According to current theory (e.g. Leakey) Homo erectus emerged in Africa some 1.7 million years ago. By 1 million years ago he was the only Hominid species on earth. It was Homo erectus who modern archaeologists claim first migrated out of Africa and support for this theory comes from fossil and tool evidence in Georgia, Java and China. From this initial migration, many claim, the Neanderthals developed. Consensus places their lifespan as a species from 230,000 to 35,000 years B.P. However rival theories compete as to the development of modern man.
Both camps (though not all Archaeologists) accept the initial migration out of Africa some 1 million years ago of Homo Erectus. However some argue that further migrations of anatomically modern humans (Homo Sapiens) occurred around 100,000 years ago and replaced all others stocks including the Neanderthals. This is the population replacement model as against the regional continuity proposal which argues that modern humans evolved semi independently in parts of the world from various ancients .Thus Neanderthal in Europe, Homo erectus in China and Java. Did these people evolve into moderns or were they an evolutionary dead end, as population replacement would argue?
For the moment we will place this central issue aside as we define who the Neanderthals were and how closely they resemble modern humans. Their initial discovery, as the name implies , was in the Neander valley near Dusseldorf in 1856. Subsequently further examples were found in France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Israel and the Near East. Still others were discovered in northern Iraq, the Crimea, Russia and Teshik Tash north of Iran. It is conjectured that this sets the boundary of Neanderthal spread although other early modern hominids in more distant places display some features that define Neanderthal morphology. For instance the Dali skull from China certainly carries the thick brow ridges. In total, parts of about 500 skeletons are in the archaeological record. However most are only fractions of the original and moreover they are in most cases badly smashed. Only around a dozen are near complete. Thus all our contentions on morphology must be cautious particularly as over half the specimens are children. Apparently none are over 40 years old. In addition a high proportion have degenerative disease and or physical wounds. This raises further debate over lifestyle , environment and longevity. Were they subject to encounters with the numerous carnivores or was the environment of the Pleistocene, with its huge climatic oscillations, a more pertinent factor in survival? If so why did it not affect Cro-Magnon man? In the discussion of their demise this may be the critical issue.
How were Neanderthals fitted for survival compared to early moderns (e.g. Qafzeh) the later contemporaneous Cro-Magnon and modern man? Did inferior qualities lead to his replacement by the Cro-Magnon? Stringer summarizes his physique as not dissimilar to the modern Inuit. More radically Milton Walporf, in support of his regional continuity theory, claims he sees the face of a Neanderthal every day in his mirror. Thus he implies their ancestral connection to modern humans. However Neanderthal legs and forearms are typically shorter than the modern European (but within the low range) with a longer back, more barrel like chest and slightly different hip structure. He is in most cases more heavily muscled, as evidenced by deeply scoured muscle anchors. In addition his joints are more robust. Overall average height is nearly the same as modern European at 5foot 7inches. His skull is flatter with large eyebrow ridges and a less prominent jaw. To my mind his most interesting feature is the size of his brain which at up to 1700 ml. is decidedly larger than moderns at 1200-1500 ml. but similar to Cro-Magnon .Homo erectus weighs in at around 1250 ml. (In addition Cro-Magnon is much taller at around 6foot 1 inch but less robust). What this means is debatable, but it suggests that ability for complexity was not limited by brain capacity, even if the archaeological evidence is not forthcoming. So on many parameters Neanderthal man seems well suited to adaption. Arguments that he succumbed from lack of ability or because superior humanoids, such as Cro-Magnon, evicted him seem contentious. Neanderthal geographic location was vastly different in terrain. His remains are found on the chalk plains of France, the Negev desert of Israel, the high Mountainous caves of the Caucasus and Italy, from the seashores to the interior. They hunted in proximity to the ice sheets and in hot desert regions. Again we witness adaptability. This is also evidenced by the vast range of fauna such as Deer ,Rhino ,Bear , Horses and Hippo that he apparently hunted or scavenged. Stringer notes that there were dramatic climate fluctuations marking the entire Pleistocene nevertheless he adapted and survived until the end.
Most authors contend he possessed speech ability and his remains are often associated with distinctive tools (The Mousterian assemblages). To date, beyond the fact that his remains are mostly found in caves, there is little evidence that he constructed dwellings. He is not credited with any spiritual or ritualistic values despite contentions of ceremonial burials. In this though Geoffrey Clark maintains he was similar to his contemporaries. Thus he is mostly accounted as a skilled hunter scavenger and further conclusions are difficult when we compare him to the early Cro-Magnons..
In summary we have a highly adaptable hominid that survived some 200,000 years on Earth. Not dramatically different to modern man ,classic theory maintains ,he disappeared around 35,000 years ago. But how credible is this date and if it is what happened around this time that may account for the Neanderthal demise? Our GISP ice core studies and V 28 Isotopic O 16 ocean core studies show incredibly dramatic climatic, sea level and volcanic changes during the Pleistocene. Particular dates that may be causal to Neanderthal demise are shown as minima at 13,000BP, 26,000BP and 42,000BP. These possibly tie in with arguable extinction dates (the first my own thoughts) Pollen studies show great change from wet to arid adapted plant species and at certain stages, particularly at the end of the ice age around 12,000 BP, we have mass extinction of Mega fauna and other species. The causes of these extinctions are hotly debated but largely unresolved. It is contended that most of these extinctions took place at a later date than the demise of the Neanderthal but was it perhaps an earlier but similar event that pushed Neanderthal man out of his domain? In essence was he the victim of a number of differently timed extinctions perhaps similar in chronology to Mungo man? In Australia for instance it is contended that the Mega fauna became extinct 30,000 BP. Were severe climatic or Geological processes at work?
Another possibility postulates that it was not extinction but a dramatic species adaption. Evolution fast tracked a species modification Whilst most evolutionists argue for slow adapt ion not a few argue for stern rapid adapt ion under duress? Polyploidy already exists to explain these phenomena in other species. Perhaps the duress of the Ice age supported abnormal species modification.
Turning to the date of Neanderthal demise, the commonly accepted view of 35,000 years ago is far from stable. For instance at the Wadi Amud C12 dates range from 28,000 down to as low as 20,000 B.P. Recently Bas Van Geel (University of Amsterdam) in his studies of C12 in European bogs has found huge differences in C12 concentrations around 800B.C. He argues this type of fluctuation, due to unexplained causes, is evident in other eras and artificially age’s results. This is pertinent to dates beyond 800BC. From other sites comes conflicting results from Thermo luminescence and Electron spin resonance .At these ages carbon dating is dubious but even down to the close of the last age around 10,000 B.P they are questionable since they have no method of being calibrated (e.g. by dendrochronology). This is important as the demise of the Mega fauna of Europe and America seems to correlate well with the closing Ice age and one cannot but wonder if the Neanderthal was not part of this phenomena.
We now turn to Mitochondrial DNA theory and their relevance to the Neanderthal puzzle. In “Nature” a recent 2000 article by Ovchinnikov
(Uni. Glasgow lab process) shows that Neanderthal DNA is unrelated to modern man, be it Asian, Caucasian or Negroid typology. This would seem to refute regional continuity theory and support population displacement by whatever means. However it must be noted that specific DNA types for Mungo Man circa 30,000 BP (ANU lab per Thorne), Kow Swamp circa 12,000 BP and another unknown, Woodburn Ice age man circa 12,000 BP (W.Orr. Uni of Oregon) are equally of an unmatched Mitochondrial DNA type. Does this show a flaw in our DNA presumptions? Under some stressful environments DNA undergoes a Polyploidy Mutation .If a dramatic variation occurred perhaps Neanderthal man did not disappear but merely underwent Genetic adapt ion. Thus regional continuity might have an ally in rapid species evolution.
Stringer on the other hand argues against any form of regional continuity and maintains the moderns in the form of Cro-Magnon and others displaced what he believes were the less adaptable Neanderthals. Between 60,000-40,000 BP. The moderns rapidly became more complex in many areas. Art, huts, bone tools, blade technology, open site burials, social storage and long distance trade in such items as amber and shell. Colonization, body ornaments and ceramics. These skills, though possibly copied by Neanderthals, were unmatched. He believes the Neanderthals were more set in their ways and unable to adapt as efficiently as the moderns. Thus they were slowly displaced.
The most important aspect of this was colonization or the ability to find more profitable pastures and plan to exploit them. This, in essence, supports our proposal that limited geographic dispersal helped in Neanderthal extinction. Stringer notes the moderns colonized nearly all continents. India, Australia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. This surely showed a brain more adept at imaginative solutions. Thus the Neanderthal whilst not perhaps inferior did not possess that essential adventurous ingredient necessary to survive. In essence Stringer is saying they lacked the enterprise of the moderns to capitalize on adversity and preferred to tough it out.
To my mind this flies in the face of good evidence that people generally only colonize due to pressures whether from war, famine, economic hardship or persecution. It is not a reflection of brainpower or innovative zeal although these no doubt help the process. In any event a restriction of the Neanderthal homeland to Europe and the Near East is surely a large portion to occupy and rivals the size of most ancient empires. Indeed it seems no smaller than many racial groupings of our own time. Further the question is hard to judge since population models of this 200,000-year era are dubious. Doubtless they fluctuated dramatically due to Ice Age pressures.
So what are our conclusions? Surely the diseased and injured state of the Neanderthal samples is a true indicator of environmental hardship. Degenerative disease in young people as exampled by Neanderthal remains would indicate climatic and thus nutritional and disease susceptibility rather than cultural stagnation or displacement by a more zealous Cro-Magnon. Present Mitochondrial DNA studies deny the Neanderthal a part in modern man’s genetic make up however there are some curious anomalies that may reveal weaknesses in our scientific axioms . Polyploidy mutation under duress, whilst a long bow at present, may reveal more complex forms of evolution than Darwin envisaged .Finally geographic restriction whilst possibly an indicator of lack of adventurous adaptability does not seem a strong contender in the cause of extinction. To my mind the water is still very murky.