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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Neanderthals and the Human Spark

Neanderthals were very successful in adapting to things that were presented to them. They lived in Europe much longer than us and their adaptions to their environment changed very little over the course of their lives. Even after they came to Europe they maintained a certain lifestyle and they even used the same type of tool kit they utilized while in Africa.  The Neandertal’s tool tradition consisted of the multi- part spear thrower, stone-flakes, and task-specific hand axes, referred to as the Mousterian stone tool tradition, which dates to about 300,000 years ago. Neanderthals are also associated with the Châtelperronian, Aurignacian, and Gravitation tool cultures.

The research on Neanderthal DNA at the Max Planck Institute tells us that the Neanderthals and our ancestors had contact with one another but never mated. Also, the genetic differences observed while studying the Neanderthal genome were very minute. Further research on the Neanderthal genome has yielded other interesting details about the biology and lifeway's of this early hominin. The Max Planck Institute has been studying stable isotope values from ten different Neanderthals over a 100,000-year span. The analysis of the teeth shows us that the diet of all ten Neanderthals studied consisted mainly of animal protein. There was no evidence to suggest a significant amount of plant food in the diet. There is also no evidence of fish in the diet, which is odd considering that many Neanderthals lived by a water source.

Scientists have also been using the world’s largest x-ray machine to examine the upper jaw of a Neanderthal child brought from Belgium. The teeth literally have a built in calendar. The teeth lay down a new layer of enamel everyday they are growing, therefore the amount of days a Neanderthal lived can be counted by looking at the number of layers. Effectively, the total time you are growing your teeth gives you the proximal time of your childhood. Moreover, the growth lines in the Neanderthal child’s teeth shows us that it was around six or seven when it died, meaning it developed quite quickly after birth. Humans experience a longer childhood than any other animal. Our brains our immature, as a result, the brain growth happens after birth and in the brain case. In contrast, we see more growth in the face and jaw of some of our early ancestors. Humans experience more maturation, allowing us to absorb language and the world around us.  Neanderthal children have less time to mature, learn, and experience the world around them. They are essentially thrown into adulthood without having the necessary skills for long-term survival.

I previously mentioned the examination of teeth for dietary patterns, but teeth were extracted and used as ornaments as well. Human molars were pierced and sewn onto clothing or used as jewelry. These beads are evolutionarily important because not only were they not found at any Neanderthal sites, but they started showing up over 100,000 years ago, prior to them being found in Europe. This could mean that symbolism did not exist in Neanderthal culture, but it did in the human cultures that stayed behind in Africa.

Also, it means that there is a network in place. These beads represent an extension of the social network and social organization, in that they represent not only a community of peoples, but also a group of people unknown, united under one symbolic tradition and an adaptive strategy used only by humans. The significance of the artifacts being discovered at Olorgesailie by Alison Brooks is that fact that new technology did not just appear and the human spark was not necessarily instant.  Allison Brooks explains that the complexity of the mind most likely evolved in Africa because there is no evidence for the origin of ‘the spark’ anywhere else. There is also no beginning and no end in the archaeological record. There are steps in the middle and things are changing slowly over time as far as social complexity and technology. This slow genesis can be seen at the archaeological sites, from the 150,000-year-old spear point discovered that is quite small and sharp to the 320,000-year-old site, which yielded stone flakes made out of exotic materials. The evidence suggests that our early ancestors were putting thought into the materials that they used and they were also establishing trade networks to obtain exotic resources. This behavior is pushing the human spark back even before the anatomically modern humans appeared. Essentially, we were behaving like modern humans even before we looked like them.

The article “Diatomaceous sediments and environmental change in the Pleistocene Olorgesailie Formation, southern Kenya Rift Valley” discusses the sediment layers of the Olorgesailie Basin, which show changes in hominin behavior and the distribution of artifacts, which were directly affected by environmental variability over time1. Moreover, the “variability selection hypothesis” discussed in the article explains how the replacement of habitat specific adaptations by evolutionary trends increased hominin intelligence and social complexity, thus allowing for flexible responses to complex and shifting environments 1. This assessment supports the idea that modern humans at Olorgesailie were now fully capable of adapting to extreme change by using complex analysis.

The Neanderthals and our ancestors had the spark, but only humans took this new found information and evolved into something truly distinct from other hominins. Modern humans had developed a modern mind. According to Svante Paabo at the Max Planck Institute, modern humans were very unique. We spread out across the world colonizing different locations, and we fundamentally started dominating and controlling the ecosystem, instead of the environment controlling us.

As far as “the spark’ in concerned, I believe it is a firing of information or a neurological wiring, which essentially sparked an instant idea in modern humans. We were seeking out new information and we were thinking abstractly. We also experienced a longer maturation, thus allowing us to develop cognitive processes based on environment, culture, and observation. As far as tools, the Neanderthals had a generalized technology that worked in any kind of weather. On the other hand, modern humans found ways to invent new technology for every obstacle encountered. Ultimately there was a social and technological change in modern humans and information flow between groups. According to Ian Tattersall, these true diagnostics of humanness appeared about 50 to 100,000 years ago.

Although we have some artifacts left behind that might suggest the use of language and symbolism in Neanderthal culture, we still do not have the proof. They did use advanced tools but those tools never changed. Also, Neanderthals had a human gene that allowed for advanced language, suggesting the species had the capacity for speech, but it is still debatable as to whether they actually had a complex system of linguistic exchange.

Additionally, hominins like Homo erectus did not have the software or hardware to produce language. The voice box of Homo erectus was not developed, the neural circuits were not equipped to control tongue movements, the cervical vertebrae was not shaped correctly, and also Homo erectus did not have the lung control. Additionally, the innovative tool technology used by the Homo erectus was most likely shared via a communication system based on symbols or body language instead of linguistics. I believe linguistic communication evolved when we see the presence of advanced tools and complex behavior.  Although the first tools did not appear until about 2.6 million years ago, the ability to communicate did not occur until these tools were improved upon.  Once the technology started to become more diverse, and materials were being traded to produce these tools, there had to be an exchange of language in order to negotiate terms.


  1. Owen, RB, Potts R, Behrensmeyerd AK, Peter D. 2008. Diatomaceous sediments and environmental change in the Pleistocene Olorgesailie Formation, southern Kenya Rift Valley. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 469: 17-37.


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