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6 October 2016
Neanderthals had more cognitive abilities than first thought

In the central region of France, at Arcy-sur-Cure, lies a cave which has been at the centre of a controversy over Neanderthal intelligence for decades. During digs made over the period 1949 to 1963 a layer of the cave, known as the Grotte du Rennes, was uncovered and which contained not only Neanderthal bone fragments but also a selection of small ornaments made from animal teeth, shells and ivory, which had been fashioned with holes and grooves and would have formed part of a primitive form of necklace.
     Scientists argued that, as they were found in the same layer as the Neanderthal fossils then they must have been fashioned by them, whilst others claimed that Neanderthals did not have the cognitive ability to make such symbolic artefacts and that they must have been made by modern humans and were mixed up during the excavations.
     Analytical sciences are far more advanced than they were 60 years ago and a team from the University of York (UK) has been developing studies (in the science of paleoproteomics) in the field of ancient proteins.
     As there were insufficient traces of DNA to be extracted from the bone fragments they found that they had to turn to an analysis of proteins instead. Taking samples of collagen from the bone fragments they compared these with samples taken from modern man. The main difference is that the predominant amino acid in modern man is aspartic acid, whilst that of archaic man is asparagine.
     The tests confirmed that the bone fragments belonged to Neanderthals. The team's findings have been published online and paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) is quoted as saying "You can invent all sorts of stories, but the simplest explanation is that this assemblage was made at least in part by Neanderthals".

Edited from Science Magazine (16 Sept 2016), PhysOrg (19 Sept 2016), ScienceDaily (20 Sept 2016)

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