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THE study of Neandertal bones discovered in the Vindija Cave, Croatia, in the
'70s has provided important clues about
the lives of these hunter-gatherers, who
occupied this cave some 50,000 years
ago. The first Neandertal fossils were
named after Neaderthal or Neander
Valley in Germany, where they were discovered in 1856. (The silent W in that
has been dropped in mpderin German).
Fine cut marks and unusual fractures -
similar to those made on the bones of
butchered animals - hint that the
Neandertals practised cannibalism,
either due to hunger or as some kind of
death ritual. But discoveries at other
Croatian caves suggest a more compassionate side to the Neandertals. A skull
fragment found at a nearby Neandertal
rock shelter shows evidence of a serious
head injury that had healed. Someone
had nursed the victim for a long time
(National Geographic, Vol 189, No 1).
Neandertal faces are marked by broad
noses and thick browridges over their
eyes. The strong chins and high foreheads of modern humans are missing.
Instead, their skulls slope back low over
their brains. Beneath their eyes, their
faces protrude forward, making their
cheekbones angle to the side rather than
facing the front, as ours do.
In the past, the Neandertals were
presumed to be @wkward subhumans
who lacked the anatomical or the intellectual ability to speak. They left hardly
any signs of creative art. Their toolmaking skills seemed primitive. However,
recent excavations and analysis have
proved that Neandertal tools required
a high level of craftsmanship and mental skills as sharp as modern humans.
They deftly shaped pieces of flint into
knives, scrapers, points and blades.
They organised group hunts and
took care of the sick, which suggests a
social organisation more complex than
previously believed. "Neandertals
were highly resourceful, highly
intelligent creatures," says Fred Smith, a
Neandertal specialist at Northern
Illinois University, us.
A hand axe found in the Vezere
valley of southwest France could have
served as a multipurpose tool. Different
edges of it were used for different purposes like cutting, butchering, scraping,
defleshing. Making such tools would
not have been possible without some
kind of communication or exchange of
information among the Neandertals.
There has been much debate on
whether the Neandertals had the anatomical equipment for speech. In modern
humans, the voice box hangs from the
hyoid bone. In 1983, an intact hyoid
bone was discovered in a 60,000-year-
old Neandertal skeleton excavated from
a cave called Kebara in Israel. But did
they have a language to store information and pass it on? It is generally accepted by scholars that Neandertals spoke
some kind of elementary language.
The origin of the Neandertals is
uncertain, but scientists suspect that
th@y share a common ancestor with
modern humans: a tall, slender species
kilown as Homo erectus, which migrated
into Europe probably from Africa
through western Asia between 700,000
and a million years ago.
The Neandertals had to adapt to the
harsh and cold climate to survive. Like
the arctic dwellers of today, they had
short limbs and stocky bodies. Their
strong physique enabled them to over-
power big game, such as bison or elk.
Generally, they had larger brains than
modern day humans. Some experts
speculate that Neandertals required
more brain cells to coordinate their
extra body mass.
These Neandertal traits probably
began emerging between 230,000 and
300,000 years ago. Evidence of their
antiquity has recently been discovered
on the muddy floor of a cave in the
Sierra de Atapuerca of northern Spain.
Hundreds of animal bones and the
remains of more than 30 Neandertals
have been found in test pits in the Sierra
de Atapuerca. It is a mystery why so
many bones lie clustered here. May be
the cave was a favourite eating spot for
predators. But Juan-Luis Asaragua and
his team from the Complutensian
University of Madrid in Spain have
offered a more intriguing possibility.
According to them, the Neandertals
inhabited the entrance to the cave and
since corpses smell, they disposed of the
bodies by dropping them down the pit.
Unlike animals who do not take care of
their dead, these people gave their dead
special treatment. This throws some
light on how their minds had evolved.
Two partial Neandertal skulls alongwith hundreds of flint tools and animal
bones were unearthed in 1976, at
Biache-Saint-Vaast in northern France.
Alain Tuffreau, an archeologist at the
University of Science and Technology of
Lille, France, says such slaughters hint at
their more advanced faculties.
"By 125,000 years ago they had
become formidable hunters as well as
gatherers of edible plants, shellfish and
small reptiles," says Mary Stiner, an
archaeologist at the University of
Arizona, us, who researched with her
husband Steven Kuhn. But the
Neandertals did not possess sophisticated weapons; they had to kill through
cooperation. According to Kuhn, a
wooden spear that probably had a sharp
stone point was used for killing. A
wooden spear nearly eight feet long was
found among the bones of a fossil elephant discovered in 1948, in a swamp in
Besides hunting, the Neandertals
practised other forms of cooperation.
They formed close social groups, as a
collection of skeletons from a cave
called Shanidar in Iraq poignantly illustrates. There, around 100,000 years ago,
a man, two women and an infant were
buried together. Excavators found the
pollen of early spring wildflowers in the
soil around the corpse.
"I think the flowers were set around
them by the rest of their social group.
That suggests that they were thinking
and caring about their dead" says Erik
Trinkaus. At Atapuerca, the
Neandertals' ancestors left no evidence
that they had felt such emotions.
Perhaps the later Neandertals were
emotionally developed like us to feel the
void in their hearts. The Shanidar cave
dwellers showed evidence that crippled
members of the group were fed, protected, and helped to move by others,
thus heralding the dawn of empathy.
In the '80s, scientists found the
remains of modern humans who lived
in the Middle East at least 90,000 years
ago. Perhaps the Neandertals and modern humans existed side by side for tens
of thousands of years. Around 40,000
years ago, modern humans came to
Europe, previously the exclusive domain
of the Neandertals. They survived the
glacial cold as they were equipped with
better shelters, tailored clothing and
more efficient hearths. Nineteenth century scientists named these newcomers
the Cro-Magnon people.
Speculations abound on why the
Neandertals disappeared. No record of
Neandertal life is available from about
10,000 years after their arrival. Perhaps
they were conquered and destroyed by
modern humans. Perhaps the new-
comers introduced deadly new diseases.
They might have interbred with modern
humans. Or may be, they slowly died
off, unable to compete with the more
Confrontations between the two
could have led to the extinction of the
Neandertals. Many scientists, such as
Fred Smith, see a more gradual replacement - not by people but by modern
genes that spread around the world like
virus, slowly transforming populations.
4 Some bones at Vindija appear slightly
@@more slender and graceful than the classic Neandertal bones. Could the modern Europeans be the descendents of the
Cro-Magnons and the Neandertals?
"Neandertal genes persist in modern
',,Europeans today," insists Milford
Wolpoff, a p aleoanthro polo gist from
the University of Michigan. Others disagree. They were a different species,"
argues Fred Spoor of University College,
According to Jean-Jacques Hublin,
the Neandertals may have been forced
to flee south into Spain due to falling
temperatures around 35,000 years ago,
and found the last refuge in the Rock of
Gibralter dotted by 140 caves. Evidently,
they never moved on across the strait
even though Africa lies only a few miles
Did they lack curiosity? Perhaps
that marked them out from humans
who are driven by curiosity to explore.
May be they simply gave in to the adversities of that period without any resistance. Nobody knows. All that we know
is that the Neandertals survived daunting challenges for more than 200,000