Neanderthals have always fascinated the imagination of anthropologists and people interested in the history of human race in general – after all, our ancient cousins are the closest thing to another sentient species we’ve managed to discover so far. The fact that there were two closely related yet distinctly different human subspecies on our planet breeds all kinds of questions. What were they like? What was their psychology? Did they have a language? Why did they go extinct? However, although it was a century and a half since the discovery of the Neanderthals, we know precious little about them. Here we have gathered some facts about Neanderthals that you may find interesting and useful for writing your own anthropology essay.
For a long while the general consensus was that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals did not interbreed at all. However, a number of more recent researches suggest that this was not the case, and most modern non-Africans inherited about 1-3 percent of their genes from Neanderthals, with Asians showing a somewhat higher percentage than Europeans do. Geographically Neanderthals lived across Eurasia, which explains why people of African descent don’t show any traces of their genes.
An intriguing fact is that there is little to no Neanderthal DNA on X chromosome, which suggests that biological compatibility between Neanderthals and our human ancestors was extremely weak, and the majority of male hybrids turned out to be sterile. As a result, most of Neanderthal genes were passed through females.
Contrary to popular belief, cranial capacity of Neanderthals was considerably higher than that of modern humans: 1600 cm3 vs. 1400 cm3 on average. It stands to reason: Neanderthals lived in higher latitudes than anatomically modern humans originally did, and as a result were more massive in general and higher of stature, which usually leads to larger brain size. A question now arises: why did a biologically close species with larger brain capacity and, supposedly greater brain power, go extinct, while we go on?
There is no clear-cut answer to this question, but some studies suggest that Neanderthals had to dedicate a much greater percentage of their brain power to controlling their bodies and their vision than we do. In other words, anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals evolved from a common ancestor but their brains evolved along two different trajectories. Neanderthals developed their somatic and visual regions (mostly dealing with body maintenance and visual perception) while AMHs mostly developed other parts of their brain. The most notable of these other parts is parietal lobe, responsible, among other things, for language processing – a crucial ability for long-term development.
For quite some time the prevalent opinion was that Neanderthals were incapable of language and the array of sounds they could articulate was limited to a relatively poor set of guttural grunts. However, this theory became much less popular after the discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone in 1983. Hyoid bone is a small bone that connects the muscles of the larynx and the tongue, and more or less makes speech possible. It turned out that not only did Neanderthals have it, but it was also almost identical to the hyoid bone of modern human. In addition to that, recent studies of Neanderthal DNA shows that they possessed the same variant of FOXP2 gene, which is known to have been extremely important for the formation of language.
Moreover, many artifacts left by Neanderthals show the degree of sophistication that would have made learning how to create and use them rather difficult without the assistance of some kind of language. It also pays to remember that they lived in extremely harsh conditions: Neanderthals inhabited colder regions of the planet in the times when climate was much colder than it is now in general, were surrounded by dangerous predators many times larger than themselves, and were capable of bringing down an occasional mammoth with nothing more than sharpened sticks and stones. All this requires a level of cooperation that is impossible without a language, although we are extremely unlikely to ever find out what it was like.
Neanderthals and AMHs shared a common ancestor, so it is hardly surprising that they were rather similar genetically. However, this small difference was in a number of very important genes. The main difference lies in that Neanderthals lacked some genes connected with behaviors that are present in AMHs. And the reason why our ancestors were better at survival probably lies exactly there.
Neanderthals made an emphasis on individual survival and initially their larger size and stronger muscles did the trick. However, they hardly developed socially, while AMHs traded larger size and better eyesight for improved cognitive power, which led to increased ability to work as a social entity and interact between each other. The fact that Neanderthal tools changed very little over the course of hundreds of thousands of years shows that they were resistant to change and innovation. Also, they were lactose-intolerant and lacked genes that in modern humans are associated with hyperactivity, aggression and syndromes like Autism.
When all is said and done, Neanderthals, despite a number of notable differences, were still pretty similar to AMHs. There is evidence that they lived in complex social groups, made tools, were able to make fire, built shelters, wore jewelry, produced cave paintings, nursed their sick and wounded back to health, buried their dead, were capable of language and probably could appreciate music and singing. In their case the fact that a species that was isolated from Homo Sapiens for such a long time and developed by itself has so much in common with us socially is possibly even more mystifying than if they were absolutely different.
Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago, and all that is left of them are a few bones and tools. Yet they are an important part of our history and heritage – and an extremely interesting and mysterious part at that. That’s why it’s a perfect pool of topics for your anthropology essay!
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