[Paleopsych] Were Modern Humans Neighbors to Neanderthals?
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Mon Sep 19 19:42:59 UTC 2005
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
"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
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
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.
More information about the paleopsych