Good article this week about Neanderthals in National Geographic. Among the other things they point out that were not known when I took human evolution class in college in 2002:
- some Neanderthals were redheads, possibly with freckles
- Neanderthals has a gene associated with language and speech that was nearly identical to our own, meaning they could have had complex language just as we did
- Neanderthals, due to their body size and the region in which they lived, are estimated to have required between 4000 and 5000 calories a day, double the modern human intake. Also, they were nearly exclusively carnivorous, and cannibalism was common.
- Neanderthal range extended as far as Siberia. They truly did rule Eurasia for over 200,000 years.
The questions about Neanderthals have always centered on their relation to us. Were they a different species? Why did they die out? Did humans kill them, outcompete them, or were they victims of climate?
Evidence changes all the time -- as late as 1990 I recall learning that humans were directly descended from Neanderthals -- but after researching the issue for a report I did in school, I've fallen firmly into the they-were-different-species camp. No conclusive evidence of hybridization has ever been found, except for one headless child who may have just been, um, a big-boned human. (The morphology of the skull was always the most defining difference between Neanderthals and humans, so without the head it can never be conclusive.) The DNA evidence is increasingly pointing towards Neanderthals having been different species, and most of the traits they shared with modern northern European populations -- large brows, pale skin, red hair -- are almost certainly cases of parrallel evolution in response to the same conditions, not genetic relation. There could have been interbreeding -- Lions and Tigers interbreed -- but the offspring would likely have been infertile.
The real question was, did humans and Neanderthals coexist peacefully or was it a violent takeover? On that, the jury is still out, and certainly the climate at the end of the last ice age would have put stress on Neanderthal populations. But I personally find it more than a coincidence that, after surviving in often dreadful conditions and repeated ice ages for nearly 700,000 years across a range from Siberia to Spain, the Neanderthals disappeared everywhere during the precise period where modern humans occupied their land, endowed with fewer caloric needs, larger social groups, more sophisticated projectile tools that made hunting easier, and a more diverse diet that included far more grains and vegetables that were easier to procure. Moreover, given the violent nature of hunter-gatherers today, where murder is among the highest causes of death, and the violent nature of humans in general -- specifically our capacity to commit ethnic cleansing and genocide even on our own species -- my money is not on a peaceful transition. You've heard of the soft bigotry of low expectations? Well, at a minimum I would call this the soft genocide of resource expropriation.