The gradual rapprochement between Homo sapiens , modern humans, and Neanderthals , from an intellectual point of view, but also genetically , has been one of the most challenging scientific processes in recent decades. The closest human species , which inhabited Europe and Asia for at least 300,000 years, has ceased to be a distant mirror to become an ever closer reflection of modern humanity. This change has resulted in an unstoppable interest in Neanderthals, who are the protagonists of constant scientific publications, popular books, and exhibitions.
As the Israeli essayist Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, “by the mere fact of having existed, Neanderthals challenge some of Our most cherished ideals and illusions force us to question the belief that Homo sapiens stands as the pinnacle of creation and what it means to be human. And these matters are now more urgent than ever ”. The author of Sapiens wrote these words in the review in The New York Times from the book Kindred. Neanderthal life, love, death and art , by the British researcher and archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes , a best-seller in the Anglo-Saxon world that will be published in Spain after the Summer for Geoplanet
Wragg Sykes tries to summarize in his book all the knowledge that has been accumulated about Neanderthals in the last three decades, a process that has accelerated after, ten years ago, a team from the Max Planck Institute of Leipzig, led by Svante Pääbo, sequenced its genome and discovered that modern humans have a small proportion of Neanderthal genes , which shows that hybridization between the two species occurred. More philosophical is the recent book Life told by a sapiens to a Neanderthal (Alfaguara), in which the writer Juan José Millás and the paleanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga , co-director of the Atapuerca Foundation, talk about the divine, but above all about the human. The killer sapiens and the decline of the Neanderthals (Almuzara), by the paleontologist Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro , has also been published, which focuses on what remains the great mystery around the Neanderthals: Why did they disappear?
If Neanderthals disappeared, what do we do here? Neanderthals, the extinction of other humans
"They fascinate us for the same reason that science fiction novels fascinate us: because they are another version of us," explains Juan Luis Arsuaga in a telephone conversation. “Everything indicates that they have the same intellectual level as us, and yet they are not the same. We can say that they have the same mind, but not the same mentality. They represent another way of being human and that is something that we have a hard time imagining ”. In a video call interview, Wragg Sykes says in the same vein: “Neanderthals have changed the perception of ourselves. In Western culture we have always tried to separate ourselves from the rest of nature, to show that we are better than animals. Neanderthals force us to rethink that. ”
Kindred collects three decades of discoveries about Neanderthals, which also coincide with a revolution in archeology and genetics. The application of chemistry and sophisticated dating techniques has revealed that Neanderthals had symbolic thinking – although not necessarily art -, that they dominated the plants and the landscape that surrounded them, that they were aware of the lithic material they used for different instruments, who used colors, especially red and ocher, who buried their dead and cared for the elderly. Both because of the presence of the FOXP2 gene, associated with language, and because of the type of animals they hunted – killing them required the cooperation of the group – the scientists consider that they used some form of communication.
“During the last decade, numerous discoveries have changed our paradigm about the capabilities of Neanderthals,” explains Danish researcher Trine Kellberg Nielsen, a professor at the University of Aarhus and curator of an exhibition on Neanderthals at the Moesgård museum, specializing in anthropology and prehistory, which can be seen until the end of the year (the center is currently closed due to covid). "Many of the things that we once attributed only to our own species, such as visual culture and social behavior, now extend to Neanderthals."
New discoveries are accumulating almost every month, even every week. Only in the last seven days has a study appeared, based on sediments from the Salt cave –Spain is one of the most fertile fields in the study of this species due to the number of deposits–, on the presence of beneficial microorganisms in the microbiota Neanderthals' intestinal tract and on the same Friday another genetic research came out that could allow us to understand in the future how their brain evolved and influenced their behavior.
However, as the British writer John Lanchester pointed out in a text in the London Review of Books about Kindred , the great mystery remains: “They are not a failed version of us and the path from them to us is not theological. And yet … the fact is that we are here and they are not, and although there is no purpose in evolution, the question of why and how this happened is still fascinating. " The date is the only thing that is known: about 40,000 years ago, when the sapiens began to advance through Europe, the Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record.
Some researchers maintain that they still remained for a few millennia in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, in two caves located in Gibraltar, but these are still controversial dates. In his book, Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro opts for an explanation based above all on the struggle for resources. “We were competing for the same resources in the same territory,” he says, without ruling out violence at all. However, it is not the most widespread hypothesis among experts. Arsuaga, for his part, believes that the arrival of Homo sapiens in extreme circumstances – the beginning of an ice age – was decisive. "At a critical moment, the species that has the least trouble is the one that prevails."
Rebecca Wragg Sykes advances in Kindred a novel hypothesis, based on genetic and chemical studies of the tools that both species used. “We know from genetics that there was not much difference in the number of individuals, but also that the Homo sapiens groups were much more interconnected. If we consider that they were at a time when climatic conditions were deteriorating rapidly, when you have a network of contacts it is easier to move to other places and perhaps the Neanderthals did not have that. We know from archeology that there were no major differences between what they ate and we have evidence that the Homo sapiens of that period already had weapons with which to hunt from a distance, darts, arrows, systems to launch javelins, and Neanderthals did not. His end was a mix of technological disadvantage, climate change and sociability. But, since non-African humans have between 1% and 4% Neanderthal genes , there has never been so much genetic material from the extinct species circulating around the planet in history. Wragg Sykes maintains: “They show us that on Earth there has been more than one form of human being.”
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