Archaeology: Neandertals stay in the news

Posted December 9th, 2007 by Andrea Vianello

It is a period that something new about the Neandertals (or Neanderthals) is reported almost every week. The new results follow up the drive to research Neandertals originated in occasion of the 150 years of the first discovery of Neandertal bones, celebrated in 2006. Much of the research is carried out on DNA and genetic material following the recent sequencing of Neandertal DNA, and therefore benefits from a certain fascination for “anything DNA” that the general public and media currently have. It’s Neandertal-mania! Here is a short list of discoveries that made the headlines in the past year.

  1. Neandertals matured faster than we do. For this study, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have analysed growth lines in a sliced Neandertal molar plus other uncut teeth from the same specimen. They concluded that the 8-year-old Neandertal specimen grew up more rapidly than modern human children. In truth, we already knew this since 2004, as reported by Nature (DOI:10.1038/nature02428) and the BBC, but we needed conformation from a molar. Some more information, pending the paper, are available from Anthropology.net and the latest press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (PDF file).
  2. Neandertals were red-haired. A study published in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1147417) has revealed that Neandertals carried a variant of the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) with reduced function. Such variants are associated with pale skin colour and red hair in humans and indeed functional analyses confirm that this is the case also with the specific variant found, which is not commonly found in contemporary humans.
  3. Neandertals might have had language skills. Researchers have recognised in the Neandertal DNA the FOXP2 gene, which has been implicated in the development of speech and language. The same gene FOXP2 is also responsible for singing in birds (PLoS Biology; DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050321). Neandertals share with modern humans two evolutionary changes in FOXP2, suggesting that both have the same genetic capabilities concerning language. The research has been published in Current Biology.
  4. Neandertals probably did not become extinct because of climate change, as suggested in a monograph entitled “Neanderthals and modern humans in the European landscape during the last glaciation” (one review here). The paper in which climate change has been ruled out was published in Nature (DOI:10.1038/nature06117). It contests previous results on the basis of “both uncertainty over the radiocarbon calibration beyond about 21,500 14C years BP and the absence of a master calendar chronology for climate events from reference archives such as Greenland ice cores or speleothems”. In short, the previous research team miscalculated the date of their disappearance and Neandertals may have survived several periods of climatic change.
  5. There are no hybrids proving that Neandertals and anatomically modern humans interbred. The Cioclovina specimen from Romania, which had been suspected to be a hybrid, in reality is a full anatomically modern human. This is the conclusion of the team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (PDF file). Of course, it remains possible that interbreeding occurred on some occasions, but this remains a speculation. This also means that Neandertals did not disappear as a result of merging with anatomically humans.

More news on the Neandertals will certainly follow as research progresses. The Anthropology.net blog and the press releases of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are excellent resources for keeping up with the latest news as they break. Several resources are also catalogued in Intute (within and outside Archaeology): try this search.