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Anthropology: Are Neanderthals Really that Different from Homo Sapiens?

This is a colored and painted image of a group of Neanderthals sitting and standing outside of their cave, feeling alerted due to an unknown situation.
Image Source: HISTORY

Common perceptions of Neanderthals

When you hear the word Neanderthal, what are the first words that come to mind? For many people, the answer falls somewhere between a primitive, brutish, uncivilized, unintelligent, cave-dwelling, savage (Peters & Zwart, p. 2). There’s no way they could possibly belong to the same species as Homo sapiens! This has been the dominant narrative regarding Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Neanderthals lived and coexisted with Homo sapiens in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, until approximately 40,000 ya (Peeters & Zwart, p. 3). Neanderthals were deemed by 19th century anthropologists such as Hermann Schaaffhausen as “the barbarous and savage race of humans” (Glausiusz, 2020).

This attitude towards Neanderthals hasn’t changed very much in the last century. Scientific analyses as recently as 20 years ago have depicted Neanderthals as “a powerfully built, archaic hominin specialized to hunt and scavenge large, dangerous prey in cold habitats” (Shipman, p. 14241). These negative attitudes towards Neanderthals are rather puzzling, especially considering they are our closest relatives and the best-known hominin species other than ourselves (Peters and Zwart, p. 3). It’s only recently that the narrative about Neanderthals and their relation to Homo sapiens has started to change.

The image is a graphic of the skeletal bodies of a Neanderthal and a modern Homo sapien. This graphic highlights the physical differences between Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens.
Image Source: SFGATE

Differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens

There are key differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that cannot be denied. For starters, Neanderthals evolved in Eurasia; Homo sapiens evolved out of Africa. Neanderthals had boxy, stout bodies with faces that stuck out, while modern humans are flat-faced and have thinner, gracile bodies (Glausiusz, 2020). Neanderthals were hunter-gatherers; Homo sapiens rely on cultivation and domestication for subsistence. Neanderthals’ diet consisted strictly of meat from other animals, while Homo sapiens’ diet was varied and consisted of fruits, nuts, plants, and meat. Neanderthals primarily used stones for their tools; Homo sapiens used a variety of stone tools in addition to bone, antler, ivory and other specialized tools (Glausiusz, 2020). Homo sapiens excelled in the arts, unlike Neanderthals who “were limited in their ability to create technology, art, imagination and overall culture” (Peeters and Zwart, p. 12).

Perhaps the most significant difference is that Neanderthals went extinct and Homo sapiens survived. There are several theories concerning why Neanderthals went extinct. One theory states Neanderthals went extinct because they were small in numbers and isolated from one another, which negatively impacted their lines of communication (Engel, 2010). This meant that Neanderthals were not made privy to new inventions or technologies (Engel, 2010). Another theory states that Neanderthals went extinct because they were so satisfied with their own technology and way of life that they saw no reason to adapt to the changes around them (Engel, 2010). They had a generalized adaptive approach that worked for them and supported them in every kind of environment (Engel, 2010). With all that said, it’s important to note that although there are key differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, it doesn’t necessarily mean they belonged to different species.

This is a sepia-colored image that depicts Charles Darwin.
Image Source: BBC

Charles Darwin and hybrid sterlity

Charles Darwin, a British biologist, geologist, and naturalist who is referred to as “the father of evolution,” didn’t believe the crossing of two distinct species led to the creation of a new species (Forsdyke, 2019, p. 3). This is known as hybrid sterility, which is the inability of hybrid species, the offspring of two different species, to have their own children (Darwin, 1859, p. 222). A new species created through reproductive isolation went directly against Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which he constructed as working positively when organisms survive and produce offspring (Forsdyke, 2019, p. 3). Darwin felt hybrid sterility “could not have been acquired by the continued preservation of successive profitable degrees of sterility,” as it was of no advantage to hybrid species nor their parents (Darwin, 1859, p. 222).

Darwin’s views on hybrid sterility, and how it’s not an adaptation, is accepted by evolutionary biologists today (Mallet, 2013, p. 11). His assertion that new species couldn’t be born out of reproductive isolation was generally met with support when his book On the Origin of Species was first published (Mallet, 2013, p. 9). Biologist and anthropologist Thomas Henry Huxley stated in his review of the book, “There is no positive evidence, at present, that any group of animals has, by variation and selective breeding, given rise to another group which was even in the least degree, infertile with the first (Huxley, 1860,  p. 74-75)” (Mallet, 2013, p. 9). Darwin’s views, however, were also met with some opposition in the years following the publication of On the Origin of Species. For example, 20th century evolutionary Ernst Mayr wrote in his 1963 book Animal Species and Evolution that Darwin “never seriously attempted a rigorous analysis of the problem of the multiplication of species, the splitting of one species into two (Mayr, 1963, p. 12)” (Mallet, 2013, p. 7). Mayr, unlike Darwin, believed a new species formed when species split (Mallet, 2013, p. 7).

This image is a colored hybrid sterility and inviability model based on chromatin evolution and molecular drive in speciation. It shows repetitive satellite DNAs evolve rapidly, which in turn accelerates the evolution of chromatin-binding proteins (from the common ancestor to species 1 and species 2. This causes Hybrids to be sterile because the chromatin-binding proteins from species 2 cannot recognize the repetitive sequences of species 1.).
Image Source: ResearchGate

The cause of hybrid sterility

Darwin believed the cause of sterility in hybrid species was “simply incidental or dependent on unknown differences, chiefly in the reproductive systems of the species which are crossed (Darwin, 1859, p. 235). According to him, the reproductive systems of members belonging to the same species are perfectly adapted to each other, while the reproductive systems of members belonging to different species are not (Darwin, 1859, p. 249). This is why the former can generally conceive while the latter cannot. Hybrid species have disturbed and imperfect reproductive systems as a result of being a compound of two distinct species (Darwin, 1859, p. 249).

Modern studies support Darwin’s position, except they are able to identify the “unknown differences” he was referring to. It is understood today that chromosome incompatibility is the reason for hybrid sterility (Johnson, 2008). Research backs this up, as evolutionary geneticists have identified genetic loci that don’t function well together and increasingly smaller regions of chromosomes as some of the largest factors of hybrid sterility in plants and animals (Johnson, 2008). George Mendel’s genetic discoveries paved the way for all of this information, particularly the Law of Segregation which states a zygote receives one version of a given gene from each parent (Gayson, 2016).

This is a colored and painted image of a Denny, a hybrid daughter of a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father. e
Image Source: The Guardian

Discoveries, DNA, and genetics

The archaeological record is a very important concept in archaeology. It represents the physical evidence of the past—artifacts, documents, photographic material, physical remains, and more (Bacon, 2010, p. 1). The interpretation and documentation of these items by archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, and others provides a better understanding of people from the past (Bacon, 2010, p. 9). It’s thanks to the archaeological record that a discovery was made in 2018 of an ancient teenage girl who was the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father, two ancient hominin species (Wei-Haas, 2018). DNA sampling was done multiple times on a bone fragment belonging to the girl that was found in the Denisova cave (Wei-Haas, 2018). Studies were also done on the bone fragment’s mitochondrial and nuclear DNA (Wei-Haas, 2018).

The results concluded she was a hybrid of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan, a miraculous discovery considering no one had ever found direct offspring from this union before (Wei-Haas, 2018). The mtDNA of a Neanderthal girl who was discovered in an Altai cave in Siberia a few years ago also indicated similarities to the DNA of individuals from Western Europe (Guimarães & Silva, p. 94). The fact Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred with each other at all is significant, especially because new scientific studies have revealed they interbred more frequently than previously imagined (Glausiusz, 2020).

This is a colored image that depicts a researcher wearing protection on (mask, gloves, helmet, etc.) while examining the DNA of a Neanderthal fossil.
Image Source: SAPIENS

Discoveries, DNA, and genetics continued

According to anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, “If two organisms can breed and produce fertile offspring, it means that they belong to the same species” (Glausiusz, 2020). If Neanderals and Homo sapiens belonged to different species, they wouldn’t have been able to reproduce offspring (Glausiusz, 2020). There are some anthropologists who reject this position and maintain two species can remain distinct from one another despite interbreeding (Glausiusz, 2020). Biological anthropologist Shara Bailey stated, “For all intents and purposes, they were separate species, but they maintained the ability to hybridize” (Glausiusz, 2020). She argued that their offspring would have been rare and, although able to reproduce, less successful in reproducing in comparison to their parents (Glausiusz, 2020). The genetic record, however, indicates that some hybrids did succeed, and thus contributed Neanderthal DNA to the modern human gene pool (Glausiusz, 2020).

Genetics and DNA have linked Neanderthals with Homo sapiens in recent years. It’s estimated that between 1 and 4% of the genomes belonging to modern non-African humans consist of Neanderthal DNA (Glausiusz, 2020). Neanderthal DNA existing in modern humans is proof Neanderthal genes haven’t gone completely extinct. Some scientists believe the presence of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans is evidence Homo sapiens didn’t outcompete Neanderthals into extinction, but that Neanderthals may have absorbed into Homo sapiens instead (Glausiusz, 2020). This is significant because Neanderthals have long been characterized as weaker and inferior because they went extinct and Homo sapiens didn’t (Peeters and Zwart, p. 19). Now, there is evidence that Neanderthals not only hybridized with Homo sapiens, but have continued to live on in some of them.

This image is a colored figure of the shaft of a seal phalanx that shows cutmarks made by a stone tool, confirming that a hominin processed this animal.
Image Source: PNAS

Similarities between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens

Scientific research has also been critical to uncovering the similarities between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. A recent example of this is the international team led by Christopher Stringer, Clive Finlayson, Nick Barton, and Yolanda Fe´rnandez-Jalv, who excavated and analyzed 1,367 fossil specimens and hundreds of marine mollusk shells from the Gorham and Vanguard caves located in Gibraltar (Shipman, p. 14241). The team’s analyses of the recovered fossil specimens and marine mollusk shells revealed that the Neanderthals of Gibraltar exploited a wide range of terrestrial resources and marine sources, used small scale resources, and scheduled the use of their resources seasonally (Shipman, p. 14242). Late 19th century scientists didn’t believe Neanderthals were capable of behaving like modern humans, yet their activities in Gibraltar had all the hallmarks of modern subsistence human behavior (Shipman, p. 14242).

Author Clive Finlayson argues in his book The humans who went extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived that Neanderthals had parallel and comparable minds to Homo sapiens, and were equals to Homo sapiens in brain power and cognitive abilities (Peeters and Zwart, p. 15). Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were noted for their skills in toolmaking and primping in particular (Glausiusz, 2020). Some scholars speculate that the fierce competition between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens is what ultimately caused Neanderthals to leave the Levant for Europe (Glausiusz, 2020). Research concentrated on the behavior of Neanderthals has also revealed how their behavior mirrors the modern human pattern, especially in regards to dental hygiene, large-scale cooperative hunting, complex stone tools, language, planning, care for the ill, imagination, and symbolic behavior (Peeters and Zwart, p. 2). We have more in common with Neanderthals than we think.

This is a colored and painted collage of Neanderthals. They are depicted looking closer to real people rather than savages.
Image Source: Reddit 

Humanizing Neanderthals

Although Homo sapiens regard Neanderthals as technically human, “we still try to keep a distance and use them to define our own self-image, often based on series of oppositions such as sluggish versus agile, brutish versus smart, conservative versus innovative, etc.” (Peeters & Smart, p. 17). How many times have you heard the word “Neanderthal” used as an insult or used it as an insult yourself? Homo sapiens are susceptible to dehumanizing Neanderthals, because we would rather not be associated with them at all. Whatever the reasons for why that is, Homo sapiens shouldn’t look down upon Neanderthals. Neanderthals may have gone extinct, but once upon a time they coexisted with Homo sapiens as equals. And they continue to live on in a number of Homo sapiens today. We cannot positively say Neanderthals belonged to a different species than Homo sapiens, as there is strong scientific evidence that indicates they were more closely related than not. Instead of trying to distance ourselves from Neanderthals, we would be better served by conducting more research about them and the ways in which they relate and don’t relate to Homo sapiens. The more we learn about Neanderthals, the less likely we are to dehumanize them.


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