Thursday, January 12, 2017

Neanderthals were humans and ancestors

I posted before Neanderthals belonged to the human species. Now the NY Times Magazine has a long article on Neanderthals Were People, Too
But Neanderthals weren’t the slow-witted louts we’ve imagined them to be — not just a bunch of Neanderthals. As a review of findings published last year put it, they were actually “very similar” to their contemporary Homo sapiens in Africa, in terms of “standard markers of modern cognitive and behavioral capacities.” We’ve always classified Neanderthals, technically, as human — part of the genus Homo. But it turns out they also did the stuff that, you know, makes us human.

Neanderthals buried their dead. They made jewelry and specialized tools. They made ocher and other pigments, perhaps to paint their faces or bodies — evidence of a “symbolically mediated worldview,” as archaeologists call it. Their tracheal anatomy suggests that they were capable of language and probably had high-pitched, raspy voices, like Julia Child. They manufactured glue from birch bark, which required heating the bark to at least 644 degrees Fahrenheit — a feat scientists find difficult to duplicate without a ceramic container. In Gibraltar, there’s evidence that Neanderthals extracted the feathers of certain birds — only dark feathers — possibly for aesthetic or ceremonial purposes. And while Neanderthals were once presumed to be crude scavengers, we now know they exploited the different terrains on which they lived. They took down dangerous game, including an extinct species of rhinoceros. Some ate seals and other marine mammals. Some ate shellfish. Some ate chamomile. (They had regional cuisines.) They used toothpicks.

Wearing feathers, eating seals — maybe none of this sounds particularly impressive. But it’s what our human ancestors were capable of back then too, and scientists have always considered such behavioral flexibility and complexity as signs of our specialness. When it came to Neanderthals, though, many researchers literally couldn’t see the evidence sitting in front of them.
The author of this article is still infected with this ignorant anti-Neanderthal bias. It refers to "our human ancestors" to mean non-Neanderthals.

The fact is that DNA tests of the last 5-10 years have proved that Neanderthals were ancestors to the vast majority of non-Africans today. They had large brains, and now archaeological evidence shows that they were behaviorally very similar to other human ancestors.

There is every reason to call Neanderthals our human ancestors. They were humans and ancestors (to all but sub-saharans).

30 years ago, textbooks said:

(1) Neanderthals were very primitive and sub-human.
(2) Neanderthals went extinct, with no extant DNA.
(3) A wave of anatomically modern African migrants 70-100k years ago are our sole ancestors.
(4) Humans have not evolved since that wave.

These are all now known to be completely false.
Some of this is documented in this 2016 PNAS article, Neandertals revised, which also says:
However, from the hundreds of thousands of years in which Neandertals and their African near-modern contemporaries littered their landscapes with all kinds of artifacts, nothing has been retrieved that is in any way comparable to the visual representations (“art”) and the general increase in diversity in material culture we see from around 40 ka onward. These developments coincided with a significant range expansion of modern humans, for the first time in human history colonizing the arctic parts of the Old World (121, 122), as well as moving into Sahul (123), crossing a major biogeographical boundary that had prevented hominin eastward migration for more than a million years.
The date "40 ka" (40,000 years ago) is crucial because that is the time that Africans migrated into Europe and the time that Neanderthals got wiped out. The obvious explanations are that the African killed off the Neanderthals, or out-competed them for resources, or spread disease. Whatever the explanation, it appears that interbreeding resulted in humans that were capable of much more advanced art and travel than either the Neanderthals or African migrants by themselves.

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