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Neanderthals were human, say it loud and proud


The above tweet captures the essence of something that occasionally happens in science: a revelation that transforms our understanding of the possibilities of the real. 2010’s Neanderthal genome paper did that, transforming a field which was mostly skeptical or cautious of Neanderthal gene flow into modern lineages, to one that was accepting of the likelihood.

Today was a similar event. Neanderthals, the World’s First Misunderstood Artists:

The team found flowstones covering parts of the artworks and scraped away samples for dating. In three caves, it turned out, some of the art was over 64,000 years old — about 20,000 years earlier than the first evidence of modern humans in Europe.

“They must have been made by Neanderthals,” said Dr. Pike.

Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University who was not involved in the new study, said the evidence was conclusive. “This constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies,” he said. “Neanderthal authorship of some cave art is a fact.”

The colored, pierced shells themselves are probably not much older than that. Up until about 118,000 years ago, the cave was flooded, thanks to higher sea levels.

That finding provides strong evidence that the shells were made by Neanderthals. They were definitely living in Spain 115,000 years ago, while modern humans would not arrive in Europe for another 70,000 years.

The two new studies don’t just indicate that Neanderthals could make cave art and jewelry. They also establish that Neanderthals were making these things long before modern humans — a blow to the idea that they simply copied their cousins.

Chris Stringer thinks this is real too.

What to make of this? First, a shout out to my old friend John Hawks. He’s been slowly repairing the reputation of Neanderthals for many years, and now we’re almost there. Neanderthals had large brains. Their cranial capacities were the largest of all hominins. The idea that they were brutes without language, as Richard Klein hypothesizes in Dawn of Human Culture, seems ludicrous now.

Back in the early 2000s I read Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Real Eve, and one of the arguments that I thought was ludicrous at the time is that the dominance of African humans was not due to some distinct genetic advantage (as Richard Klein posited), but accumulated cultural capital which gradually but continuously compounded over time. Though one shouldn’t discount genes, especially in the context of gene-cultural coevolution, with hindsight it seems clear that a simple causal factor of genetic innovation driving advantages vis-a-vis Neanderthals may be too simplistic.

Papers such as Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East illustrate that first mover advantage can result in huge demographic consequences. Small groups of farmers in the hillocks of the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago transitioned to agriculture just early enough that their genetic impact on West and South Eurasian populations, as well as African ones, would be enormous. Similarly, the invention of the light chariot by the Sintashta people may have resulted in the spread of haplogroup R1a-Z93.

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20 thoughts on “Neanderthals were human, say it loud and proud

  1. And I was just about to post this:

    “Neanderthals Had a Creative Side, New Cave Art Studies Suggest: Dating shows cave art at several sites in Spain were created before modern humans arrived, scientists say”. By Robert Lee Hotz on Feb. 22, 2018
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/neanderthals-had-a-creative-side-1519326000

    “The researchers tested 53 samples from crusts of calcite covering the cave paintings, using a technique called uranium-thorium dating. Uranium decays into thorium at a known rate. By comparing the ratio of these two elements in a sample, scientists can calculate its age.

    * * *

    “The analysis revealed that the paintings predated early modern humans in the region by at least 20,000 years, leaving the scientists with no alternative but to attribute the artwork to the Neanderthals who made their area their home. At Ardales, the researchers determined that the cave paintings had been created over a period of 25,000 years. “We are not dealing with a one-off burst but with a long tradition,” the scientists reported.

    “Painted seashells unearthed from a fourth site in southeastern Spain, a sea cave called Cueva de los Aviones, proved even more ancient, the scientists said. By their calculation, two of the four samples they tested had been decorated with red and yellow pigments at least 115,000 years ago, even further back in time before early modern humans arrived there between 40000 and 45,000 years ago.

    “We have shown, from the point of view of cognition, that Neanderthals are indistinguishable from humans,” said archaeologist João Zilhão from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, who was involved in both studies.

    * * *

    “If so, it is a significant twist in the roots of the human family tree, several experts in human origins said. Both species might have evolved their creative intelligence independently or inherited their shared capacity for complex behavior from an even earlier and as-yet-unknown ancestral species. In fact, some researchers speculate that Neanderthals and early humans could have been so similar that they should be considered a single species, not two.”

  2. I’m totally uneducated in this area but why are people so hesistant and/or annoyed about your (and other’s) insistence that “neanderthals were human” from this discovery?

    I understand the political debates behind, say the Aryan Invasion, is there something similar to this?

  3. @Niroscience: IMHO it’s because most people think “human” means “homo sapiens”, so they think Razib is saying that Neanderthals were modern humans.

  4. Razib, my bad, I though you were just emphasizing what “homo” means… personally I think there’s utility in separating modern humans from other homo, but don’t care if it’s “H. sapiens”/”H. neanderthalensis”, or “H sapiens sapiens”/”H. sapiens neanderthalensis”. This find strengthens the case for the latter.

  5. Perhaps because in Portuguese the usual way of referring to the Neanderthal is “Homem de Neanderthal”, I don’t find nothing strange in “Neanderthals were humans”.

  6. Razib, I don’t have a twitter, so this is the only way I can communicate with you.

    [post it on the open thread. that is what it’s for]

  7. Ok, noted, next time I’ll do that. But did you get the message? It doesn’t need to be made public, so as far as you yourself read/listened to the stuff, I’m all ok with it.

  8. 1) genitiker is a kook.

    2) no idea why you say we should look to native americans. and honestly i don’t care too much.

    3) i googled that guy he is not a big name on the right. he’s a big-name on the frog-nazi right. i’m talking about the mainstream right. (prominent frog-nazis seem to have been twitter purged so i don’t see their thoughts anymore in my TL)

    use open thread for follow up comments.

  9. Can you correct to Sintashta? I went around googling for Sintasha who I thought were some newly discovered people.

  10. I have no problem with lumping, but I’m baffled how anyone could claim “We have shown, from the point of view of cognition, that Neanderthals are indistinguishable from humans.”

    Even very dim modern humans can have language and draw pictures. So why all the excitement about Neanderthals being capable of this? How exactly does it disprove the idea that superior cognitive ability is what allowed modern humans to displace them?

  11. I had thought there were instances of symbolic behavior far older than this, in South Africa if I recall. Finding the odd bit of Neander art doesn’t surprise me. But at that time range, 60k years ago, how much Homo sap art do we have? A few beads. We just don’t know.

  12. Razib,

    Is it possible the paintings were done by early modern humans who may have arrived much, much earlier than usually thought? How would the researchers rule out that possibility?

  13. it’s possible. but there’s no evidence of that.

    there’s too much circumstantial evidence right now i think for researchers to suggest that as the most likely option.

  14. Neanderthals may not have engaged in symbolic activities only as a result of influence from modern humans (assuming the dates are right and modern humans were not in Spain earlier than we now believe), but the article (“Neanderthals, the World’s First Misunderstood Artists”) inaccurately states that they developed those behaviors (or type of behavior) before moderns did (when they likely only did so before moderns were in Europe), and thus gives a misleading impression. There is evidence of symbolic (and other “characteristically modern” activities, like projectile and bone-tool use; harpoons cat 90ka bc at Katanda, bows at Subudu ca. 70 ka bc, throwing spears Gademotta Ethiopia ca 279 ka bc; evidence of early mining and trade in the African Middle Stone Age) at African sites both contemporary to and prior to these new neanderthal dates. The article states:

    “The two new studies don’t just indicate that Neanderthals could make cave art and jewelry. They also establish that Neanderthals were making these things long before modern humans — a blow to the idea that they simply copied their cousins.

    The earliest known cave paintings made by modern humans are only about 40,000 years old, while Neanderthal cave art is at least 24,000 years older. The oldest known shell jewelry made by modern humans is about 70,000 years old, but Neanderthals were making it 45,000 years before then.”

    However, the geometric designs on stone plaques made in Africa (from Blombos and similar isites 70 ka bc) or the decorated ostrich eggshells (from Diepkloof), are about as old as the Spanish cave art but are not mentioned.
    And the making of compound fat-based heat treated paints occurs in South Africa from 100,000 bc (at Blombos)—more advanced than the earlier making of simpler ground pigments (perhaps by earlier hominids—, suggesting some from of painting at least by then (either on rocks, hides or the body).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blombos_Cave#Ochre_processing_workshop
    “In 2008 an ochre processing workshop consisting of two toolkits was uncovered in the 100,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa.[3] Analysis shows that a liquefied pigment-rich mixture was produced and stored in the shells of two Haliotis midae (abalone), and that ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones and hammer-stones also formed a composite part of the toolkits.

    …Possible uses could include painting a surface in order to decorate or protect it, or to create a design. The recovery of these toolkits at Blombos Cave nevertheless adds evidence for early technological and behavioural developments associated with Middle Stone Age humans. It documents the first known instance for the deliberate planning, production and curation of a pigmented compound and for the use of a container. Evidence for the complexity of the task includes procuring and combining raw materials from various sources (implying they had a mental template of the process they would follow), possibly using pyrotechnology to facilitate fat extraction from bone, using a probable recipe to produce the compound, and the use of shell containers for mixing and storage for later use. An elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning suggests conceptual and cognitive abilities previously unknown for this time…”

    The possiblity, however, that some symbolic behaviors (or the roots of them/early forms of them) extend back to the common ancestors of neanderthals and moderns (ca 600-500,000 bc) is interesting. As far as I know, the African heidelbergensis record is still somewhat fragmentary (more so than the neanderthal), so perhaps new relevant information may be known in the fairly near future.

  15. Edit:

    “There is evidence of symbolic (and other “characteristically modern” activities, like projectile and bone-tool use; bone harpoons cat 90ka bc at Katanda in Central Africa, early microliths at and the heat treating of stone at Pinnacle Point S.A., bows at Sibudu S.A ca. 70 ka bc, throwing spears Gademotta Ethiopia ca 279 ka bc; evidence of early mining and trade in the African Middle Stone Age)” at African sites both contemporary to and prior…”

    “…However (to give some examples), the geometric designs on stone plaques made in Africa (from Blombos and similar sites ca. 77 ka bc) or the decorated ostrich eggshells (from the Diepkloof and Klipdrift sites in South Africa ca. 65 ka bc), are about as old as the Spanish cave art, or more so, but are not mentioned.
    And the making of compound fat-based heat treated paints occurs in South Africa from 100,000 bc…”

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