Neanderthal (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis)

The early human form of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis lived from about 400.000 to 30.000 years ago in Eurasia (Europe and Asia). This group of prehistoric people named Neanderthals after the fossilized remains unearthed in 1856 in the Neanderthal Valley near Düsseldorf in Germany. Archaeologists classified the period of Neanderthal culture in Europe, to the period of the Middle Old Stone Age (Middle Palaeolithic). The culture is also known as Moustérien, after the eponymous archaeological site Le Moustier in south-west France near today’s village Dordogne. The line of development of the Neanderthal human leads back to the early human form of Homo heidelbergensis from the Middle Pleistocene (who lived from about 700.000 to 300.000 years ago). From 100.000 to 30.000 years ago, existed the “classic” Neanderthals. The remains at least three individuals found at Mettmann in the Neandertal in 1856 had the early human form. They existed about 45,000 years ago.

Outside of the European continent, scientists also discovered this type homo sapiens. In 1921 in Rhodesia (southern Africa), the remains of Neanderthals (Homo rodensiensis) unearthed. Homo rodensiensis coincides  with the period of homo heidelbergensis and also Homo galilensis discovered 1925 in a Cave of Zuttiyeh in Upper Galilee. At the Mount Carmel in today’s Israel in the area around approximately 54ha scientists discovered the remains of a Neanderthal human. The first discoveries in this area occurred in 1931 and 1932. During the archaeological excavation between 1953 and 1957, ten Neanderthal skeletons unearthed in Iraqi Shanidar Cave. Homo neanderthalensis in the science circles is also known as Homo primigenius, Homo Europaeus, Homo Krapinensis, Homo Mousteriensis, Homo antiquus, Homo incipiens, Homo Spyensis, Homo Breladensis. Neanderthal was the first human being who buried their dead covering the body with the stone. They pushed the dead body in the sleeping’s attitude to the side, mostly right, with their inclined knees.

The body of the Neanderthals wasn’t particularly tall, no more than 1.70 meters, but his physique was strong, with a very wide chest. The Neanderthal man weighing up to 90 kilos. The volume of brain was between 1200 and 1700 cm3 which was relatively bigger then the brain of modern humans (1052-1500 cm3).

Climate conditions during the presence of Neanderthals

The climate conditions were characterized by the last stage of the Ice Age, with the change of extreme hot and cold days. Times of the cold dry periods alternated with warm humid periods of varying duration and Neanderthal was well adapted to those often extreme fluctuations. If we look the last glacial period, there were several changes between warm and cold phases, with different lengths. The Last Glacial Period lasted approximately between 115.000-11.500 years ago. At first, the movement of the Gulf Stream subsided, the vegetation consisted mainly of coniferous forests 107.000 years ago. There was also  annual average temperature between 0 and 6 degrees Celsius. The sea level dropped about 40 meters below today’s level. Between 107.000 and 70.000 years ago began a change between the warm and cold period. In this Interstadial phase the Quaternary period, started to sprout birch, pine and spruce. In the following cold climate condition of Stadial between 85.000 and 74.000 years before present (BP), tundra and steppe landscape started to grow. From 70.000 years BP there was a renewed the extreme cold snap.

The great dryness reduced the vegetation significantly, so that the Neanderthals also had difficulty finding enough material for fire. Wood as an energy source was vital to Neanderthals in order to survive those cold days. In this cold phase, the average annual temperature were between -2 and -5 degrees Celsius. The sea level dropped 100 meters below today’s level. In that period, England was no longer an island, Sweden and Denmark were connected by a land bridge with the Central Europe. The Neanderthals migrated from the northern regions to the south. The vegetation consisted only of dwarf birches, grasses and herbs. The next period from 58.000 to 28.000 years BP was again characterized by a constant change between warm and cold phases.

Reconstructed skeleton of the Neanderthal (left) and modern human (right).
Reconstructed skeleton of the Neanderthal human (left) next to skeleton of the modern human (right) by G.J. Sawyer and Blaine Maley (see ref. no.4). Note that “Reconstruction is by definition artistic and therefore carries an element of subjectivity.”

Interesting was the warm phase from about 38.500 to 36.500 years BP with good climate conditions.  From about 10.000 years ago, the Neanderthal human got an neighbor, a modern humans. Dwellings of the Neanderthals consisted of caves and abris or tent-like huts in the open air. In some cases Neanderthal were also built the tents in the caves, because it was impossible to heat the whole cave due to its large volume. However, caves offers protection from the wind in winter conditions,  so it was warmer there compare to outside temperature.

Which food was consumed by Neanderthal ?

Scientific investigations of the bones from the remains of the Neanderthals, show a certain relationship between carbon and nitrogen isotopes, so it can be concluded that Neanderthals consumed 90% of meat. Archaeological finds  from Germany (Neanderthal), France (Marillac, St. Césaire, Les Rochers-de-Villeneuve), Belgium (Scladica, Spy, Engis) and Croatia (Vindija) were investigated. Further proof of the meat-containing diet was the abrasion pattern of the teeth, that is, the signs of wear on the chewing surfaces. The following wild animals were on the menu of the Neanderthals: mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, wild horse and deer. According to discoveries from the caves in Spain, it can be concluded that Neanderthal human around 40.000 years ago consumed also the sea animals. Archaeologists unearthed remains of Neanderthal humans and also the remains of seals, dolphins and fish, as well as shells. The later Homo sapiens also chased the same species. Despite the predominantly animal diet of meat, fat, bone marrow, intestines and brain, the Neanderthal man probably ate berries, fruits, mushrooms and herbal plants even in warm periods.

Why did Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis disappear from the scene around 30.000 before present?

This question in science is still unclear. Thus, according to one theory the alleged cultural superiority of modern human was responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals. The assumption that Neanderthals were not adapted to climate changes, may be considered conditionally. The climate changes was always present during the 300.000 year of the Neanderthal life in nature. Neanderthal disappearance from the scene between 40.000 and 30.000 years ago coincides with the presence of the modern humans and their migrations. Migrations were happened because humans searched for a better environmental conditions for leaving. A new potential cause of Neanderthal extinction associated with warming it can be seen from the research of Professor Patrick Chinnery from the University of Cambridge (at the time of research in 2008 he was at the Newcastle University). The Neanderthals were particularly well adapted to the cold, which was also useful during the Ice Age. Analyzes of the cells (mitochondria) of Neanderthal bones show differences in a certain gene sequence compared to today’s humans. The mitochondria are supposed to have generated more heat than chemically usable energy (ATP = adenosine triphosphate). This is exactly what makes sense in cold weather, but in times of greater warming  this was disadvantage for Neanderthals. The mitochondria of modern humans were better adapted to warm periods.
It is clear that Middle Palaeolithic cultural assets attributed to the Neanderthals differ from those of the Upper Paleolithic. This last phase were also coincides with a modern humans. However, the technique of Neanderthal stone tools has more varied artifacts than previously thought. Cave findings from Burgundy could even point to the first jewelry production of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis in the form of pierced shells and animal teeth. Even that is controversial in the science. Nevertheless, an occasional encounter between Neanderthals and modern humans can not be excluded. But how the extinction of the Neanderthal humans really went it’s not sufficiently clarified.

References:

  1. Esteban E. Sarmiento, Gary J. Sawyer, Kenneth Mowbray, Richard Milner, Viktor Deak, Donald C. Johanson, Ian Tattersall, The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-two Species of Extinct Humans, 2007 Yale University Press.
  2. Cédric BeauvalBruno MaureilleFrançois Lacrampe-CuyaubèreDavid SerreDavid PeressinottoJean-Guillaume BordesDavid CochardIsabelle CouchoudDavid DubrasquetVéronique LaroulandieArnaud LenobleJean-Baptiste MallyeSylvain PastyJérôme PrimaultNadin RohlandSvante Pääbo, and Erik Trinkaus, “A late Neandertal femur from Les Rochers-de-Villeneuve, France”, PNAS (National Academy of Sciences), Vol 102, 7085–7090.
  3. Patrick F. Chinnery, Massimo Zevian, workshop report, 155th ENMC workshop: Polymerase gamma and disorders of mitochondrial DNA synthesis, 21–23 September 2007, Naarden, The Netherlands.
  4. G.J. Sawyer, Blaine Maley, “Neanderthal Reconstructed”, The Anatomical Record Part B The New Anatomist 283(1), 2005, p. 23-31.
  5. Marcus Anhauser, “Meet the Neanderthals”, MaxPlanckResearch 3, 2017.
  6. Klaus Wilhelm, “Face to face with Neanderthals”, MaxPlanckResearch 3, 2017.