A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Virtual fossils and real molecules are changing how we view our enigmatic cousin.
Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the discovery at Neandertal, a little valley near Duesseldorf in western Germany, of the first recognized fossil humans. The occasion will be commemorated with conferences and exhibitions at major German museums. As a warm-up for this "Neandertal Year," two dozen scholars gathered at New York University this past January, in a Manhattan suffering near-glacial conditions, to exchange views on the latest advances in the field.
Our fascination with Neandertals is well founded. They were the first known example of an extinct species of human, they evolved mostly in Europe, and we now have an unrivaled fossil record accumulated by a century and a half of research. Because there are more specimens of Neandertals than any other premodern human, any new techniques or approaches in paleoanthropology are usually applied to them first. And in recent years we have learned a great deal about these humans that once seemed unattainable, including aspects of their biology such as genetics. Studies have also revealed unexpected features of their growth, development, and life history. Even more traditional approaches, such as the comparison of Neandertal and modern human bone shapes, continue to yield new data.
Visions of the Neandertals as brutish cave dwellers prevailed for many years following their discovery. The first reconstruction, in 1908, was based on the partial skeleton of an old male found at La Chappelle aux Saints in France, but the individual had been stooped from arthritis. That fact, and its projecting face, heavy brow, and generally robust bones gave rise to our earliest, though inaccurate, view of Neandertals. But in the last decades of the twentieth century, the pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction. For some, Neandertals appeared only as a slightly different population of our own species, adapted to the cooler climates of the Paleolithic world. The most politically correct version saw them as almost indistinguishable from modern humans in abilities and behaviors, and hardly differing in many anatomical aspects. The New York conference provided a more balanced picture of a "New Neandertal" that is both very similar to and very different from us.
Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzeig, has led fieldwork in France, Spain, and Morocco, and is now participating in an international project at Dikika, Ethiopia.