For two weeks in December both adults and infants in Britain have been plagued by nightmares figuring the superb prosthetic and dramatic reconstruction of a Neanderthal family in Channel 4’s Neanderthals. As London University human geneticist, Steve Jones, has observed, “If you met an unwashed Cro Magnon dressed in a business suit on the Underground, you would probably change seats. If you met a similarly garbed Neanderthal, you would undoubtedly change trains”. Of course, the big issue is not that Neanderthals were muscled hulks with gigantic noses, beetling brows and little in the way of chins, but who were the interlopers that drove them to oblivion? Apart from the fact that Neanderthals portrayed Cro Magnons as being pretty cool, with a trendy line in face paint, there is little doubt that their only advantage over the chinless ones was one of lifestyle. Being migrants from Africa via the Middle East, Cro Magnons had to have been nomadic hunter gatherers. Neanderthals had survived at least two full ice ages in Europe, and subsisted from fixed ranges around their homes. Game husbandry in a severe climate meant two things: small Neanderthal bands supported by large ranges, and little communication with neighbouring bands. Entry of nomadic hunters into ranges inevitably depleted resources for the territorial first occupants, without the two groups even coming into direct conflict. Nomads can move to fresh hunting grounds, thereby avoiding starvation.
Recent molecular studies of modern mens’ Y chromosomes (see also Eve never met Adam, October-November 2000 Earth Pages) confirms archaeological evidence that the sad drama of Neanderthal decline and eventual extinction began with the entry of fully modern humans about 40 000 years ago (Semino, O. et al., 2000. The genetic legacy of Paleolithic Homo sapiens sapiens in extant Europeans: a Y chromosome perspective. Science, v. 290, p. 1155-1159). Eighty percent of modern European mens’ Y chromosomes stem from two ancient haplotypes. The divergence can be calculated to have occurred around 40 ka from one now vanished, apart from its trace in molecular relatedness. That trace itself is related to another, older one, found in modern Siberian and native peoples of the Americas. It looks as if migrants from Africa remained fixed for a long time in the near East, then to move west and east as the climate cooled. It was the carriers of the now dominant European male Y chromosome that interacted ecologically with the Neanderthals, to the extent that the latter died out.
The molecular statistics suggests that these early “Aurignacian” people – named after their stone-tool culture recovered from archaeological sites – dominated northern Europe. Deepening glacial climate forced them into refuges in the Ukraine and Iberia during the last glacial maximum around 24 to 16 ka ago. At this climatic low point, a further migration into southern Europe emerges from the genetic analyses; that of a population which probably brought in the more advanced “Gravettian” culture. They too survived in a refuge, but in the Balkans. The fact that the Aurignacian genetic trace is so dominant among European men today probably signifies that its population moved rapidly out of its refuge areas, growing numbers re-stocking much of the continent left empty by the demise of the Neanderthals.
Considering the explosive influence of an entirely different culture on the history of Europe during the last 10 thousand years – that of agriculture – it comes as a great surprise that genetic evidence of its likely source is restricted to at most 20 % of modern Europeans. Four new mutations can be dated to have appeared around 9 000 years ago, at the beginning of the Neolithic explosion from which all modern economies date. They almost certainly arose in the “fertile crescent” of the Middle East where farming first shows in the record around that time.
In the same way that Channel 4’s Neanderthals came to be made, the evidence needs imagination to enliven it. One thing does seem likely; the earliest modern Europeans probably learned their farming, and possibly much else besides, from a trickle of new immigrants, once climate had finally improved to a near-modern state. More intriguing is to wonder why the earliest Cro Magnons were moved to walk into an increasingly frigid Europe in the first place. Were they pariahs in what became the “fertile crescent”? Did they get sick of oppressive “Big Men” who ruled the roost there? Incidentally, that seems to have spurred much of the historical movement of peoples in Africa. Or, did drying at low-latitudes, which accompanied more northerly cooling, mean that worsening conditions in the Middle East demanded urgent migration in any direction that presented itself? Perhaps we shall see a drama relating this story, and the sudden explosion of art at the depth of an ice age. An expression of relief and celebration of good luck?
See also: Gibbons, A. 2000. Europeans trace ancestry to Paleolithic people. Science, v. 290, p. 1080-181
Discovery of huge primate buttock print
The search for the Sasquatch is a story that runs and runs. Generally it has been stoked up by dubious evidence, such as plaster casts of gigantic footprints and a film of a rather portly and somewhat camp being striding through the woods of Washington State. Scorn poured on “Bigfoot” research by zoologists and anthropologists may have to be retracted after the latest revelation (Kleiner, K. 2000. Bigfoot’s buttocks. New Scientist, 23/30 December 200 issue, p. 8).
The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization set out in September to lure a Sasquatch with a mixture of pheromones (whose, I wonder!), supposed cries of wandering, pedally challenged anthropoids, and…. apples. The trap was laid in a muddy clearing in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest of southern Washington state. The following day, researchers found an impression interpreted as that made by forearm, hip, thigh heel and a gigantic, hairy bottom, as if some naked… thing… had sat down to munch the bait.
Now this is exactly what I would have needed to sustain my early belief in Santa Claus; something going beyond the drained sherry glass and crumbs of cake on the hearthstone. Using comparative anatomy, the prints suggest a being more than 2.5 metres tall, in keeping with the well-known size 24 feet. Personally, I get the whiff of smoked fish, because the heel print bore markings remarkably like those of human fingerprints. As they say, the jury is still out….., probably having a stiff drink.