Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Why the Neanderthals died out

Nicholas Wade reports in the NY Science Times:
At sites occupied by modern humans from 45,000 to 10,000 years ago, a period known as the Upper Paleolithic, there is good evidence of different occupations, from small animal and bird remains, as well as the bone awls and needles used to make clothes. It seems reasonable to assume that these activities were divided between men and women, as is the case with modern foraging peoples.

But Neanderthal sites include no bone needles, no small animal remains and no grinding stones for preparing plant foods. So what did Neanderthal women do all day?

Their skeletons are so robustly built that it seems improbable that they just sat at home looking after the children, the anthropologists write. More likely, they did the same as the men, with the whole population engaged in bringing down large game.

The meat of large animals yields a rich payoff, but even the best hunters have unlucky days. The modern humans of the Upper Paleolithic, with their division of labor and diversified food sources, would have been better able to secure a continuous food supply. Nor were they putting their reproductive core -- women and children -- at great risk.

David Pilbeam, a paleoanthropologist at Harvard, said the Arizona researchers' article was "very stimulating and thoughtful" and seemed to be the first to propose a mechanism for why Neanderthal populations declined.
So paleolithic cavemen kept their wives barefoot and pregnant back at the cave, while the men did men's work.

Neanderthal women were liberated and insisted on participated in hunts with men. And that is why Neanderthals went extinct.

Previous conventional wisdom was that humans excelled because they were smarter than Neanderthals, but Neanderthal brains were actually slightly bigger than those of most modern humans.

Update: Neander News has more. I had no idea that the Neanderthals had their own blog!

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