This week I chose to focus on Neanderthals. Once Homo neanderthalensis was named and recognized scientists realized earlier discoveries were of the same species and retroactively labelled as the first Neanderthal fossils discovered in 1829 which the Smithsonian says are the first early human fossils. Scientists think about Neanderthals a lot, not only did we evolve from a common ancestor, early humans and Neanderthals sometimes lived in the same areas at the same time and even rarely mated together. In one of the videos we watched scientists showed modern human DNA can contain up to 4% of Neanderthal DNA, except in Africa. Scientists discovery of Neanderthals made them very curious to find more fossils of early humans and try to trace the record of human evolution. If the Smithsonian is correct about Neanderthals bones being the first pre-human fossils found, then I would say Neanderthals began the idea that we could physically find the remains of many/all of our early ancestors still in the ground and create our own lineage from the hard work of paleoanthropologists.
Paleoanthropologists have studied their remains by looking at their bones, tools, and artifacts found around their remains. Neanderthal tools are in the Mousterian cultural tradition, flaked arrow heads with stone cores, thrusting spears, bolos and awls, which are like large needles for sewing. They hunted large animals and even made clothes out of their hides. Though there is no evidence of cave art, which paleoanthropologists love to find. There are examples of simple shells or bone with holes in it, which was probably used as a kind of personal ornament. Neanderthals dug graves and ceremonially buried their dead, considered the earliest human-type species ever to do so. They left flowers, food and tools in the graves along with posed/arranged remains of the deceased.
Paleoanthropologists have also studied the bones and DNA of Neanderthals. They had huge brain cases, 1520 ccs, which is larger than modern humans which is only 1400 ccs. Theirs skulls had a larger portion in the back called an “occipital bun” which is just a fun concept to think about. I thought it was fascinating to learn they developed faster and had shorter childhoods. They had brow-ridges, big noses, very underdeveloped chins, small back teeth and large front teeth with fused roots. Their skeletons were shorter and stockier with the average Neanderthal expected to be 5’5 heavily muscled. Most of these physical traits are considered to be ice-age adaptations because evolved during the Pleistocene Epoch.
In my opinion the biggest contributions of Neanderthals findings to the study of human diversity begins with knowing that non-African human populations interbred with Neanderthals, physically their most interesting trait is that they had the biggest brain of early humans, and culturally their most fascinating aspect was their rituals of burial which was thought were more advanced than early homo erectus who may have left their dead just lying in the open (or cremated them). Their most intriguing contribution towards understanding human diversity comes from studying Neanderthals closely and discovering that species called Denisovans who lived at the same time as Neanderthals and early Humans. There is evidence that an as-yet unknown human ancestor may have mated with the Denisovans because they are incredibly more genetically diverse than Neanderthals who inbred quite frequently. So the greatest contribution of all is that Neanderthals not only started our whole curiosity and mapping of human evolution, they are also pointing the way to a possibly undiscovered human ancestor that lies in the ground right now waiting to be discovered by a paleoanthropologist.