Neanderthal winter collection

by Henry Gee

The Neanderthals of Ice-Age Europe died out without issue, but not before a last sartorial swansong. In a report in the 16 May 1996 Nature, Fred Spoor of University College, London, and colleagues show how Neanderthals borrowed the more advanced technology (and even the fashion jewellery) of the modern humans with whom they shared Europe, before becoming extinct. Crucially, Neanderthals didn't evolve into modern humans themselves.

This report may be the last and decisive shot in a long battle over the origins of modern humans. Some researchers, most notably Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan, have long espoused the idea that humans in different parts of the world each have a long and separate evolutionary history going back a million years or more. Neanderthals, for example, evolved in Europe around 300,000 years ago and disappeared around 34,000 years ago.

Other researchers, such as Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, think that so-called 'anatomically modern' humans (or 'Moderns') originated much more recently, spreading out of Africa around 100,000 years ago to replace all other existing populations. In this scenario, the Moderns reached Europe around 40,000 years ago, and replaced the Neanderthals who already lived there. Whether this replacement was gradual or violent is moot. Either way, Neanderthals were distant cousins of Moderns, not their ancestors.

The latest work emphatically supports the second view. The researchers have been looking at a collection of human bones and artefacts from an archaeological site at Arcy-sur-Cure, near the town of Auxerre in France. The tools belong to the strange and short-lived 'Châtelperronian' culture, a hybrid between the plain-and-simple stonework typical of Neanderthals, and the fancier implements of the Moderns, with their characteristic innovations such as worked bone and ivory. The Châtelperronian culture belongs, quite specifically, to the period between the arrival of the Moderns in Europe (40,000 years ago) and the disappearance of Neanderthals from their last redoubts in France and Spain (34,000 years ago).

Researchers in the Wolpoff school might argue that the Châtelperronian culture represents humanity caught in the act of evolving from the Neanderthal to the Modern state. But the Stringer school suggests that what was happening is less evolution than acculturation: Neanderthals were borrowing features of the Moderns' technology, and perhaps trading with them. The latter is suggested by the presence of teeth and ivory discs with holes drilled into them, to make beads. Personal adornment seems to have been a Modern innovation, but one perhaps borrowed by the Neanderthals.

The Stringer school is vindicated by the work of Spoor and his colleagues on one particular bone from Arcy-sur-Cure. This is a skull bone from a 1-year-old infant that contains the inner ear, the bony network of tubes called the 'labyrinth'. The colleagues were able to image the labyrinth indirectly using computed tomography. This meant that they didn't have to destroy the valuable bone to examine the labyrinth inside.

The Neanderthal labyrinth has a very characteristic shape, quite different from the labyrinths of Moderns. Neanderthal labyrinths are so distinctive, in fact, that modern human labyrinths have more in common with those of apes than those from Neanderthals. The labyrinth in the bone from Arcy-sur-Cure sits squarely in the Neanderthal pattern. Importantly, it is not intermediate in form between Neanderthal and Modern labyrinths, which one might expect according to the Wolpoff view in which Neanderthals evolved into Moderns.

The last piece of the jigsaw is the age of the Arcy-sur-Cure collection. At 34,000 years old, it represents virtually the last gasp of the Neanderthals as a species, 6000 years after the Moderns entered Europe.

From this, one might be able to reconstruct the European scene of 400 centuries ago. Neanderthals had occupied Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, doing very much the same things in terms of technology as they always had. In the Neanderthal world, there was no such thing as progress. Then, the Moderns appeared on the scene, with their paintings and sculptures, and their vibrant, complex and rapidly changing (almost ephemeral) technologies, aided, many researchers think, by sophisticated spoken language. Perhaps violently, perhaps simply by better use of resources, the Moderns drove the Neanderthals into more marginal areas. The process took a long time, but against this picture of a long and losing battle, the Neanderthals and Moderns were able to forge some technological links, however tenuous. Neanderthals 'borrowed' some of the techniques of the Moderns to create the Châtelperronian.

The presence of pierced ivory and teeth (jewellery, essentially) is possibly even more poignant. Perhaps these particular artefacts record an attempt by the colonial Moderns to buy favours from the indigenous Neanderthals, in the same way that colonial Europeans used trinkets to trade with soon-to-be subject peoples from other parts of the world. To the last Neanderthals (who had managed for a quarter of a million years to get by without such things), the very idea of jewellery must have been alien indeed.

© Macmillan Magazines Ltd. NATURE NEWS SERVICE 1996

Note: This item from the Nature News Service is mounted on this Web page by special permission of Nature.

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