The Fate of Neandertals

Neandertals inhabited Europe and the Near East until about 30,000 years ago. They disappeared after their successor, Cro-Magnon man, who was anatomically modern man migrated to Europe. Many theories have been put forth to explain what happened to the Neandertals. One of these assumptions suggest that Neandertals were a separate species apart from Cro-Magnon man and "their birth rate was slower than that of Homo sapiens; they were out-competed and simply replaced, within relatively few generations, by the more flexible and technologically more advanced H. sapiens" (Caird 1994: 150). In examining this theory, Cro-Magnon man did have a more refined culture than Neandertals. He learned to plan ahead and follow his sustenance throughout the seasons, therefore, migrating and not remaining in one area and depleting it of its resources as the Neandertals did. Homo sapiens also had more complex and specialized tools made out of bone, ivory, and antler. With these new innovations, Cro-Magnon did not have to work as hard as Neanderthals did in order to survive.

With a much more sophisticated technology, Neandertals would have had to compete with modern humans for their meals. This would have definitely led to bouts with starvation and a decrease in the overall Neandertal population, which could have been the cause of extinction. Also, in contrast to Cro-Magnons, who lived to well into their fifties, Neandertals had a much shorter life span, barely surviving until the age of forty (Allman 1991).

It is possible that when Cro-Magnon man first encounter Neandertal man, he could have introduced new devastating diseases, as the conquistadors did in Latin America. Neandertals, not being immune to these illnesses would have quickly perished. However, it can also be considered that when the two human races met, war quickly followed. Cro-Magnon man may have possibly exterminated the Neandertals. In early human history, man has fought his own race for years to justly claim or protect what he considers his.

Another theory states that "Neandertals were not in fact a separate species, but interbred to a greater or lesser extent with the incoming Homo sapiens, whose genes eventually became dominant at the eventual expense of the genes delivering Neanderthal characteristics" (Caird 1994:150). This hypothesis comes from the fact that Neandertals and Cro-Magnons inhabited the same regions of Europe for thousands of years. It is not beyond a doubt that they did come in contact with one another, possibly even trading and communicating. Evidence from the site of Auxerre in France suggests that Neandertals, like their successors, were using pierced or grooved animal teeth and ivory rings as jewelry. According to archaeologist, Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, "Neanderthals were not imitating Cro-Magnon artisans but actively trading with them" (Begley 1996:61).

With the idea of interbreeding in mind, many scientists "see a more gradual replacement--not by people but by modern genes that spread viruslike around the world, slowly transforming populations" (Gore 1996:34). In this scenario, the genes of Cro-Magnon and the Neandertals would have blended together to produce modern Europeans. When viewing the "late," or "progressive" Neandertals and modern humans, there seems to be a transition between the two. The Saint-Cesaire skull, for example, has an absence of facial projection, which some anthropologists cite as evidence of a hybridization between the two races. Other instances include modern humans with more prominent brow ridges and low vaulted skulls, which are strong Neandertal traits.

We may never be sure of the fate of the Neandertals, until archaeological finds provide the evidence. However, they did have a human awareness for many things. Neandertals were compassionate enough to bury their dead, care for their injured and ill, develop complex tools, create some form of ritual behavior, and communicate in some ways. It is this aspect of humanity, that was improved and carried on by their successors, Cro-Magnon man, who later dominated the world.

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