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Neanderthals, humans more similar than thought, says anthropologist

by Cindy Weiss - March 20, 2006

Thirty to forty thousand years ago, modern humans and Neanderthals both lived in Europe, co-existing for about 10,000 years.

Then the Neanderthals, who had moved in tens of thousands of years earlier than modern humans, died out.

How they lived, why they disappeared, and how they may have interacted with modern humans are topics being studied by Daniel Adler, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Adler and colleagues from the University of Haifa and Hebrew University in Israel have just published a paper in a high profile journal, Current Anthropology, that they hope will lay to rest a long-held notion that Neanderthals died out because they weren’t as skilled at hunting as modern humans.

Based on excavations over four years at a rock shelter called Ortvale Klde in the Republic of Georgia, where Neanderthals and modern humans lived at different times, “there is literally no difference whatsoever in what Neanderthals could do and what modern humans could do,” Adler says.

The excavations uncovered stone tools and animal bones, deposited in layers that were dated by three methods. The layers containing modern human artifacts – the most recent – date back to 20,000 to 34,000 years ago.

They are preceded by Neanderthal layers, which date back to 50,000 years ago. All the layers yield evidence of the same hunting patterns.

“They were hunting the same animals in the same frequencies, and they were both hunting the same class of animals – prime age adults,” he says.

Mostly they caught and ate mountain goats, which can scale a valley slope very quickly and are difficult to catch unless you understand their seasonal migration and flight behaviors.

Neanderthals, like modern humans, understood those behaviors and were able to use the information to successfully conduct group hunts.

The evidence of this helps debunk another idea, that Neanderthals weren’t as smart as their cousins from another branch of the evolutionary bush, modern humans.

“The Neanderthals were the top predators in the area,” Adler says.

Their fatal weakness, the reason they did not succeed and modern humans did, may have been their more isolated living habits, Adler and his colleagues suggest.

The Neanderthals at Ortvale Klde lived in groups of 10 or so within their comfortable Georgian territory, buffered from cold winds by the Caucasus Mountains and enjoying a sub-tropical climate warmed by the Black Sea.

“It was the nicest bit of real estate in any given direction,” Adler says.

Artifacts show that modern humans at Ortvale Klde regularly traveled 100 kilometers to collect obsidian for tools.

Dan Adler, assistant professor of anthropology, is part of a team studying Neanderthals.
Dan Adler, assistant professor of anthropology, is part of a team studying Neanderthals.
Photo by Melissa Arbo

They developed social networks with other groups, “a kind of insurance policy for the future,” particularly in hard times when help was needed to survive.

Neanderthals, on the other hand, might have seen other groups only occasionally, perhaps recognizing as few as 50 individuals outside of their immediate clan.

Artifacts also indicate that modern humans were more fashion-conscious than Neanderthals, who draped themselves with skins.

Humans adorned themselves with shell beads and pierced fox teeth, and sewed their garments with bone needles, creating looks that may have helped them to distinguish other humans at a distance and determine the group to which they belonged.

Aside from dress, these humans were “fully modern, behaviorally and cognitively,” Adler says. “They were identical to us.”

Neanderthals were not as crude looking as you may think, however, he says. Although they were shorter than we are and had large brow ridges, a Neanderthal man dressed in a suit and tie might walk down the street today without attracting prolonged stares.

What happened if the two groups met is the subject of speculation. Was there aggression? Amity? Avoidance?

“The nature of those meetings is what we want to get at,” Adler says.

He wants to set up a UConn field school in a neighboring area of Georgia at another Neanderthal site, and hopes to reconstruct more of the patterns of Neanderthal life, particularly social systems.

Adler, who joined the faculty last fall, earned his Ph.D. in 2002 at Harvard University, where he studied with Israeli scholar Ofer Bar-Yosef, considered the “grandfather” of Neanderthal studies.

Adler, who holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology from UConn, is one of four faculty members in anthropology who are conducting research in old world prehistory.

The others are Sally McBrearty, who works in East Africa, and Natalie Munro and Alexia Smith, who study the Near East. He says the four compose the largest old world prehistory research program in the country.

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