June 27, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Now It’s Cool to Praise Neanderthals

Long the brunt of jokes, Neanderthals are trending upward in respect. Scientists keep finding things to admire in our ‘archaic’ brethren.

Neanderthals hunted in bands and speared prey up close (Phys.org). Spear marks in fallow deer bones indicate to German paleoanthropologists that Neanderthal hunters could teach moderns a few things about bringing home the venison.

Neanderthals were capable of sophisticated, collective hunting strategies, according to an analysis of prehistoric animal remains from Germany that contradicts the enduring image of these early humans as knuckle-dragging brutes….

It was long thought that these evolutionary cousins—modern Europeans and Asians have about two percent of Neanderthal DNA—were not smart enough to compete, and lacked symbolic culture, a trait supposedly unique to modern humans.

But recent finds have revealed a species with more intelligence and savoir faire than suspected.

They buried their dead in ritual fashion, created tools, and painted animal frescos on cave walls at least 64,000 years ago, 20,000 years before homo [sic] sapiens arrived in Europe.

The use of tontological verbs masks the identity of the people who were wrong about these ‘sophisticated’ humans. Who created the “enduring image” of dumb Neanderthals? Who “long thought” that they were not smart enough to compete? Who “suspected” they lacked intelligence? It was Darwinians, not young-earth creationists, who have always viewed Neanderthals as fully human descendants of Adam and Eve.

In chapter 6 of his recent book Evolution’s Blunders Frauds and Forgeries, Jerry Bergman debunks the mistaken belief that facial angle was an indicator of intelligence.

Why the Neanderthals may have been more sophisticated hunters than we thought – new study (The Conversation). Writer Annemieke Milks, a PhD candidate in anthropology, may represent a new generation willing to promote Neanderthals to the respect they have been denied by earlier evolutionists. Having been taught they were too stupid to use spears for hunting, she investigated the evidence that Neanderthals did indeed use spears in sophisticated ways, including long-distance throwing. She sneaks in some evolutionary assumptions here and there (belief in the long ages, and comparison to chimpanzee hunting with tools), but her conclusion is quite different than writers in the mid-20th century and earlier.

The innovation of long-distance weaponry lies at the heart of questions around hunting strategies of different species of Homo. If Neanderthals were capable of powerful and accurate throws and some of their weapons were capable of flight, then differences between their hunting technologies compared with our own species may not be as great as is often suggested.

The findings are compelling because they provide clear evidence that Neanderthals used spears as penetrating weapons to kill their prey, laying to rest hypotheses that early spears were ineffective. With mounting evidence that Neanderthals were clever, creative and capable, the results make a lot of sense. Given that our own species has not yet existed as long as the Neanderthals did, we should reconsider our tendency to underestimate them.

Neanderthal brain organoids come to life (Science Magazine). A new technique is allowing scientists to begin glimpsing the Neanderthal brain, Jon Cohen reports. Researchers can grow organoids (clumps of tissue) from ancient DNA.

Until now, researchers wanting to understand the Neanderthal brain and how it differed from our own had to study a void. The best insights into the neurology of our mysterious, extinct relatives came from analyzing the shape and volume of the spaces inside their fossilized skulls.

But a recent marriage of three hot fields—ancient DNA, the genome editor CRISPR, and “organoids” built from stem cells—offers a provocative, if very preliminary, new option. At least two research teams are engineering stem cells to include Neanderthal genes and growing them into “minibrains” that reflect the influence of that ancient DNA.

The unpublished work could be incapable of deriving any sound conclusions about Neanderthal intelligence, admittedly. In fact, the pioneer of Neanderthal DNA rescue has serious doubts:

Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, expects the work to draw skepticism because it’s so difficult to figure out which genetic differences are “functionally relevant,” and the organoids only represent the early stage of brain development. “Organoids are far from being able to tell us how adult brains function,” says Pääbo, who led the team that deciphered the Neanderthal genome by rescuing DNA from their bones. His group has also started to make organoids with Neanderthal brain genes, but he stresses that the technique can introduce unintended mutations. “There are lots of control experiments to do, and then I’m quite hopeful we’ll overcome those doubts,” says Pääbo, who plans to compare Neanderthal brain organoids to those made from chimpanzee or modern human cells.

Speculative claims in the article that certain growth patterns resemble those seen in autistic children cannot be taken seriously. One researcher commented, “we have no idea what it means,” which leaves open the possibility that Neanderthal brains were actually superior to ours. It’s hard to imagine a population of autistic humans thriving for millennia. As Milks said above, “Given that our own species has not yet existed as long as the Neanderthals did, we should reconsider our tendency to underestimate them.”

Speaking (or Misspeaking) of Human Evolution

Cranium of a four-million-year-old hominin shows similarities to that of modern humans  (Science Daily).  “The ‘virtual’ revisiting of a fossil described as ‘the oldest evidence of human evolution in South Africa’ shows surprising results,” this article says. It presents two challenges to evolutionary assumptions: (1) the skull of this creature classified in the genus Australopithecus has the same kind of bone structure that we have. (2) A skull of Paranthropus (an ape) has a different kind of bone. “This result is of particular interest, as it may suggest a different biology,” the authors say. The evidence appears too fragmentary to draw any conclusions about evolution.

How did Homo sapiens evolve? (Science Magazine). Chris Stringer and Julia Galway-Witham opine again on the never-ending quest for “understanding” a subject that most human beings deny: that we came from apes. The correct inquiry should be, “Did humans evolve?” not “How did humans evolve?” Nobody outside the Darwin Party, however, is allowed to ask the right question. We see right from the first paragraph how evolutionary chutzpah runs into the brick wall of surprises, contradictions, and complexity.

Over the past 30 years, understanding of Homo sapiens evolution has advanced greatly. Most research has supported the theory that modern humans had originated in Africa by about 200,000 years ago, but the latest findings reveal more complexity than anticipated. They confirm interbreeding between H. sapiens and other hominin species, provide evidence for H. sapiens in Morocco as early as 300,000 years ago, and reveal a seemingly incremental evolution of H. sapiens cranial shape. Although the cumulative evidence still suggests that all modern humans are descended from African H. sapiens populations that replaced local populations of archaic humans, models of modern human origins must now include substantial interactions with those populations before they went extinct. These recent findings illustrate why researchers must remain open to challenging the prevailing theories of modern human origins.

Stringer and Galway-Witham plunge into complexities about dates, classification, migration patterns, and all the usual surprises that upset the paleoanthropology applecart every year. None of the “complexities” mentioned in the quote above were predicted by evolutionary anthropologists. Each one came as a total surprise. How can anyone trust their confidence about the “cumulative evidence” that they claim still “suggests” their main outline of a theory is correct?

These are the same class of experts, perceptive readers will recall, who were telling us the Neanderthals were dumb brutes. At least we can agree with their last sentence: “With the growing influx of new analytical techniques and discoveries within and outside Africa, it is imperative that researchers continue to rigorously challenge our theories and that they remain aware of their limitations.

 

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