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Did some Neanderthals learn advanced skills from “moderns”?

Oct. 30, 2012
Courtesy of PNAS
and World Science staff

Sur­pris­ing­ly, some Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple seem to have made body or­na­ments and soph­is­t­icated tools—per­haps learn­ing these skills from the an­ces­tors of mod­ern hu­ma­ns, a new study re­ports.

Body or­na­ments are “other­wise vir­tu­ally un­known in the Ne­an­der­tal world,” wrote Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Ev­o­lu­tion­ary An­thro­po­l­ogy in Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny, and col­leagues in a re­port on their work.

Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple were a rug­ged breed of hu­ma­ns, ev­o­lu­tion­ary cousins of mod­ern ma­n, who lived in what is now mainly France, Spain, Ger­ma­ny and Rus­sia un­til around 30,000 years ago. They died out grad­u­ally while an­a­tom­ic­ally mod­ern hu­ma­ns lived on.

Hublin and col­leagues re­assessed a group of ob­jects as­so­ci­at­ed with a Ne­an­der­thal popula­t­ion be­lieved to have lived over 40,000 years ago. Be­cause of the ad­vanced na­ture of the bone tools and the or­na­ments, some in­ves­ti­ga­tors had pro­posed that items made by mod­ern hu­ma­ns had simply got­ten mixed up with those from Ne­an­der­thal hab­ita­t­ion sites.

The lat­est find­ings, which cast doubt on this ac­count, are pub­lished in this week’s early on­line edi­tion of the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces.

Hublin and col­leagues an­a­lyzed bone sam­ples from two sites in France: Grotte du Renne and Saint Cé­saire, where Ne­an­der­thal re­mains are as­so­ci­at­ed with ar­ti­facts from a pe­ri­od called the Châtelper­ro­nian. The sci­en­tists ex­tracted col­la­gen from the sam­ples and car­ried out a meth­od of date es­tima­t­ion called car­bon dat­ing. 

At Grotte du Renne, the Châtelper­ro­nian ar­ti­facts were dat­ed to be­tween 44,500 and 41,000 years ago, and a Ne­an­der­thal tib­ia bone from Saint Cé­saire was found to date close to 41,950 years ago. These ages are sig­nif­i­cant be­cause mod­ern hu­ma­ns grad­u­ally re­placed the last known Eu­ro­pe­an Ne­an­der­thals start­ing around 50,000 years ago, the re­search­ers added.

Giv­en the dat­ing re­sults, the au­thors con­clude that Ne­an­der­thals must have made the bone tools and body or­na­ments found at the sites. How­ev­er, be­cause Ne­an­der­thals pro­duced body or­na­ments only af­ter mod­ern hu­ma­ns ar­rived in neigh­bor­ing re­gions, cul­tur­al ex­change likely took place be­tween mod­ern hu­ma­ns and Ne­an­der­thals, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors. “This new be­hav­ior could… have been the re­sult of cul­tur­al dif­fu­sion from mod­ern to Ne­an­der­tal groups,” they wrote.


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Surprisingly, some Neanderthal people seem to made body ornaments and sophisticated tools—perhaps learning these skills from the ancestors of modern humans, a new study reports. Body ornaments are “otherwise virtually unknown in the Neandertal world,” wrote Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues in a report on their work. Neanderthal people were a rugged breed of humans, evolutionary cousins of modern man, who lived in what is now mainly France, Spain, Germany and Russia until around 30,000 years ago. They died out gradually while anatomically modern humans lived on. Hublin and colleagues reassessed a group of objects associated with a Neanderthal population believed to have lived over 40,000 years ago. Because of the advanced nature of the bone tools and the ornaments, some investigators had proposed that items made by modern humans had simply gotten mixed up with those from Neanderthal habitation sites. The latest findings, which cast doubt on this explanation, are published in this week’s early online edition of the journal pnas. Hublin and colleagues analyzed bone samples from two sites in France: Grotte du Renne and Saint Césaire, where Neandertal remains are associated with artifacts from a period called the Châtelperronian. The scientists extracted collagen from the samples and carried out a method of date estimation called carbon dating. At Grotte du Renne, the Châtelperronian artifacts were dated to between 44,500 and 41,000 years ago, and a Neandertal tibia bone from Saint Césaire was found to date close to 41,950 years ago. These ages are significant because modern humans gradually replaced the last known European Neandertals starting around 50,000 years ago, the researchers added. Given the dating results, the authors conclude that Neandertals must have made the bone tools and body ornaments found at the sites. However, because Neandertals produced body ornaments only after modern humans arrived in neighboring regions, cultural exchange likely took place between modern humans and Neanderthals, according to the authors. “This new behavior could… have been the result of cultural diffusion from modern to Neandertal groups,” they wrote.