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Publicado el 28 de November de 2013 por Marta Navazo

Neanderthals, why aren't they here with us?

These days, while reading a book on Neanderthal genome, the perception that people have about Neanderthals comes to my mind again. These missing Europeans, whom I spend much of my time on and who have fascinated me, had already complicated beginnings. They were discovered in 1856 in the Feldhofer grotto in the Neander Valley (Düsseldorf) and caused controversy from the start. Two contrary positions: those who interpreted these remains as belonging to an extinct human species and those who believed that it was a pathological case of a modern human. There are Neanderthals remains that were recovered before this, in 1829 in Engis (Belgium) and in 1848 at Forbes (Gibraltar), but they had not been identified as such. During the second half of the 19th century, there were several findings of Neanderthal human remains along with wildlife, which was also extinct, and stone tools which prompted their general acceptance as an extinct human species. Undoubtedly it is the human species we keep more fossils of, in different sites. Though it's the best studied species, it's still haunted by their apelike, brute fame inherited from the earliest discoveries, some of which were described incorrectly. This is the case of the skeleton of the old man from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, who is described as a hunched being with very archaic features, when it was actually an individual with arthritis.

 

There is so much enthusiasm in the arguments of some researchers who argue that modern humans cornered and wiped the Neanderthals out, that they end up giving the impression that capabilities acknowledged in Lower Pleistocene groups, such as social cohesion (which we've wanted to see in the group who cared for the `toothless` Dmanisi) are still denied to Neanderthals. Wrapped in an aura of mystery, always partially led by these unfortunate interpretations, the disappearance of these Neanderthals–strong, with a well-built body, big brains and a lifestyle that worked successfully for tens of thousands of years–, it still remains one of the most fascinating mysteries in the field of prehistory. This leads us to the prevailing paradigm of the last thirty years of the last century: human revolution, which postulated the existence of two species–(thus avoiding talking of `mix`) – one European, the Neanderthals, and the other African, the sapiens.

 

The latter increased demographically, left Africa and replaced populations that lived here, always due to its technological and cognitive superiority. In the middle of the 20th century, and thanks to the fossils of Tabun and Amud in Israel, the paradigm changes. These burials with demonstrable symbolic meaning humanize the Neanderthals. People even put a hat on them, because as a result of these findings, it was said that if they were dressed in suits and riding New York's underground, no one would notice. And finally, we must refer to the Châtelperronian period as the trigger that `makes` Neanderthals human. This period, called by some `the dawn of art` is well documented in France and in the North of the Iberian Peninsula. The strata corresponding to Châtelperronian settlements housed pendants, bones with geometric decorations and pigments. Until recently, the Châtelperronian was considered a period of the early Upper Paleolithic and so, related to Homo sapiens. And recently, due to a number of irrefutable findings in which Neanderthal remains associated to the Châtelperronian appear, the possibility that these objects were part of the imaginary Neanderthal started to be assessed. Now again we have two positions: those who admit Neanderthals' capabilities inferred from their records, and those who insist on denying them.

 

There is evidence that Neanderthals used symbolic elements in everyday life, probably decorated their bodies, used feathers for decoration purposes. It is also clear that they developed a behaviour that can be defined as human, very similar to Homo sapiens. All this even before the so-called transition periods such as the Châtelperronian. Of course, some will always defend acculturation, which is nothing more than an embellished way to write imitation. Some researchers still argue that these `emerging` behaviours in Neanderthal groups occurred as the result of their imitation of the newly arrived sapiens... But I would like to note that since these behaviours can be seen prior to the arrival of modern humans, we should therefore dismiss this idea. In the archaeological record we can see that beginning around 60,000 years ago, change in Neanderthal patterns can be noticed. Clive Finlayson blames these changes on e.g. climate, arguing that after enduring tens of thousands years of rigorous climate, the last Neanderthal populations would be like endangered pandas populations today. However, something that still eludes us and that must have happened before the arrival of modern humans, plunged Neanderthal groups into a process of demise. We're getting to know issues such as hair colour, whether or not they had an articulate language, their blood type, that they practiced female exogamy, and other issues that bring us definitively closer to these beings. However, we still do not know why we are here and they are not, i.e. why did they become extinct? What we must consider at this point, is that the role of Homo sapiens was not decisive in this matter. But there is no cause for alarm, the idea of cloning a Neanderthal as was suggested recently, is fiction at the moment...