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14 September 2008
New insights into Neanderthals

They may have been stronger, but Neanderthals looked, ate and may have even thought much like modern humans do, suggest several new studies that could help explain new evidence that the early residents of prehistoric Europe and Asia engaged in head-to-head combat with woolly mammoths. Together, the findings call into question how such a sophisticated group apparently disappeared off the face of the Earth around 30,000 years ago. The new evidence displays the strengths and weaknesses of Neanderthals, suggesting they were skilled hunters but not as brainy and efficient as modern humans, who eventually took over Neanderthal territories.
     Most notably among the new studies is what researchers say is the first ever direct evidence that a woolly mammoth was brought down by Neanderthal weapons. Margherita Mussi and Paola Villa made the connection after studying a 60,000 to 40,000-year-old mammoth skeleton unearthed near Neanderthal stone tool artifacts at a site called Asolo in northeastern Italy. Villa, a curator of paleontology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said that other evidence suggests Neanderthals hunted the giant mammals, but not as directly. "At Asolo, instead there was a stone point that was very probably mounted on a wooden spear and used to kill the animal," she added. Several arrowheads were excavated at the Italian site, but the one of greatest interest is fractured at the tip, indicating that it "impacted bone or the thick skin of the mammoth."
     There is no question that Neanderthals craved meat and ate a lot of it. A study in this month's issue of the journal Antiquity by German anthropologists Michael Richard and Ralf Schmitz found that Neanderthals went for red meat, not of the woolly mammoth variety, but from red deer, roe deer, and reindeer. The scientists came to that conclusion after grinding up bone samples taken from the remains of Neanderthals found in Germany and then analyzing the isotopes within. Richard and Schmitz conclude that the Neanderthals subsisted primarily on meat from deer, which they probably stalked in organized groups. The researchers say their findings "reinforce the idea that Neanderthals were sophisticated hunters with an advanced ability to organize and communicate."
     It's known that Neanderthals had more robust skeletons than modern humans, with particularly strong arms and hands, but were the two groups evenly matched in brainpower? A new study provides some intriguing clues. Marcia Ponce de Leon of the University of Zurich's Anthropological Institute and Museum and her colleagues virtually reconstructed brain size and growth of three Neanderthal infant skeletons.
     "Neanderthal brain size at birth was similar to that in recent Homo sapiens and most likely subject to similar obstetric constraints," Ponce de Leon and her team concluded, although they added that "Neanderthal brain growth rates during early infancy were higher" than those experienced by modern humans. It appears, therefore, that while Neanderthal brains grew at about the same rate as ours, they had a small size advantage. But bigger is not always better in terms of brain function. Modern humans evolved smaller, but more efficient, brains. Ponce de Leon and her colleagues suggest, "It could be argued that growing smaller - but similarly efficient - brains required less energy investment and might ultimately have led to higher net reproduction rates."
     Originally some scientists thought Neanderthals grew up faster than modern humans, reaching their adult size sooner, as, for example, chimpanzees do. Chimps, our closest living relatives, mature much faster than we do, but also die younger. "It's the old saying, 'live fast, die young,'" said researcher Christoph Zollikofer of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. "It was thought that this was the primitive way, and that modern humans were further evolved into a slow life history, living a longer lifespan. Our major conclusion is there was no real difference between Neanderthal and modern human life history they were equally slow."
     The discovery adds to the growing evidence that Neanderthals and the Homo sapiens ancestors of today's humans had a lot more in common than previously believed.
Sources: LiveScience (8 September 2008), Discovery News (9 September 2008)

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