[Paleopsych] Were Modern Humans Neighbors to Neanderthals?

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Were Modern Humans Neighbors to Neanderthals?

    Dating of Modern-Style Artifacts in Famed Neanderthal Cave in France
    Refuels Debate About Possible Coexistence

    By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 12, 2005; A07

    Sometime between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals
    abruptly disappeared after a run of perhaps 200 millennia in the Near
    East, west Asia and, most notably, in the ice age caves of Europe. On
    that score, there is no dispute.

    How this happened, and why, is another matter. For years,
    paleontologists have argued about whether anatomically modern humans
    invading from the east either wiped out the Neanderthals or
    out-innovated them; or, alternatively, whether Neanderthals and the
    invaders simply interbred to create today's Homo sapiens .

    This debate has taken on new virulence amid an accumulation of new,
    but still inconclusive, evidence.

    DNA analysis to date suggests that Neanderthals and modern humans are
    quite probably unrelated -- that Neanderthals were a distinct species

    However, archaeologists have shown in the past few years that modern
    human remains thought to be associated with human-made artifacts from
    the late Neanderthal era actually date from much more recent times. No
    one has found modern human remains buried with artifacts older than
    perhaps 32,000 years.

    The argument now is about whether Neanderthals were comic book
    characters -- not-quite-bright, club-carrying, knuckle-draggers who
    couldn't keep up with the invaders -- or, instead, simply a different
    people who somehow got sideswiped into extinction for some other

    This mystery, central to the study of human culture during the Stone
    Age, is nowhere near resolution. "A lot of this discussion is about
    how we see our own relationship to these creatures," said Princeton
    University anthropologist Alan E. Mann. "I worry these discussions are
    becoming much less about science."

    Early this month, researchers poured more gasoline on the fire,
    reporting in the journal Nature on the results of new studies of a
    famous Neanderthal site at Chatelperron, in France. They said the new
    analysis of materials from old excavations showed that Neanderthals
    and modern humans coexisted in western Europe during the Neanderthals'
    waning days, and thus had "potential demographic and cultural

    Co-author Paul A. Mellars, a University of Cambridge archaeologist and
    leading proponent of the view that modern humans shoved aside the
    Neanderthals and eventually replaced them, said in a telephone
    interview that he knew "there would be screaming" after publication of
    the Nature paper.

    And there was. "It's hogwash," said Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist
    at Washington University in St. Louis who is an advocate both of
    Neanderthal-modern human interbreeding and Neanderthals' ability to
    adapt and "modernize." The evidence is not convincing, Trinkaus said,
    and Mellars "is grasping at straws."

    The cave at Chatelperron, in central France, was first discovered in
    the 1840s during railroad construction, and it was excavated
    periodically through the rest of the 19th century. Today it has become
    archaeology's prototype late Neanderthal site.

    In the early 1950s, the famous French archaeologist Henri Delporte
    revisited the site and meticulously documented five levels of
    Neanderthal-era occupation. The most recent top three layers and the
    bottom-most layer had distinctively Neanderthal artifacts.

    But the fourth layer had modern human, or "Aurignacian," material --
    including the "split-based point" of a weapon made from an antler and
    two ornaments crafted from perforated animal teeth -- typical of the
    artifacts attributed to early modern humans who spread across Europe
    perhaps a little more than 40,000 years ago.

    Mellars said this "interstratification" provided solid evidence that
    Neanderthals and modern humans had co-existed in Europe. Delporte, now
    dead, published two obscure papers on the findings, "but didn't make
    as much of it as he should have," Mellars said. "There was a
    deep-rooted conviction" that overlap between Neanderthals and modern
    humans had not occurred.

    Mellars joined Cambridge graduate student Brad Gravina, lead author of
    the Nature article, in reexamining the Chatelperron materials after
    Gravina found among the Delporte artifacts animal bones that could be
    dated by modern methods.

    Radiocarbon analysis of the bones showed the bottom Neanderthal level
    to be between 42,000 and 43,000 years old. The overlying Aurignacian
    level was between 41,000 and 42,000 years old, while the Neanderthal
    level on top of that was between 40,000 and 41,000 years old.

    Mellars suggested that the back-and-forth shift may have occurred
    because modern humans were better prepared to cope with a western
    European cold snap about 41,500 years ago. "When it got cold, the
    Neanderthals moved out and the modern humans moved in," Mellars said.

    "Anatomically Neanderthals were cold-adapted," he added, acknowledging
    that Neanderthals survived most of Europe's ice age, but modern humans
    probably had "better clothing and shelter, better fire control and
    better technological adaptation."

    Trinkaus, speaking in a telephone interview, disputed both the
    integrity of the site and the accuracy of the interpretation. He said
    Chatelperron was a "heavily damaged, classic site" that had been
    picked over for 150 years.

    He also noted that the Gravina-Mellars team had not dated the
    ornamental teeth or the antler, and "a butchered animal bone doesn't
    tell you anything." More important, he added, Chatelperron, like other
    contemporary European sites, had no modern human skeletal remains with
    the artifacts.

    "You cannot argue that these things were made by modern humans just
    because modern humans made that type of tool," Trinkaus said. "The
    implication is that Neanderthals were too stupid to do it themselves."

    Mellars noted Delporte's undisputed credentials as an excavator. Also,
    he said, "I have been looking at these stone tools for 45 years," and
    they have always been associated with modern humans. The teeth and
    antler point were not dated because they would have been damaged in
    the process.

    However, he acknowledged Trinkaus made "a fair point" about the lack
    of modern human skeletal remains at Chatelperron. Indeed, this has
    been the Achilles' heel of those who propound the
    contact-and-replacement theory.

    There are sites in Europe about 35,000 years old that do have bones of
    modern humans but no artifacts with them, and there are several sites,
    such as Chatelperron, that have artifacts purportedly made by modern
    humans -- but no bones. All the sites thought to have both have turned
    out to have remains of much more recent humans, almost certainly the
    result of later burials that were dug into older archaeological

    Either the oldest of Europe's modern humans didn't bury their dead, or
    archaeologists haven't yet found the bones. Or maybe modern humans
    weren't there, after all, and the early modern human artifacts were
    made by Neanderthals.

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