogether.

In any event, both interbreeding events have been passed down to living modern humans. About 15% of the interbreeding sequences found in the Denisovans are present in living people today, the researchers reported in the journal PLoS Genetics.

Given the sheer number of gene exchanges between ancient humans and their extinct relatives, it’s very likely that genetic exchange took place whenever two distinct groups of humans overlapped in time and space. The same algorithm employed by the study could be used to study gene flow in other species where interbreeding occurred in the distant past, such as between wolves and dogs.

“What I think is exciting about this work is that it demonstrates what you can learn about deep human history by jointly reconstructing the full evolutionary history of a collection of sequences from both modern humans and archaic hominins,” Siepel said in a statement. “This new algorithm that Melissa has developed, ARGweaver-D, is able to reach back further in time than any other computational method I’ve seen. It seems to be especially powerful for detecting ancient introgression.”

Only competition with humans can explain the sudden extinction of Neanderthals, computer model shows

Around 40,000 years ago, the northern hemisphere went through an abrupt and prolonged shift in climate that coincided with the extinction of many species. Both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had to struggle under these conditions but it was only our species that survived, despite the fact that evidence suggests that Neanderthals were perhaps every bit as resourceful as us.

A new study suggests that it was, in fact, competition with humans that sealed Neanderthals’ fate.

Neanderthal (left) and early human reconstructions performed by the Natural History Museum in London. Credit: NHM.

Neanderthals had been in Europe and Asia since 300,000 years ago, whereas humans ventured out of Africa into Eurasia through the Middle East around 60,000 years ago.

Before humans entered the picture, Neanderthals were dispersed all around Eurasia and had successfully lived through multiple shifts in climate that caused their food supply to dwindle. Nevertheless, they braved through such obstacles and challenges time and time again.

But despite having survived for hundreds of thousands of years, within a couple of thousands of years from the first contact with humans — which also resulted in interbreeding, as evidence by the fraction of Neanderthal DNA that can still be found in our genomes to this day — the Neanderthals were toast.

For many years, scientists have been debating what the final days of our extinct cousins looked like and what exactly brought about their demise. The climate change factor is obviously important, but so is competition with humans. Which had more weight, though?

Computer simulations of population density of Neanderthals (left) and Homo sapiens (right) 43,000 years ago (upper) and 38,000 years ago (lower). Orange (green) circles indicate archeological sites of Neanderthals (Homo sapiens) during 5,000-year-long intervals centered around 43 and 38 thousand years before present. Credit: Institute for Basic Science.

This vital question was at the forefront of a new study published by a team of researchers led by Axel Timmermann, director of the IBS Center for Climate Physics at Pusan National University in South Korea.

Timmermann and colleagues devised the first mathematical model that simulates the migration of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, as well as their interactions (competition, interbreeding, etc.) in a changing climate.

Their work is based on highly established climate models and takes into account a time-varying glacial landscape and shifts in temperature, rainfall, and vegetation patterns. 

The model assumes that both hominins compete for the same food resources and allows a small fraction of their members to interbreed.

“This is the first time we can quantify the drivers of Neanderthal extinction,” said Timmermann. “In the computer model I can turn on and off different processes, such as abrupt climate change, interbreeding or competition.”

According to Timmermann, the only realistic scenario in which Neanderthals go extinct is when Homo sapiens had advantages over their cousins in terms of exploiting shared resources.

Although Neanderthals used tools, clothing, and engaged in cultural and ritualistic practices like humans, our species may have had a technological edge by employing superior hunting techniques and weapons. Homo sapiens may have also been more resilient to pathogens.

Of course, this isn’t the final word in this heated debate, but it does paint a convincing picture that humans were largely responsible for the sudden downfall of Neanderthals.

“Neanderthals lived in Eurasia for the last 300,000 years and experienced and adapted to abrupt climate shifts, that were even more dramatic than those that occurred during the time of Neanderthal disappearance. It is not a coincidence that Neanderthals vanished just at the time, when Homo sapiens started to spread into Europe,” says Timmermann. He adds “The new computer model simulations show clearly that this event was the first major extinction caused by our own species.”

In the future, Timmermann and colleagues would like to refine their model by including megafauna and more realistic climate forcing.

The findings appeared in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Scientists find the earliest evidence of ancient human interbreeding

Lateral view of the Dali cranium. Most of the cranial dimensions and morphological features of Dali were intermediate between Homo erectus and H. sapiens. Credit: Peter Brown paleontology.

A novel method for analyzing ancient DNA has allowed scientists to peer into the distant past of the human lineage — farther than ever before. In doing so, the earliest interbreeding event between archaic human populations has been discovered, dating to 700,000 years ago.

“We’ve never known about this episode of interbreeding and we’ve never been able to estimate the size of the super-archaic population,” said Alan Rogers, lead author of the study and a professor of anthropology at the University of Utah. “We’re just shedding light on an interval on human evolutionary history that was previously completely dark.”

In 2017, Rogers published a study that found Neanderthals and Denisovans split earlier than previously thought. This caused quite the debate among scholars who came up with different results.

Something was missing — and this new study’s findings might solve the puzzle. It suggests that a previously unidentified population of ancient human populations — known as “super-archaics” — interbred with a Neanderthal-Denisovan ancestor in Eurasia about 700,000 years ago.

Rogers and colleagues analyzed the genomes of modern Africans and Europeans, specifically looking for any shared mutations between the two populations. The pattern of mutation suggests that our species has inherited genes from at least five distinct episodes of interbreeding — one of them was previously unknown.

Modern humans and Neanderthals were separated for about 750,000 years before they interbred. The new study suggests that super-archaics and the Neanderthal-Denisovan lineage were separated for well over a million years, making them the most distant pair of ancient human populations that interbred.

Using other clues etched in the modern day genomes, the researchers estimated that the super-archaic group separated into its own species about two million years, which is in agreement with fossil evidence in Eurasia dated to 1.85 million years ago.

“These findings about the timing at which interbreeding happened in the human lineage is telling something about how long it takes for reproductive isolation to evolve,” said Rogers.

These results indicate that there were at least three waves of human migration into Eurasia, the first starting two million years ago when these super-archaics started expanding out of Africa. Then, about 700,000 years ago, the Neanderthal-Denisovan ancestors migrated into Eurasia where they encountered the super-archaics, interbreeding with them. Finally, modern humans crossed into Eurasia about 50,000 years ago where they interbred with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and quite possibly other ancient human species.

“I’ve been working for the last couple of years on this different way of analyzing genetic data to find out about history,” said Rogers. “It’s just gratifying that you come up with a different way of looking at the data and you end up discovering things that people haven’t been able to see with other methods.”

Around 1.6 million years ago, the first large-brained hominin appeared on the evolutionary landscape. Known as Homo ergaster, this hominin had a more modern skeleton and employed advanced food-gathering methods. According to the fossil evidence, it was the first hominin to make it out of Africa, its remains having been found as far as Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia, as well as in several places in southern Europe.

Homo ergaster gave rise to Homo erectus, which quickly dominated the landscape. By 700,000 years ago, Homo erectus could be found from the river valleys in Indonesia to the open savannas in Africa. The resourceful Homo erectus had mastered fire, stone tool technology, and incorporated hunting into its daily life.

If Homo erectus wasn’t the now-extinct traveler that interbred with Neanderthal-Denisovan ancestors, then perhaps that distinction might belong to  Homo antecessor, a controversial species designation based on 1.2-million- to 1.1-million-year-old fossils found in Spain. Alternatively, this may be an as of yet unidentified Homo population.

It’s remarkable when you realize that all of this insight is based on information stored in our genomes. The findings show that our lineage is far from pure. Instead, we’re the product of countless encounters with other species, as well as that of the environment. And as scientists’ abilities to interpret the genome improve, we’re bound to learn much more about what forces shaped humanity.

The findings were reported in the journal Science Advances.

Neanderthals dived underwater for shells to use as tools

The image of Neanderthals has changed quite a lot in the past few decades thanks to new discoveries. We now know that they may have decorated their bodies, buried their dead and created art. Now, we can add another skill to the list, diving under the ocean for shells that they fashioned into tools, according to a new study.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

A group of researchers analyzed clamshells and volcanic rocks from an Italian cave, which showed Neanderthals collected shells and pumice from beaches. Due to specific indicators on some of the shells, the researchers also believe Neanderthals waded and dove into the ocean to retrieve shells, meaning they may have been able to swim.

Only about ten feet above the beach in central Italy’s Latium region, the Grotta dei Moscerini cave was excavated in 1949. Archaeologists recovered 171 clamshells that were modified into sharp tools. They all belonged to a local species called Callista chione, or the smooth clam.

University of Colorado researcher Paolo Villa and colleagues looked at such tools, which had been stored at the Italian Institute of Human Paleontology because the cave itself is no longer accessible. They concluded some must have been gathered from the seafloor by Neanderthals.

“The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known,” said Paola Villa to CNN, study author and curator of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Museum of Natural History. “But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it.”

Most of the shell tools had abraded surfaces. But nearly a quarter of them had shiny, smooth exteriors, typical of shells picked live from the seafloor. In their study, Villa and her colleagues argued that diving for clams may have been a routine part of Neanderthal life in this region.

The shells were modified to be used as scrapers. These were more efficient than thin flinty rocks, which can’t sustain a sharp edge. It’s possible that stone was hard to come by, which is why they sought out shells. Or perhaps the shells suited their needs better, the researchers said.

The findings align with evidence from a recent study by Prof Erik Trinkaus suggesting that some Neanderthals suffered from “surfer’s ear,” based on bony growths found on the ears belonging to a few Neanderthal skeletons. And previous research has pointed to the fact that Neanderthals engaged in fishing.

The new study “reinforces what is becoming increasingly evident from a variety of different sources of archaeological data: Neanderthals were able to do, and occasionally did, most of these kinds of behaviors that had been considered to be special to modern humans,” said Trinkaus to the Smithsonian Magazine.

Key facts on Neanderthals

Neanderthals are considered the closest extinct human relative. Among the features of their skulls, they had a large middle part of the face, angled cheekbones, and a huge nose for humidifying and warming cold air. They also had shorter and stockier bodies as an adaptation to living in cold environments.

They made and use a diverse set of sophisticated tools, controlled fire, lived in shelters, made and wore clothing, were skilled hunters of large animals and also ate plant foods, and occasionally made symbolic or ornamental objects. Evidence has been found of them burring the dead and marking graves with offering as flowers.

Neanderthal extinction could have been driven by inbreeding, demographic issues — not modern humans

Small populations and inbreeding may have driven the Neanderthals extinct, new research suggests.

Neanderthals disappeared sometime around 40,000 years ago, about the same time as modern humans began moving into Europe and the Near East. Because of the timing, it’s often held that modern humans helped drive our ancient relatives extinct, but this theory hasn’t been confirmed or infirmed up to now.

A new study looked at the population dynamics of Neanderthal groups in a bid to gain insight into their extinction. Through the use of demographic modelling, the team tried to establish if internal factors helped drive the Neanderthals out of history — and whether they were headed for collapse on their own, without the ‘help’ of modern humans.

Family ties

“Our results indicate that the disappearance of Neanderthals might have resided in the smallness of their population(s) alone,” the paper’s abstract reads. “Even if they had been identical to modern humans in their cognitive, social and cultural traits, and even in the absence of inter-specific competition, Neanderthals faced a considerable risk of extinction.”

The team used data from hunter-gatherer populations today as a guideline for their modeling efforts. After observing how these groups operate, the team developed population models for Neanderthal groups of various initial sizes: 50, 100, 500, 1,000, and 5,000 individuals.

The team then mixed in the effects of inbreeding, Allee effects (where reduced population size negatively impacts individuals’ fitness), and random demographic fluctuations (caused by shifting births, deaths, and sex ratios) into their simulated societies and observed the results. What they wanted to determine was if these factors were enough to drive the communities to extinction over a 10,000-year period.

Inbreeding alone was likely not enough to drive most Neanderthals to extinction. The team notes that it only led to the collapse of the smallest population modeled for the study. However, Allee effects could cause the extinction of populations up to 1,000 individuals strong when 25% of fewer Neanderthal females gave birth within a given year (the team reports that this is a common birth rate in hunter-gatherer societies today. When all three factors were together (inbreeding + Allee effects + demographic fluctuations), all the populations modeled in the study died out within 10,000 years.

Being based on computer models — which themselves are based on modern human hunter-gatherers — means that the findings should be taken with a grain of salt. While the models can’t account for everything, they do give us a general idea of what was happening to the Neanderthals at the time, the team reports.

It’s possible that the encroachment of modern humans impacted the Neanderthals in ways that promoted inbreeding and subsequent Allee effects, which obviously could not be accounted for by the models. However, even in the absence of modern humans, Neanderthals were headed to extinction due to their demographic issues, according to the findings.

The paper “Inbreeding, Allee effects and stochasticity might be sufficient to account for Neanderthal extinction” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Scientists double the number of Neanderthal genomes, gleaning new tribal insights

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

After scientists sequenced the first Neanderthal genome, we were surprised to learn that our extinct cousins actually interbred with modern humans. It’s believed all non-Subsaharan individuals alive today carry about 2% Neanderthal DNA. But our Neanderthal ancestry might be even richer than we thought: five new Neanderthal genomes sourced from Belgium, France, Croatia, and Russia have been recently sequenced. This effectively doubles the number of genomes available.

The samples were taken from bones and teeth, ground into a fine powder, and treated with a mild hypochlorite solution to remove any contaminants. All the new genomes are 39,000 to 47,000 years old, which makes them latecomers in the species’ history.

“Our work demonstrates that the generation of genome sequences from a large number of archaic human individuals is now technically feasible, and opens the possibility to study Neandertal populations across their temporal and geographical range”, says Janet Kelso, the senior author of the new study.

After the researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology analyzed the five Neanderthals, they compared them to previously sequenced Neanderthals (whole-genome sequencing was available for only four Neanderthal individuals prior to this study), but also a Denisovan, and samples from our own species.

Upper molar of a male Neandertal from Spy, Belgium.Credit: I. Crevecoeur.

Upper molar of a male Neandertal from Spy, Belgium.Credit: I. Crevecoeur.

They found that the five individuals shared a common ancestor about 150,000 years ago with another Neanderthal individual whose remains were recovered from a Siberian cave. According to the researchers, they can now identify 10 to 20 percent more Neanderthal DNA in people living today than it was possible when everything scientists had at their disposal was the Altai Neanderthal genome, the first Neanderthal genome to be sequenced.

Very curiously, none of these individuals had any modern human DNA contained their genomes, despite having shared the same timeline. This suggests that the gene flow may have been strictly unidirectional — from Neanderthals to humans, but not the other way around. It’s not clear whether the gene flow comes from male or female Neanderthals, so there are still open questions concerning the intimate dynamic between the two species.

It also seems that these late Neanderthals were more related to the Neanderthals that mated with the ancestors of modern-day Europeans and Asians than the older Neanderthal populations found in Siberia.

For thousands of years, the Mezmaiskaya Cave, laying near the border between Russia and Georgia in the Caucasus mountains, had offered Neanderthals shelter. The newly extracted genetic information allowed the researchers to compare two individuals who had lived approximately 20,000 years apart. To the researchers’ surprise, the two individuals were not closely related.

Instead of both being distantly related to Western European Neanderthals, the team found that the younger Neanderthal was more genetically similar to Croatian, Belgian, and French Neanderthals than to the older Neanderthal found at the cave. This suggests that the more recent individual was part of a new population that replaced the former ones, which were likely wiped out. The authors believed that “extreme cold periods in northern Europe may have triggered the local extinction of Neanderthal populations.” Eventually this population, too, collapsed with the extinction of its own species — only to be replaced by our own.

“We see that the genetic similarity between these Neandertals is well-correlated with their geographical location. By comparing these genomes to the genome of an older Neandertal from the Caucasus we show that Neandertal populations seem to have moved and replaced each other towards the end of their history”, says first author, Mateja Hajdinjak.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature.

Neanderthals were compassionate caregivers, researchers suggest

Homo neanderthalensis, adult male. Reconstruction based on Shanidar 1 by John Gurche

Neanderthals are seen as brutish and uncaring, but a new archeological study has shown that Neanderthals benefited from an effective and knowledgeable healthcare system.

Researchers from the University of York revealed that Neanderthal healthcare was uncalculated and highly effective, even though we tend to think of about them as crueler than modern-day humans. The study suggests that Neanderthals were very compassionate caregivers.

The scientific community knows very well that Neanderthals sometimes provided care for the injured, but the team at York re-analyzed Neanderthal behavior and they suggest ‘our cousins’ were genuinely caring of their peers regardless of the level of illness or injury, rather than helping others out of self-interest.

Lead author, Dr. Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the Archaeology of Human Origin at the University of York, said, “Our findings suggest Neanderthals didn’t think in terms of whether others might repay their efforts, they just responded to their feelings about seeing their loved ones suffering.”

The individuals researchers know about had a severe injury or disease, with detailed pathologies highlighting a range of debilitating conditions and injuries. Sometimes, the injuries occurred long before the time of death and would have required monitoring, massage, fever management and hygiene care, researchers suggest.

Researchers analyzed a male around 25-40 years old at time of death that showed a catalog of poor health, including a degenerative disease of the spine and shoulders. His degrading physical state would have sapped his strength over the final 12 months of life and severely restricted his ability to contribute to the community. The authors of the study believe he remained part of the group since his articulated remains were subsequently carefully buried.

Dr Spikins added, “We argue that the social significance of the broader pattern of healthcare has been overlooked and interpretations of a limited or calculated response to healthcare have been influenced by preconceptions of Neanderthals as being ‘different’ and even brutish. However, a detailed consideration of the evidence in its social and cultural context reveals a different picture.

“The very similarity of Neanderthal healthcare to that of later periods has important implications. We argue that organised, knowledgeable and caring healthcare is not unique to our species but rather has a long evolutionary history.”

The paper was published in the journal World Archaeology.

One of the burials from Sunghir, in Russia. Credit: University of Cambridge, UK.

Early modern humans formed complex social networks to avoid inbreeding as early as 34,000 years ago

Even in small Paleolithic communities that lived 34,000 years ago, our early ancestors seem to have been aware of the dangers of inbreeding. Anthropologists report finding evidence of complex social structures at a site in Sunghir, Russia, which suggests people took precautions against inbreeding.

One of the burials from Sunghir, in Russia. Credit: University of Cambridge, UK.

One of the burials from Sunghir, in Russia. Credit: University of Cambridge, UK.

The Upper Paleolithic burial site contains the complete remains of an adult male, the symbolically incomplete remains of another male, as well as those of two younger individuals. All of these people lived at this site during the same time. Unusual for similar finds from this period, all the four males were buried together.

When a team of scientists at the Cambridge University and the University of Copenhagen analyzed the genomes of these individuals, they were surprised to find they were not closely related. At most, one of the adults was no more related to the boys than a great-great-grandfather.

The researchers speculate that artifacts found at this location, which includes pieces of jewelry, may have been used in ceremonies and rituals that celebrated the exchange of mates between groups. Perhaps such exchanges foreshadowed modern marriage ceremonies.

In addition to the evidence that modern humans formed close-knit communities more than 30,000 years ago, this evidence also indicates that they deliberately sought mates beyond their immediate family. To avoid inbreeding, communities were likely connected to a wider network.  

“What this means is that even people in the Upper Paleolithic, who were living in tiny groups, understood the importance of avoiding inbreeding,” Professor Eske Willerslev, fellow at St. John’s College, Cambridge said in a statement.

“The data that we have suggest that it was being purposely avoided. This means that they must have developed a system for this purpose. If small hunter–gatherer bands were mixing at random, we would see much greater evidence of inbreeding than we have here.”

Previously, a study published in Nature found evidence of heavy inbreeding among Neanderthals, judging from a 50,000-year-old toe bone. Other studies also seem to indicate that Eurasian hominids were much more inbred and less genetically diverse than modern humans. For thousands of years, the Neanderthal population size remained small, and mating among close relatives was likely very common.

The Neanderthal genome included harmful mutations that made hominids around 40% less reproductively fit than modern humans. They had the last joke, though non-African humans carry the burden of their inbreeding to this day. Some 2% of our DNA is Neanderthal, and due to our distant cousins’ interbreeding events, harmful gene variants continue to reduce the reproductive fitness of some populations today.

The genomic analysis of the Sunghir remains partly explain why anatomically modern humans were more successful than Neanderthals, who went extinct some 40,000 years ago.

“Most non-human primate societies are organised around single-sex kin where one of the sexes remains resident and the other migrates to another group, minimising inbreeding” says Professor Marta Mirazón Lahr, from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge. “At some point, early human societies changed their mating system into one in which a large number of the individuals that form small hunter-gatherer units are non-kin. The results from Sunghir show that Upper Palaeolithic human groups could use sophisticated cultural systems to sustain very small group sizes by embedding them in a wide social network of other groups.”

Scientific reference: M. Sikora el al., “Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers,” Science (2017).  

Neanderthal cave painting

Neanderthal and modern humans shared long childhoods

The rare discovery of a Neanderthal boy’s partial skeleton suggests he had similar growth patterns to those seen in modern humans. It’s yet another sign that the two species from the same Homo genus were very similar to one another.

Neanderthal cave painting

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The remains of the seven-year-old boy called El Sidron J1 are 49,000 years old. They were unearthed at the El Sidron archaeological site in Spain, a famous middle Paleolithic karst cave which has time and time again revealed insights into the lives of Neanderthals. Previously, bones retrieved from the site indicated Neanderthals engaged in cannibalism.

At the same cave, which stretches for approximately 3,700 meters (2.5 miles), with a central hall of approximately 200 m (650 feet), archaeologists have found over 400 lithic artifacts fashioned by Neanderthals. These include side scrapers, denticulates, hand axes, as well as several Levallois points, all made from local sources, mostly chert, silex, and quartzite.

More of the same

Spanish researchers working with the Paleoanthropology Group at Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales report the small Neanderthal boy was still evidently growing when he died. His brain was about 87.5% the size of that of an average adult Neanderthal. By the same age, a modern human boy should have a brain that’s 95% the size of an adult.

The boy’s vertebrae hadn’t yet fused, bone analysis showed. In modern human boys, the same bones typically fuse between age four to six. Limb bones, however, matured at the same rate as human boys, the authors reported in the journal Science. 

It might be possible that Neanderthal children enjoyed a longer childhood but it’s far too early to draw such a conclusion. We only have one such specimen, even that made of just 36% of his left side and parts of his skull.

The partial skeleton of a Neandertal boy he grew slowly, akin to modern human children. Credit: Paleoanthropology Group MNCNCSIC.

The partial skeleton of a Neandertal boy he grew slowly, akin to modern human children. Credit: Paleoanthropology Group MNCNCSIC.

Despite these dissimilarities, Neanderthal and modern human growth patterns are strikingly similar. In fact, it’s rather surprising that the differences are so subtle considering the two species didn’t evolve side by side. After splitting from a common ancestor during the Middle Pleistocene, Neanderthals evolved separately in western Eurasia while humans emerged from Africa.

The boy has been described by researchers as ‘sturdy’, having weighed 26 kilograms at his time of death and standing just over one meter (three and a half feet) tall. The cause of death is unknown though some cut marks on the bones could indicate cannibalism.

The findings cement a growing body of evidence that suggests Neanderthals and modern humans were strikingly similar. Neanderthals practiced rituals, made art, and buried their dead. Artifacts found in such places like El Sidron show that Neanderthals were at least as equally technologically proficient in stone tools as humans.

What’s more, they used manganese dioxide, today commonly found in batteries, to light fires some 50,000 years ago. Another recent study published just earlier this month showed that Neanderthals knew how to manufacture tar a good 200,000 years earlier than modern humans. And, lastly, the most important evidence of Neanderthal and Homo sapiens kinship can be found in almost every living, breathing human on the planet. Most Europeans and Asians have between 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA, remnants from the time the two species interbred.

Neanderthals thrived in Europe from 240,000 to 30,000 years ago, until they abruptly disappeared. It’s thought that a combination of climate change and competition for food with humans wiped them off. Meanwhile, humans have not only risen to the top of the food chain — they’ve also mastered technology that can literally make us shoot for the moon. With this in mind, it’s tempting to consider ourselves as a superior master race. Personally, I can only reflect on a time when there were two Homo species sharing the same planet, until some fluke of fate destroyed one of them. We don’t know for sure what, but who’s to say it couldn’t have been the other way around? A world ruled by Neanderthals, and not us. Now, that would be an interesting place to visit.

(A) The larger of the two tar lumps found at Königsaue compared with (B) the maximum yield of tar produced with the raised structure method (RS 7). Credit: Scientific Reports.

Neanderthals were distilling tar 200,000 years ago well before humans

With their heavy brows and brutish appearance, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) seem to have been inferior to humans. But we all know looks can be deceiving. After all, it’s prejudices like these that can give birth to racism. Moreover, some people have even tried to use the scientific method to justify their racism.

Concerning our very close cousins, with each passing day, it seems like many of our assumptions, some subject of inter-species prejudice, are just wrong. One new study proves, for instance, that Neanderthals were distilling tar which they used to fashion tools some 200,000 years ago. It’s even questionable whether Homo sapiens even appeared around that time.

Could a brute make these?

(A) The larger of the two tar lumps found at Königsaue compared with (B) the maximum yield of tar produced with the raised structure method (RS 7). Credit: Scientific Reports.

(A) The larger of the two tar lumps found at Königsaue compared with (B) the maximum yield of tar produced with the raised structure method (RS 7). Credit: Scientific Reports.

Scientists learned of this fact after discovering tar beads in Italy, Germany, and other sites around Europe which were far older than the earliest signs of humans in Western Europe. The only explanation is that these were likely made by Neanderthals.

Tar is a huge technological breakthrough that enabled humans, and obviously, Neanderthals, to make superior tools. With this adhesive at hand, people could now assemble axes, hammers or any other machinery out of multiple parts.

There were some loose ends, though. We know that humans used to make tar ceramic vessels where tree bark was heated to around 350°C. The earliest archaeological evidence we have of ceramics is from 20,000 years ago, though.

The team of archaeologists at Leiden University, Netherlands, led by Paul Kozowyk investigated the lead by testing three scenarios for making tar from birch bark. The researchers were careful to only use technology that was available, from what we know of, to the Neanderthals. Ars Technica‘s Annalee Newitz describes one of the methods tested by the team:

“In the “ash mound” method, a roll of birch bark is heated under a pile of ash and embers. Tar is extruded into a birch bowl. In the “pit roll” method, a tube of birch bark is inserted into a narrow pit, and fire is lit on top. Tar drips from the roll onto a rock at the bottom of the pit. And finally, in the “raised structure” method, a birch bowl is placed in a shallow pit, under a screen woven from green willow wood. A roll of birch sits atop the screen and is then buried under dirt. Fire is lit on top of the dirt, slow-cooking the birch bark.”


Credit: Scientific Reports

All three methods rendered a couple grams of tar which is consisted with the findings from the archaeological sites, though they varied in complexity. The raised structure method required the most fire wood while the pit roll technique was simpler and required fewer resources but yielded little tar. Remarkably, they were also able to make tar at temperatures below 200 °C. This showed that Neanderthals didn’t need ceramics nor the technology to maintain a constant temperature to make tar.

It’s very likely that Neanderthals discovered tar making by accident. The researchers speculate in Nature Scientific Reports that it’s not unreasonable for Neanderthals to see tar dripping from bark thrown in the fireplace only for them to later attempt to manufacture their own after becoming impressed by its properties.

“In this way, they could develop the technology from producing small traces of tar on partially burned bark to techniques capable of manufacturing quantities of tar equal to those found in the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record,” the authors concluded.

This is just the latest in a string of archaeological findings that demonstrate the intellectual prowess and social nature of Neanderthals. At the Croatian site of Krapina, anthropologists found a beautiful a set of eagle talons that included cut marks and were fashioned into a piece of jewelry. Neanderthals practiced cave painting and lit fires way before humans. The first instance of pre historic dentistry from about 130,000 years ago may have also been Neanderthal work. They even used manganese dioxide, today commonly found in batteries, to light fires some 50,000 years ago.

We can’t be sure that Neanderthals were the first to essentially invent glue. Maybe early humans in Africa independently arrived at the same discovery but there’s no evidence yet to back this up. In the meantime, no one can take this remarkable achievement away from Neanderthals who were far more complex than many care to give them credit.

Excavations at the entrance of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in 1937, the year when the Neanderthal femur was discovered. Credit: Museum Ulm.

Early Neanderthal DNA suggests a modern human-related dispersal from Africa as early as 220,000 years ago

The femur of an archaic hominin discovered in Europe suggests that the relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans was far more complex than meets the eye. Genetic data recovered from the femur suggests an intermediate out-of-Africa hominin migration occurred between 470,000 and 220,000 years ago, after the ancestors of Neanderthals arrived in Europe. The hominins belonging to a lineage closely related to modern humans interbred with the Neanderthals, leaving their mark on the Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA well before cultural exchanges between modern humans and Neanderthals became common 50,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Excavations at the entrance of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in 1937, the year when the Neanderthal femur was discovered. Credit: Museum Ulm.

Excavations at the entrance of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in 1937, the year when the Neanderthal femur was discovered. Credit: Museum Ulm.

Mitochondrial DNA  (mtDNA or mDNA) is the DNA contained in mitochondria, cellular organelles inside your cells that convert chemical energy from food into a form that cells can use, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Many people are not aware that the human cell has two types of DNA: Nuclear DNA and Mitochondrial DNA. These make up two separate genomes – a nuclear DNA genome (which is linear in shape) and the Mitochondrial DNA genome (which is circular). Mitochondrial DNA is pretty short, in that it only contains 37 genes.

What is also peculiar about MtDNA is that it’s inherited exclusively on the maternal side – males and females alike inherit a copy of MtDNA from their mother. Nuclear DNA, on the other hand, is inherited equally from both parents; a child will inherit 50% of their nuclear DNA from the mother and the other 50% from their father. What makes MtDNA very powerful in genome-wide studies, however, is that it gets passed down almost entirely unchanged, through the maternal line.

New insight into the evolution of Neanderthals

Hohlenstein-Stadel femur remains (HST), displaying archaic features. Credit: Oleg Kuchar © Photo Museum Ulm.

Hohlenstein-Stadel femur remains (HST), displaying archaic features. Credit: Oleg Kuchar © Photo Museum Ulm.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Tübingen sequenced the MtDNA of a Neanderthal femur found at the Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in southwestern Germany. The bone, which looked like it was gnawed on by a large carnivore, provided an age estimate of ~120,000 years based on the mutation rates, making the specimen named HST among the oldest to have its MtDNA retrieved.

“We wanted to directly show with DNA to which hominin group this femur with archaic morphology was belonging to. We couldn’t imagine that it was the deepest divergent Neanderthal mtDNA reconstructed to date,” Cosimo Posth of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, lead author of the study, told ZME Science.

“This age has a large interval but stable isotopic analyses on the femur and associate fauna have shown a forested, warmer environment that is consistent with the early phases of the last Ice Age,” Posth said referring to the dating of 120,000 years using the mtDNA molecular clock, the pace at which mutations accumulate over time.

The lineages of Neanderthals and modern humans are thought to have split off from a common ancestor sometime between 765,000 and 550,000 years ago based on studies of nuclear DNA. MtDNA analyses, on the other hand, suggest this split occurred far more recently, around 400,000 years ago. What’s more, Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA is more similar to that of modern humans than that of their close nuclear relatives the Denisovans.

What could have caused this discrepancy? Some have proposed that before humans made their major exodus in large numbers out of Africa as early as 120,000 years ago, intermediate minor migrations arrived in Europe where they introduced their mitochondrial DNA to the European Neanderthal population. This way, they’d also contribute a small amount of their nuclear DNA to Neanderthals but not to Denisovans, solving the whole conundrum.

“This scenario reconciles the discrepancy in the nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA phylogenies of archaic hominins and the inconsistency of the modern human-Neanderthal population split time estimated from nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA,” explains Johannes Krause, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author of the study, in a statement.

Posth and colleagues push back the possible date of such an admixture event to between 470,00 and 220,000 years ago, as shown in a paper published in Nature Communications. Previously, evidence suggested a minimum date of ~100,000 years for the gene flow event from African early modern humans into European Neanderthals. Now, the minimum of 220,00 years ago is where the mitochondrial lineage of HST and of all other known Neanderthals separated from each other very deeply. What’s more, the differences between the mitochondrial DNA of the two lineages suggest there was more genetic diversity in the Neanderthal population than previously thought.

“The vast majority of Neanderthals studies to date are dated between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago and their mtDNA diversity is low despite beind found over huge geographical distances. With the newly reported sequence we can observe that the genetic diversity in the past Neanderthal history was larger and it declined through time.” Posth said.

Ultimately, the discovery suggests that Late Pleistocene Neanderthal mtDNAs originated through gene flow from an African source more than 270,000 years ago, which might have replaced earlier Denisovan-like mtDNA lineages. Of course, we can’t be sure judging from a single femur.

It would have been fortunate if nuclear data from the HST femur were available, but the remains were too degraded and contaminated. It’s fascinating to learn, however, that even so little can tell us about the ancient history of a lineage we share ties to.

Pretty rock found in Croatia points at Neanderthals’ softer, artistic side

A rock found at the Krapina site in Croatia 100 years ago seems to have been taken there by Neanderthals only because it was pretty, with no intention of being used as a tool.

Pretty rock is pretty,
Image credits David Frayer / University of Kansas.

A huge part of science is collecting stuff — data, questioners, images, stuff from caves. Sadly, what often happens is that things get collected, taken to a place such as a lab or museum to be examined, and then simply forgotten.

Sometimes though, research teams go museum-diving, and they make some pretty fantastic finds. An international team of researchers has (re?)discovered a piece of split limestone retrieved from the Krapina site in Croatia and stored in the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb. The site was excavated between 1899-1905 and found to contain Neanderthal bones.

The best part? This piece of limestone wasn’t worked over and would have probably made a horrible tool anyway. Neanderthals couldn’t eat it, or use it in any other way. It simply was a pretty rock.

“If we were walking and picked up this rock, we would have taken it home,” said David Frayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology and corresponding author of the study.

“It is an interesting rock.”

The finding adds to a growing body of evidence showing that Neanderthals weren’t simple brutes. They were able to see simbolic or aesthetic value in objects, not just the “rock big, good for smash” property. Frayer and lead author Davorka Radovčić, curator at the museum, also published a paper in PLOS ONE in 2015 describing a set of eagle talons found at the same site which were fashioned into jewelry.

“People have often defined Neanderthals as being devoid of any kind of aesthetic feelings, and yet we know that at this site they collected eagle talons and they collected this rock. At other sites, researchers have found they collected shells and used pigments on shells,” Frayer said.

“There’s a little bit of evidence out there to suggest that they weren’t the big, dumb creatures that everybody thinks they were.”

Similar to how they found the talons, Frayer credited Radovčić’s keen eye for finding the rock among the items recovered from the site. The cave, he said, was dug in sandstone so the rock obviously was brought from somewhere else. It stands out in over 1,000 stone items recovered from the cave, but the original archaeologists didn’t give it much attention beyond bagging and tagging it.

Clam-shell view of the rock with black dendrites. The flake, only shown on Side A, fractured after excavation.
Image credits David Frayer / University of Kansas.

The rock, which measures roughly 5x4x1,5 inches, doesn’t show any striking platforms or other preparation of an edge, so the team suspects it wasn’t meant to be used as a tool. A small flake seems to fit in with the rest of the rock, but the break likely happened after the specimen was recovered

“The fact that it wasn’t modified, to us, it meant that it was brought there for a purpose other than being used as a tool,” Frayer said.

What caught Radovčić’s eye were the inclusions (black lines) that stood out from the brown rock. Its look is probably what made the Neanderthal want to collect it. He or she either carried it a few kilometers to the cave from a local outcrop of biopelmicritic limestone, or found it closer to Krapina — likely transported by a stream.

And yea I get that as far as archaeological findings go, this one is not so dramatic — it’s a stone from the stone age. But personally, I think it’s awesome. I like collecting rocks. Always have. The fact that one Neanderthal a hundred-and-some thousand years ago had the same hobby as me makes them more relatable than a gazillion cave paintings in France ever could.

Pretty rocks rule, my Neanderthal brother. Or sister.

The full paper was published in the journal Human Palaeontology and Prehistory with what is probably the best scientific paper name I have seen in a long time: “An interesting rock from Krapina”.


Interbreeding with Neanderthals gave us some good genes, but also diseases


Credit: Flickr // Paul Hudson

After archaic humans left Africa they not only found new climates, vegetations and animal species. They also met other hominid species, like the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Maybe some of these encounters resulted in conflict, but if there’s one thing we know for sure is that some were intimately friendly. Today, all humans of non-Subsaharan descent carry up to four percent Neanderthal genes in their genomes and some have Denisovan genes. Some genes helped these humans adapt to their new environments while others also brought new diseases.

Previously, scientists found that as much as ten percent of the human genome came from archaic interbreeding with other species, but most of these genes have been weeded out by natural selection. Most of what remains are thought to be largely detrimental as findings suggest Neanderthal and Denisovan genes are responsible for a slew of diseases that plague mankind today like Type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, allergies and more.

A team from the New York Genome Center wanted to investigate further, though, hoping to uncover more traits.

They sequenced the genomes of 1,000 modern humans from around the world, then looked for DNA sequences that belong to Neanderthals and Denisovans. The last step involved finding which of these foreign genes were beneficial or detrimental — something that’s a lot harder than it sounds because many of these so-called ‘adaptive introgressions’ result from a combination of genes.

Nevertheless, to their best ability, the researchers singled out some of these adaptive introgressions to see which traits, positive or negative, can be attributed to archaic interbreeding, an exchange that took place as early as 100,000 years ago.

Some of these traits had been found previously by other groups. For instance, some Tibetans have Denisovans genes that help them breathe oxygen more efficiently at high altitudes.

Modern Native Americans and Eurasians carry genes from Denisovans that are related to fat production. Also, there are some genes coming from archaic humans that help boost immunity.

“Archaic humans expanded out of Africa before modern humans, so they had a lot more time to adapt to the particular conditions of Europe and Asia,” Fernando Racimo, a geneticist at the New York Genome Center  and lead author of the paper, told the Washington Post. “A shortcut to adapt to these conditions, instead of waiting for the mutations to occur, is to obtain the genetic material from these archaic human groups who were established for a long time.”

The researchers also found another disease that came out of the interbreeding: HPV16 or genital warts, one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. After humans and Neanderthals split, each species developed their own HPV strains. Once they met up thousands of years later, though, the Neanderthal variety was acquired by humans and quickly spread.

“Oncogenic viruses are very ancient,” said Ignacio Bravo at the French National Center for Scientific Research, who along with colleagues published another related paper. “The history of humans is also the history of the viruses we carry and we inherit. Our work suggests that some aggressive oncogenic viruses were transmitted by sexual contact from archaic to modern humans.”

Nevertheless, while a new disease can be blamed on Neanderthals, the new studies show that we owe at least some benefit traits to this ancient mingling. Who knows, maybe some of our most defining features are Neanderthals. It seems more and more studies suggest that our distant cousins weren’t just brutes. Maybe we’re the brutes.

Oh, and if it’s any consolation this exchange went both ways. Humans gave Neanderthals herpes, tapeworms and a slew of tropical diseases

Modern humans lost some of their smoke-resistance genes and we don’t know why

Researchers peeking into our genetic code found that modern humans are less adept at handling smoke-borne toxins than the Neanderthals. We’re even worse at it than great apes, they add.

Smoke churning out of an US-issue green M18 grenade.
Image credits Lance Cpl. Jody Lee Smith / Released by the U.S. Marine Corps.

Modern human society can arguably trace its roots back to our mastery of fire. It not only let us prepare high-quality, energy-rich food, but provided protection against the cold, predators, and it underpinned early technology and industry.

But it’s not all rosy. Exposure to the toxic compounds released in smoke (such as like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) can take a heavy toll on our bodies, increasing the risk for pneumonia as well as a host of other conditions and negatively impacting pregnancy development in women and sperm quality in males.

This double edge has sent researchers from the Leiden University and Wageningen University on a quest to find genetic markers for the use of fire in ancient humans.

It’s all about genes

Archeologists have quite a hard task in pinning the first use of fire, which has led to some pretty heated arguments in the past. Some argue that humans have been using it for as long as two million years, but most evidence found in Europe and the Near East suggest that we’ve learned to use fire somewhere around 350,000 years ago.

To bring new insight to this debate, the team looked at the biological adaptations of prehistoric and recent humans to toxic compounds in smoke. Since using fire involved heavy exposure to these compounds in breathed smoke and in cooked food, the team expected it to have an impact on the selection of human genes — specifically, that it would promote individuals who had a built-in resistance against them. They analyzed gene variants from Neanderthal, Denisovan, and prehistoric modern humans.

They tested single nucleotide variants in 19 genes that have been linked to increased risk of fertility and reproduction issues in tobacco smoke studies. These were compared to variants found in Neanderthal and Denisovan genetic material, and with DNA harvested from chimpanzees and gorillas as a control group — we’re closely related but they don’t use fire.

The results showed that Neanderthals and Denisonvans both had genetic variants which were better at handling smoke than we do. Surprisingly, even the apes had them — suggesting they were very old gene variants, inherited from a common ancestor.

Up in smoke

The less efficient variants were only observed from the earliest hunter-gatherers we have genetic information on, so from about 40,000 years ago up to the present. The team suspects the apes’ genes are involved in defending them from toxins in the plants they eat. Our own defenses apparently borrow heavily from those adaptations, being developed deep in our primate ancestry.

The findings show that our ancestors were well equipped to deal with smoke long before they made any fires for themselves. Somewhere along the line though, we traded these genes for their less efficient variants. Previous studies have discovered, however, that modern humans have developed a whole new set of mutations to help them cope with toxic smoke compounds, so maybe the genetic variants seen in Neanderthals and Denisovans didn’t have a big enough effect to apply selective pressure.

All of this will have to be answered by future research.

The full paper “Fire Usage and Ancient Hominin Detoxification Genes: Protective Ancestral Variants Dominate While Additional Derived Risk Variants Appear in Modern Humans” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Image: Flickr user Erich Ferdinand

Did Neanderthals and humans share the same hearing?

Image: Flickr user Erich Ferdinand

Image: Flickr user Erich Ferdinand

Since the first Neanderthal fossils were found in Belgium at the dawn of the 19th century, scientists have debated whether these extinct cousins were capable of speech similarly to humans. Almost two hundred years later, this discussion is far from settled. Since there’s no way of telling for sure, we can only infer that they could or couldn’t do based on indirect evidence such as the artifacts and cave drawings that they left behind.

These archeological findings suggest Neanderthals formed hunter-gatherer communities and it is likely that they used speech to communicate among themselves, and probably with humans. But there are also anatomical features that we can study. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, for instance, recently used cutting edge imaging techniques to analyze the ear bones of Neanderthals. Their findings suggest consistent aspects of vocal communication in modern humans and Neanderthals.

Could a Neandethal dance to the beat?

The middle ear is the part of the ear that rests between the eardrum and the oval window, transmitting sound pressure waves from the outer to the inner ear. The middle ear is made of three bones called hammer, anvil and stapes. This ossicular chain is found in all mammals, and for good reason too because these amplify the energy of the sound waves and allow them to travel within the fluid-filled inner ear — otherwise, mammals wouldn’t be able to hear.

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As important as these three bones are for hearing, they can be just as frustrating for archaeologists. Because they’re the smallest bones in the body, ossicles are often lost and rarely show up in fossil records, including those of human ancestors.

“We were really astonished how often the ear ossicles are actually present in these fossil remains, particularly when the ear became filled with sediments” says lead researcher Alexander Stoessel in a statement.

Using high-res computer tomography (CT) scans, the researchers were able to reconstruct what the ear bones look like in 3-D, all without making so much as a dent in the actual fossils. The resulting models were then compared to the ossicles of anatomically modern humans and also chimpanzees and gorillas which are our closest living relatives.

“Despite the close relationship between anatomically modern humans and neanderthals to our surprise the ear ossicles are very differently shaped between the two human species” says Romain David who was involved in the study.

Tympanic membrane (grey), ossicular chain (yellow, green, red), and bony inner ear (blue) of a modern human with a One-Eurocent coin for scale. Credit: © A. Stoessel & P. Gunz

Tympanic membrane (grey), ossicular chain (yellow, green, red), and bony inner ear (blue) of a modern human with a One-Eurocent coin for scale. Credit: © A. Stoessel & P. Gunz

In order to see whether these morphological differences in ear bones affects in any way the hearing capacity of Neanderthals, the team also analyzed the surrounding structures of the ear ossicles. Surprisingly, the answer is ‘no’. Despite morphological differences, the functional parameters of Neanderthal and modern human middle ear are largely the same, the authors reported in the journal  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

These apparent differences can be attributed to different evolutionary trajectories that the two species, Neanderthal and human, took in order to increase brain volume. This evolutionary path impacted the structure of the cranial base, which also includes the middle ear. Unfortunately, a larynx, or voice box, which is formed from soft tissue, has not been found in the Neanderthal fossil record. But we do know, at least, that Neanderthals were capable of hearing the same frequency spectrum as humans.

“For us these results could be indicative for consistent aspects of vocal communication in anatomically modern humans and neanderthals that were already present in their common ancestor” says Jean-Jacques Hublin who is an author of this study and continues “these findings should be a basis for continuing research on the nature of the spoken language in archaic hominins.”

Stunning cave findings show Neanderthals made fire way before humans

Deep inside the Bruniquel Cave in France, a set of man-made structures 336 meters from the entrance lie as evidence to the former populations which inhabited the cave. These are among the oldest structures created by humans, and they have quite a story to tell about some of our ancestors. Until now, the earliest dated structures go back to only 38,000 years — found at Chauvet, also in France — but these structures were dated back to 176,500 ago.

Measurements for the archaeo- magnetic study in Bruniquel cave. © Etienne FABRE – SSAC.

Measurements for the archaeo- magnetic study in Bruniquel cave.
© Etienne FABRE – SSAC.

A unique cave

Bruniquel is a tiny village in the Midi-Pyrénées region in southern France, known for its nearby system of caves, most notably the Bruniquel cave. Bruniquel Cave was discovered in 1990 on a site overlooking the Aveyron Valley, and since then, the speologists and archaeologists working in the area have maintained the cave in pristine shape – and it’s a great thing they did so.

The cave itself is a wonder, and unique. It features numerous natural formations (an underground lake, calcite rafts, translucent flowstone, concretions of all types, etc) as well as intact floors containing numerous bone remains and dozens of bear hibernation hollows with impressive claw marks. But without a doubt, the most important feature of the cave is a system of almost 400 structures, stalagmites or sections of stalagmites, gathered and arranged in more or less circular formations.

“There are no comparable known structures. The structure of Bruniquel is unique. There are other sites, at the surface of similar or older age with some traces of constructions, but they are much less preserved, nothing to do with the Bruniquel structure,” Sophie Verheyden of Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels told ZME Science.

These stalagmites bear obvious signs of fire use. Hundreds of meters into the cave, in almost complete darkness, the cave’s inhabitants made fire. We know this because the calcite in the formations was reddened or blackened by soot, and in some places it was even fractured by the heat. There is also plenty of burnt matter, including some burned bones which were carbon dated to 47,600 years – this being the oldest possible date using that technique.

But after this analysis in 1995, no further studies were carried out until 2013.

3D reconstruction of structures of the Bruniquel cave. © Xavier MUTH

3D reconstruction of structures of the Bruniquel cave.
© Xavier MUTH

In 2013, a team from the DRAC Midi Pyrénées regional archaeological department launched a new program of studies. They developed a thorough inventory of all the available cave formations and artifacts, weighing an estimated 2.2 metric tons. Additionally, they carried our 3D surveys of the stalagmite structures and a magnetic study which reveals the anomalies caused by heat making it possible to map the burnt remnants found in this part of the cave. But the problem of dating still remained.

Close-up of fire traces with « speleofacts » in the Bruniquel cave. © Michel SOULIER – SSAC.

Close-up of fire traces with « speleofacts » in the Bruniquel cave.
© Michel SOULIER – SSAC.

In order to bypass this issue, they employed an uncommon technique in archaeology: uranium-thorium series dating (U-Th). When stalagmites are formed, uranium is present in the calcite. But as time passes, the uranium breaks down into other elements, including thorium. By mapping the uranium-thorium (U/Th) ratio, the age can be determined and this method can go way longer than carbon dating, though with a lower accuracy. Much to the surprise of researchers, the age came out at an astonishing 175,000 years ago – plus minus 2,000 years ago, but it’s still several times older than the previous record.

Neanderthals were the first explorers and builders

The very existence of these structures at such an old date is spectacular. The earlier examples of man-made structures date from 36,000 years ago (Chauvet) and 22,000 years ago (Lascaux) – Bruniquel is older by almost an order of magnitude. But it gets even better.

The Bruniquel stalagmite structures were built long before modern humans arrived in Europe (-40,000 years). This means that they must have been built by Neanderthals, 100,000 years before humans even got there. Most anthropologists believe that Neanderthals didn’t venture too much in caves, and didn’t have the sophistication necessary to make fires so deep in caves, were there’s little to no light. But this raises even more questions.

“The future research will concentrate on an even more detailed study of the structure and the different pieces, on the entrance of the cave (how did these people enter the cave? where is the exact entrance at that time, when was it naturally closed?) and on the synchronous or not entering of bears and humans,” Verheyden added in an email.

OK, so the Neanderthals were bright enough to make fire and structures, but why did they do it? It doesn’t make much sense to build a shelter so deep in the cave, so they likely had a different purpose. Possible options include water storage or cultural/religious purposes. But if the Neanderthals were so advanced, we might just have to rethink what we know about them.