Sunday, August 02, 2009

WHY THE NEANDERTALS LOST OUT -- ACCORDING TO AUGUST 2009 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

An excellent, if somewhat inconclusive article, appears in the August, 2009, Scientific American by Kate Wong. She quotes many of the experts on the Neandertal problem and here are a few of their conclusions:

1)Subtle difference in culture and biology may explain why Neandertals lost out. "Worsening and highly unstable climatic conditions would have made competition among human groups all the more fierce," says Katerina Harvati at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig Germany.

2)Chris Stringer, of London's Natural History Museum, proposes that the moderns' somewhat wider range of cultural adaptations provided a slightly superior buffer against hard times. For example, needles enabled modern humans to have tailored clothing and tents, all the better for keeping the cold at bay. Neandertals left no such signs of sewing.

3) Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner at the University of Arizona have suggested that the varied diet of early modern Europeans would have favored a division of labor in which men hunted the larger game and women collected and prepared nuts, seeds and berries. In contrast, the Neandertal focus on large game probably meant that their women and children joined in the hunt, helping to drive animals toward the waiting men. Thus modern human populations expanded at the expense of the Neandertals (Current Anthropology 2006)

4) Paleoanthropologist Leslie Aiello of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in NYC has said that Neandertals required significantly more calories to survive than the rival moderns did. "They were the SUVs of the hominid world." Modern humans might have out-competed Neandertals simply by being more fuel-efficient, using less energy for basic functions, ensuring the survival of their young.

5) Research led by Rachel Caspari of Central Michigan University has shown that around 30,000 years ago, the number of modern humans who lived to be old enough to be grandparents began to skyrocket. Thus they had more reproductive years and more time to acquire specialized knowledge (eg. where to find drinking water in time of drought) and pass it on to the next generation. Stringer added that among the shorter-lived Neandertals knowledge was more likely to disappear.

6) Lastly, the precise factors of why individual populations of Neandertals declined must have varied from group to group.

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