|Copyright © 2004 International Institute of Anthropology
Copyright © 2004 Salt Lake Community College, South Campus, Salt Lake City, Utah
|From the beginning of the discovery of Neandertal man in 1856 he has been surrounded by misinformation and controversy. One hundred and fifty years later he still is. The debate goes beyond whether to classify him as a subspecies of Homo sapiens or a separate species of his own and enters the realm of religion vs. science. Now that archeologist have found over 300 specimens of Neandertal man we have a broader understanding of the characteristic that set him apart from the other Homo species. With today’s technology we can gain an idea of what he was like biologically, socially and culturally.
From biological point of view, Neandertals (named after where he was found in the Neander Valley, Germany) were very similar to modern humans. Their brain was similar in size, if not slightly larger. The characteristics of their skulls are similar to skulls found 1000 years ago in Denmark and Norway. They had large noses, projected teeth, sloping foreheads and a prominent bony brow ridge. These features can be found among modern humans today. Their short muscular body structure is believed to have aided their survival in the cold climates they encountered during the Ice Age. It is also believed that their communication abilities included a spoken language.
Originally it was supposed that their intellect and capacity for culture was limited. They were depicted as hairy and brutish cave men. The portrayal is now known to be incorrect. The archeological sites that contain Neandertal Men artifacts may only give us a glimpse of who they were, but based on those artifacts we can understand enough about them to know that they were people with a social and cultural identity. We know that they formed socials groups, possibly family groups. From a burial site in Dordogne, France, for instance, we have learned that they had burial rites. Evidence of tools and food was found at that site. Pollen remains tells us that the person being buried was strewn with flowers. Decorative pendants have been found and there is evidence that they used dyes. They utilized fire and simple tools to help them survive harsh conditions.
The controversy begins when you try to determine who they were and where they went. From a modern perspective it might be hard to understand all points of the debate. We had the luxury of being introduced to the idea of evolution at a young age. But Darwin did not introduce his theories of evolution until 1859, three years after the initial discovery. At that time any theories apart from Creationism were considered heretical. Creationist believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth. Belief that man possibly descended from the same common ancestor as modern apes goes against their doctrines and faith. In the words of one Creationist apologist, “Paleoanthropologist… seek to make a ‘monkey’ out of a man”(1). In their belief Neandertal Man is a true Homo sapiens. They dismiss the differences in bone structure to diseases such as arthritis and rickets. They claim that if you could shave up a Neandertal, dress him in a suit and place him in a New York subway, that no one would look twice.(2) Evolutionists disagree. They point out, that although some of the Neandertals specimens found suffered from arthritis, certainly not all of them did. Nor could arthritis be used to explain the same anatomical features found in Neandertal children fossils. The argument for rickets simply cannot be proven since rickets has never been detected in any Neandertal Man fossil.
In fact, one of the characteristics of the Neandertal Man is the density of the fossil bones. In May of 2003 Giorgio Bertorelle of the University of Ferrara in Italy and his colleagues were able to extract mitochondrial DNA from Neandertal fossils that dated from 42,000 to 29,000 years ago. They compared this mtDNA to mtDNA taken from a wide selection of modern humans. They concluded that it was not likely that modern humans descended from Neandertals. Henry Harpending from the University of Utah says of the results, “We can say pretty absolutely that Neandertals didn’t contribute mitochondrial DNA to modern humans”(3). Though this conclusion won’t stop the debate between Creationists and Evolutionists, the facts overwhelming show that Neandertal Man deserves to be a species of his own and not a sub species of Homo sapiens.
The second controversy of Neandertal Man is what happened to him. Our first evidences of Neandertal Man dates his origins to around 125,000 years ago. He lived and, we might presume, flourished for 95,000 years in the region that is now modern Europe. Many theories abound that seek to explain his disappearance. One of those theories states that he was absorbed into the Homo sapiens population that had moved up from Africa around 40,000 years ago. They lived concurrently for approximately 10,000 years. In light of the new DNA evidence that theory seems unlikely. Others believe that the worsening of winter climates caused their disappearance. They believe that, although Neandertal Man utilized fire, his survival abilities were not advanced enough to guarantee his survival. Another theory is that the Homo sapiens that came up from Africa, known as Cro-Magnons (after the location in France the first fossils were found) simply were more advanced and better suited for survival. Cro-Magnons used a wider selection of the existing natural resources. They used bone, ivory, antlers, and shells. They developed weapons that could be thrown, this allowed them to hunt without as much risk to their personal safety. It is possible that due to conflict between the two species, Neandertal man disappeared simply because he could not compete. Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist from Stanford University in California states, “When the two groups came into contact and began competing for the same resources, humans were better armed, there were more of them, and they had more sophisticated hunting and gathering skills. Given this, it was only a matter of time.”(4)
While the belief remains that religion and science can never be reconciled, Neandertal Man will continue to be surrounded in controversy. The burden of belief and understanding rests on the individual. Whether we favor Creationism, Evolutionism or Theistic Evolutionism, it is our responsibility to examine the evidence and decide for ourselves. Hopefully our understanding and new fossil evidences of Neandertal Man will continue to grow.
Bower, Bruce: ‘Stone age genetics: Ancient DNA enters humanity’s heritage’ 2003 [Online] Available http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20030517/fob1.asp (Sept. 16, 2004)
Foley, Jim: ‘Creationist arguments: Neandertals’ 2002 [Online] Available http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/a_neands.html (Sept. 15, 2004)
Haviland, William A. et al. (2004). Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Wadsworth, Thomson Learning, Inc. Canada.
Lovgren, Stefan: ‘Neandertals had highly capable hands, study says’ 2003 [Online] Available http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/03/0326_030326_neanderthalthumb.html (Sept. 15, 2004)
Mayell, Hillary: ‘Neandertals not our ancestors, DNA study suggests’ 2003 [Online] Available http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/05/0514_030514_neandertalDNA.html (Sept 15, 2004)
Mayell Hillary: ‘Did Neandertals lack smarts to survive?’ 2003 [Online] Available http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/03/0306_030306neanderthal.html
Roach, John: ‘Oldest Homo sapiens fossils found, experst say’ 2003 [Online] Available http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/06/0611_030611_earliesthuman.html#main (Sept. 15,2004)
Thomas, Brian: ‘Who was the Neanderthal Man?’ 2004 [Online] Available http://www.creationevidence.org/cemframes.html?http://www.creationevidence.org/fa_questions/neanderthal.
html (Sept. 15, 2004)
|The Controversy of
by Kirstine Reynolds
Salt Lake Community College,
Salt Lake City, Utah
|Essay-sample for the Midterm test. ANTH 1010. Fall 2004. Culture and Humanities.
Instructor: Lolita Nikolova, Ph.D.