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2 October 2010
Did Neanderthals adapt and innovate?

A professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver (USA) thinks that the Neanderthal contribution to human culture and development has been underrated. Julien Riel-Salvatore has been studying Neanderthal sites in Italy for seven years. His article, to be published in December in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, proposes that Neanderthals in southern Italy adapted to climate change by developing new hunting strategies.
     40,000 years ago, three cultures occupied Italy. The Aurignacians in the north were Cro-Magnons. The central part of what is now Italy was home to the much older Mousterian culture, who were Neanderthals. And, in the south, a new culture emerged, the Uluzzians, also thought to be Neanderthal. The Uluzzians are believed to have been geographically separated from the modern humans in the north.
     Uluzzian sites have yielded projectile points, bone tools, ornaments and ochre. There is also evidence of fishing and hunting small game. These innovations are not typically found at Neanderthal settlements.
     Riel-Salvatore argues that the Uluzzians were forced to adapt as the georgraphy of their home became more open and dry. The large animals they hunted with spears were becoming scarce and they developed projectiles for smaller game.
     The caveats are whether or not the Uluzzians were Neanderthals and whether they were, in fact, isolated from modern humans. Riel-Salvatore states, "My conclusion is that if the Uluzzian is a Neanderthal culture it suggests that contacts with modern humans are not necessary to explain the origin of this new behavior. This stands in contrast to the ideas of the past 50 years that Neanderthals had to be acculturated to humans to come up with this technology. When we show Neanderthals could innovate on their own it casts them in a new light. It 'humanizes' them if you will."
     Riel-Salvatore also makes the case that Neanderthals did not die out because they could not compete with modern humans. He believes they were absorbed due to a higher birthrate among the Cro-Magnons. "The fact that Neanderthals could adapt to new conditions and innovate shows they are culturally similar to us," he said. "Biologically they are also similar. I believe they were a subspecies of human but not a different species. It is likely that Neanderthals were absorbed by modern humans," he said. "My research suggests that they were a different kind of human, but humans nonetheless. We are more brothers than distant cousins."

Edited from EurekAlert! (21 September 2010), Science Daily (22 September 2010)

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