The popular conception of the Neanderthal as a club-wielding carnivore is, well, rather primitive, according to a new study conducted at MIT. Instead, our prehistoric cousin may have had a more varied diet that, while heavy on meat, also included plant tissues, such as tubers and nuts.
Scientists from MIT and the University of La Laguna in Spain have identified human fecal remains from El Salt, a known site of Neanderthal occupation in southern Spain that dates back 50,000 years. The researchers analyzed each sample for metabolized versions of animal-derived cholesterol, as well as phytosterol, a cholesterol-like compound found in plants. While all samples contained signs of meat consumption, two samples showed traces of plants—the first direct evidence that Neanderthals may have enjoyed an omnivorous diet. Read more.
Neandertals came into the world face first. Or at least, their lineage did, according to Spanish paleoanthropologists who analyzed 17 ancient skulls from a deep bone pit in the Atapuerca Mountains of northern Spain. The facial bones and teeth of these people, who lived 430,000 years ago, already resemble those of Neandertals, which are known from much younger fossils.
Yet the Sima people also still had relatively small brains and other primitive features, suggesting they were very early members of the lineage that eventually gave rise to Neandertals. The analysis offers a detailed look at the murky origins of our closest cousins and has implications for the evolution of key traits such as brain size. Read more.
Neanderthal cooking likely wouldn’t have won any prizes on Top Chef, but a paleontologist suggests that our ancient cousins knew how to cook a mean stew, without even a stone pot to their name.
"I think it’s pretty likely the Neanderthals boiled," said University of Michigan paleontologist John Speth at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin, Texas. "They were around for a long time, and they were very clever with fire."
But based on evidence from ancient bones, spears, and porridge, Speth believes our Stone Age cousins likely boiled their food. He suggests that Neanderthals boiled using only a skin bag or a birch bark tray by relying on a trick of chemistry: Water will boil at a temperature below the ignition point of almost any container, even flammable bark or hides. Read more.
An analysis of the archaeological records of Neandertals and their modern human contemporaries has found that complex interbreeding and assimilation may have been responsible for Neandertal disappearance 40,000 years ago, in contrast to many current theories, according to results published April 30, 2014, in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum and Wil Roebroeks from Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Neandertals thrived in Eurasia for more than 300,000 years but vanished around 40,000 years ago, around the same time that modern humans entered Europe. Archaeologists have developed many theories to explain their disappearance, and many of these suggest that modern-day humans were superior in a wide range of ways, including weaponry and subsistence strategies. Read more.
Neanderthals were remarkably less genetically diverse than modern humans, with Neanderthal populations typically smaller and more isolated, researchers say.
Although Neanderthals underwent more genetic changes involving their skeletons, they had fewer such changes in behavior and pigmentation, scientists added.
Modern humans are the only humans alive today, but Earth was once home to a variety of other human lineages. The Neanderthals were once the closest relatives of modern humans, with the common ancestors of modern humans and Neanderthals diverging between 550,000 and 765,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans later interbred — nowadays, about 1.5 to 2.1 percent of DNA of people outside Africa is Neanderthal in origin. Read more.
Archaeologists at the University of York are challenging the traditional view that Neanderthal childhood was difficult, short and dangerous.
A research team from PALAEO (Centre for Human Palaeoecology and Evolutionary Origins) and the Department of Archaeology at York offer a new and distinctive perspective which suggests that Neanderthal children experienced strong emotional attachments with their immediate social group, used play to develop skills and played a significant role in their society.
The traditional perception of the toughness of Neanderthal childhood is based largely on biological evidence, but the archaeologists, led by Dr Penny Spikins, also studied cultural and social evidence to explore the experience of Neanderthal children. Read more.
Technical objections to the idea that Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of Eurasians have been overcome, thanks to a genome analysis method described in the April 2014 issue of the journal Genetics. The technique can more confidently detect the genetic signatures of interbreeding than previous approaches and will be useful for evolutionary studies of other ancient or rare DNA samples.
"Our approach can distinguish between two subtly different scenarios that could explain the genetic similarities shared by Neanderthals and modern humans from Europe and Asia," said study co-author Konrad Lohse, a population geneticist at the University of Edinburgh.
The first scenario is that Neanderthals occasionally interbred with modern humans after they migrated out of Africa. The alternative scenario is that the humans who left Africa evolved from the same ancestral subpopulation that had previously given rise to the Neanderthals. Read more.
We humans like to think of ourselves as unique for many reasons, not least of which being our ability to communicate with words. But ground-breaking research by an expert from the University of New England shows that our ‘misunderstood cousins,’ the Neanderthals, may well have spoken in languages not dissimilar to the ones we use today.
Pinpointing the origin and evolution of speech and human language is one of the longest running and most hotly debated topics in the scientific world. It has long been believed that other beings, including the Neanderthals with whom our ancestors shared Earth for thousands of years, simply lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech. Read more.