Hey! Who you callin' a Neanderthal?

Mary
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The Times reports today that scientists are reconstructing the Neanderthal genome, which has led to lots of debate about whether we should clone one, were that possible. Putting aside what society would actually do with a cloned Neanderthal (put him in some unholy Pleistocene Park? cast him in a Geico commercial?), the guy would need some major image rehab, because over the years his species has been scientifically slandered. Here, courtesy of Channel 4, are 10 Neanderthal myths that need debunking:

  • Neanderthals grunted, they couldn't speak: For many years, scientists believed that Neanderthals' mouth and throat were designed in a way that prevented them from speaking like us. In 1983, scientists found a Neanderthal hyoid bone at a cave in Israel. It completely changed the debate. The hyoid is a small bone that sits in the throat, holding part of the vocal mechanism in place. It was almost identical to modern humans', suggesting that the Neanderthals' throat was, in fact, designed for speech.
  • Neanderthals were hairy: Neanderthals' image as hairy brutes has more to do with prejudice than scientific fact. They were probably no hairier than many people today. Computer simulations have shown that, for Neanderthals, excess body hair could have caused overheating. If Neanderthals overheated, sweat could have frozen to their body hair in the arctic-like conditions, with potentially fatal consequences.
  • Neanderthals were stupid: Neanderthals had brains as big and in some cases even bigger than ours. But this doesn't prove they were 'brainy'; brain size doesn't necessarily correlate with intelligence. Neanderthal brains were also a different shape from ours, and could have been 'wired-up' in a different way. Their skilfully made tools demonstrate considerable intelligence and forethought, but we can still only speculate how similar or different Neanderthal thoughts might have been to our own.

ha1.jpgThey walked with bent-knees like a chimp or orangutan
Studies of Neanderthal fossils show that they would have walked upright, in a very similar way to us. The slouched caricature is largely due to an inaccurate reconstruction of Neanderthal remains done at the start of the last century. We now know that this individual's gait was caused by arthritis.

We are descended from Neanderthals
Most experts now agree that Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead end; a species that became extinct about 30,000 years ago. In recent years, this belief has been supported by groundbreaking research on Neanderthal DNA. Tiny quantities of DNA have been recovered from Neanderthal bones and then analysed on computers. The results support the view that they are different species to Modern Humans.

Neanderthals were club-swinging thugs
There is no evidence that Neanderthals made or used heavy wooden clubs. However, there is good evidence that they made spears, and a wide variety of stone tools. Many of these tools were incredibly sharp. Some had a cutting edge sharper than a surgeon's scalpel.

They were savage, uncaring brutes
In recent years, scientists have discovered evidence that Neanderthals cared for elderly and sick members of their group. For example, one elderly Neanderthal found in Iraq had suffered multiple fractures on the right side of his body and may have been blinded in one eye. Many of his injuries had healed, indicating that somebody must have cared for him for the rest of his life.

Modern Man killed off the Neanderthals
After surviving for 250,000 years in Europe, Neanderthals became extinct just 10,000 years after modern Man arrived, implicating us in their fate. However, there is no evidence for conflict. Indeed, in some regions of Europe, the two populations co-existed for thousands of years, perhaps peacefully. Slightly lower birth rates and higher mortality rates, combined with an increasingly unstable climate are now thought to have killed off the Neanderthals.

Neanderthals bred with Modern Man
Some scientists claim that a child skeleton, found in Portugal in 1998, has a mixture of Neanderthal and Modern human features. For them, it's proof of interbreeding. Other scientists dispute the claim and DNA tests on 3 other Neanderthal fossils have found no evidence for interbreeding. Research on the child continues. The debate is far from over.

Neanderthals were scavengers, not hunters
Neanderthals may not have used projectile weapons, which to some people suggests that they lacked the ability to kill large prey. However, the large proportion of injuries found on Neanderthal bones - likened to those of modern day rodeo riders - suggests that they did engage in the close-quarter killing of large animals. Large accumulations of bones at the bottom of some cliffs suggests that they also chased herds of mammoth, deer and reindeer over the edge, reducing risk of injury to themselves.

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July 21, 2006 - 9:22am
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