New Evidence Suggests
July, 2000 - It has been a generally accepted belief among paleoanthropologists up until recently that the Neandertals were a dead end species that disappeared from existence approximately 28,000 years ago. In his article that appeared in July's Archaeology, anthropologist João Zilhão presents provocative new evidence based on a discovery made in 1998 of a complete Paleolithic skeleton of a four year old child that had the anatomy of a cross between the Cro-Magnon and Neandertal species.
The Lagar Vilho child must have been wrapped in a shroud of red ochre-painted animal skin, whose decay caused the transfer of mineral pigment to the skeleton and sediment.
The new skeletal evidence suggests that Neandertals did not simply die out as a species, but instead merged biologically with Cro-Magnons through interbreeding, making them part of the modern human species gene pool. In his article, Zilhão proclaims, "Neandertals had not simply disappeared without descendants, they had been absorbed, through extensive interbreeding, into the modern human groups that had started to take over Iberia 30,000 years ago. They had contributed to the gene pool of subsequent early Upper Paleolithic populations of the peninsula and, therefore, had to be counted among our ancestors: They were family."
This new finding contradicts earlier DNA evidence discovered in 1997 that was extracted from a much older line of Neandertals, dating back 40,000-50,000 years ago. That evidence overthrew the previously orthodox theory that Neandertals evolved from a common ancestor to modern humans as the DNA was significantly different. Even a more recent DNA discovery of a 29,000 year old Neandertal showed significant differences from human DNA say scientists. However, some experts question our accuracy in comparing DNA as being possibly flawed "Maybe 40,000 years ago, everybody's mitochondrial DNA is very different from humans of today," said Fred H. Smith, an anthropologist at northern Illinois University.
A warming period between 50,000-30,000 years ago hastened the migration of modern humans into Europe from Africa and the Near East. Modern humans prevailed over scattered populations of Neandertals. By 30,000 years ago, Neandertals wer reduced to small pockets of Europe. The terms Middle and Upper Paleolithic on this map refer to stages of cultural development.
If this latest evidence withstands its critics, a question then arises: why is it that the Neandertals didn't absorb the immigrants invading their geographic area rather than visa versa? It is believed that the African immigrant Cro-Magnons who came from warmer geographic areas, were more fertile, and thus would put the smaller and scattered populations of Neandertals at a disadvantage if interbreeding were common.
Though Zilhão confirms that Neandertals are indeed considered to be extinct as a species, he suggests that they are still with us so to speak, "our discovery of the Paleolithic child's anatomical mosaic of two species suggests that the Neandertal's contributed to the gene pools of subsequent populations which eventually became so diluted as to become unrecognizable today."
This most recent discovery of the four year old child is about 3,000-5000 years after the Neandertals last appeared in the fossil record 28,000 years ago, that would have shown the latest developments in interbreeding with modern humans. In other words, the earlier DNA extraction wasn't the latest news story hot off the Neandertal press.
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