New Discoveries Give Insight into Early Neanderthal History

A pair of studies published this week shine a light on the history of our ancient human relatives.
John Loeffler

A pair of studies published this week has shed light on the history and culture of the Neanderthals, the closest species of humans to ourselves on the evolutionary tree of life.

Studies Show Stable Populations and Open-Air Settlements of Neanderthals

The history of our own species of humanity becomes very hard to discern once we go back in time some 12,000 years, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we know even less about our closest relation in the Homo genus, Homo neanderthalensis.


Long thought to be little more than very advanced apes who lived in caves and swung clubs over their heads at the apex of their species, actual science has done much to lift the mystery around their history and reveals a much more nuanced understanding of their lives. Now, according to a report by CNN, two new studies published this week hope to shed further light on the life and times of this Neanderthals.

In a study published yesterday in Science Advances, researchers were able to recover DNA from the jaw bone of a Neanderthal girl found in Belgium in 1993 and from a femur belonging to a Neanderthal male, found in Germany in 1937, both of which dates back to about 120,000 years ago. By about 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal fossils disappear, and they are believed to have gone extinct, at least from Europe and parts of central Asia they were known to inhabit.

What this new study found was that these older Neanderthal fossils were very closely related genetically to the last known fossils in Europe, meaning that they were more closely related to each other over 80,000 years than either fossil was to contemporary Neanderthals living in Siberia at the same time. This is very strong evidence that the last Neanderthals in Europe likely shared a common ancestor and that this intervening 80,000-year period was a remarkable stable one.

"The result is truly extraordinary and a stark contrast to the turbulent history of replacements, large-scale admixtures and extinctions that is seen in modern human history," said Kay Prüfer, study supervisor and group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Another study, also published yesterday in PLOS ONE, revealed the existence of an open-air settlement in Israel dating to between 54,000 and 71,000 years ago that was repeatedly occupied by Neanderthals. In addition to Neanderthal bones, the researchers found around 12,000 animal bones, tools, and other artifacts at the site, adding further evidence to the fact that that Neanderthals weren't exclusively cave-dwelling as previously thought.

The site was abandoned by Neanderthals around the same time that Neanderthals disappeared from the region entirely, "raising questions about the reasons for their disappearance and about their interactions with contemporaneous modern humans," said Ravid Ekshtain, a postdoctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lead author of the study.

While there is some debate about when the Neanderthals first arrived on the scene, the fossil record puts their emergence around 400,000 years ago, with the emergence of modern humans dating as far back as 300,000 years ago. Studies using DNA analysis also show that non-African human DNA contains anywhere from one to three percent Neanderthal DNA, and that wherever modern human fossils enter the fossil records in a given area, Neanderthal fossils disappear soon after.

Whether these ancient humans were killed off or driven out by modern humans isn't known, but its entirely possible that ancient Neanderthals were simply absorbed into modern human populations. We're talking about 80,000 to 40,000 years ago, so the technological and cultural advancements made by modern humans were still tens of thousands of years off. Back then, they would not have been noticeably different than the Neanderthals.

Moreover, Neanderthals sites show symbolic art and ceremonial burial practices that predate modern humans arriving on the scene, so their culture might have been different than that of modern humans who came later, but it wouldn't be entirely alien either.

In short, our ancient modern human ancestors would likely have seen Neanderthals as fellow humans, albeit shorter, stockier humans who hold up well in cold weather with different sky gods than their own.

Humans fight wars over this sort of thing to this day, of course, but that doesn't mean that even in conquest, Neanderthals were simply killed off. All we can say for sure however is that the more we learn about our nearest genetic relative on the tree of life, what we find always brings them closer to modern humans, not the opposite.

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