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Wong 2003 Who_Neand

Wong 2003 Who_Neand - EMERGENCE Who Were the NEANDERTALS...

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www.sciam.com SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 29 CROATIAN NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM No match for the anatomically modern humans who swept in with a sophisticated cul- ture and technology, the Neandertals a separate species were quickly driven to ex- tinction by the invading moderns. But neat and tidy stories about the past have a way of unraveling, and the saga of the Neandertals, it appears, is no exception. For more than 200,000 years, these large-brained hominids occupied Europe and western Asia, battling the bitter cold of glacial maximums and the daily perils of prehistoric life. To- day they no longer exist. Beyond these two facts, however, researchers fiercely debate who the Neandertals were, how they lived and exactly what happened to them. The steadfast effort to resolve these elusive issues stems from a larger dispute over how modern humans evolved. Some researchers posit that our species arose recently (around 200,000 years ago) in Africa and subsequently replaced archaic hominids around the world, whereas others propose that these ancient populations contributed to the early modern human gene pool. As the best known of these archaic groups, Neandertals are critical to the origins controversy. Yet this is more than an academic argument over certain events of our primeval past, for in probing Neandertal biology and behavior, researchers must wrestle with the very notion of what it means to be fully human and determine what, if anything, makes us moderns unique. Indeed, spurred by recent discoveries, paleoan- thropologists and archaeologists are increasingly asking, How much like us were they? Comparisons of Neandertals and modern humans first captured the attention of re- searchers when a partial Neandertal skeleton turned up in Germany’s Neander Valley in 1856. Those remains a heavily built skull with the signature arched browridge and massive limb bones were clearly different, and Neandertals were assigned to their own species, Homo neanderthalensis (although even then there was disagreement: several Ger- man scientists argued that these were the remains of a crippled Cossack horseman). But it was the French discovery of the famous “Old Man” of La Chapelle-aux-Saints some 50 years later that led to the characterization of Neandertals as primitive protohumans. Reconstructions showed them as stooped, lumbering, apelike brutes, in stark contrast to upright, graceful Homo sapiens . The Neandertal, it seemed, represented the ultimate “other,” a dim-witted ogre lurking behind the evolutionary threshold of humanity. Decades later reevaluation of the La Chapelle individual revealed that certain anatom- ical features had been misinterpreted. In fact, Neandertal posture and movement would have been the same as ours. Since then, paleoanthropologists have struggled to determine whether the morphological features that do characterize Neandertals as a group such
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