An archaeology professor explains how Neanderthals contributed more than just genetic material to the modern man - they might have also culturally exchanged with their contemporary homo sapiens at the time.

Tom Higham, Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Oxford, details the exchanges - both genetic and cultural - between homo sapiens and the Neanderthals in his new book "The World Before Us." In his book, he presents the latest overlap between the two species of hominids in a wider overlap than what was originally believed, both in Europe and parts of Eurasia.

Skull comparison between Homo Sapiens (L) and Neandethals (R) Against a Black Background
(Photo: hairymuseummatt via Wikimedia Commons)

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New Understandings on Ancient Hominids

In his Science Focus article announcing his new book, Higham notes how modern society's understanding of human evolution has become revolutionized. With every new discovery, scientific studies yield more insights on the past, with some of them challenging previously-held notions.

Studies revealed that as recent as 40,000 years ago, there were at least six different species of humans roaming the Earth. The first is the homo sapiens - direct ancestors of the modern man - as well as the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, the "Hobbits of Flores" Homo floresiensis, and Homo luzonensis whose remains were found on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

The other species have contributed to the genetic makeup of homo sapiens, overlapping the ancient homo sapiens with these now-extinct cousins. This "genetic inheritance" might have helped homo sapiens to eventually become the most dominant species on the planet.

Around 300,000 years ago, homo sapiens began evolving from Africa. Before 2010, the consensus was that our ancestors had very little if there were any, contact with its now-extinct relatives. The most common of these were believed to be the Neanderthals. However, an exact timeframe of this interaction, before the homo sapiens expanded toward Eurasia, remains unknown.

The Cultural Trade Between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals

Higham notes the gap between the latest known Neanderthal layers and the start of the following layers of proof for the early homo sapiens in Europe. While this suggested that there was virtually no interaction between the two species, German scientists back in 2010 unveiled the Neanderthal genetic sequence - showing that humans have traces of Neanderthal DNA, strongly suggesting interbreeding between the two human species.

Furthermore, recent works reveal that Neanderthals might have taught their homo sapiens contemporaries a thing or two. Higman notes that new archaeological evidence points out to the Neanderthals as the first cave artists in Europe, including cave paintings in Spain dated to be beyond 65,000 years old.

Additionally, more activities described as "behaviorally modern" are also being found to be achieved by Neanderthals - including possibly wearing ornaments from eagle talons, decorative feathers, mineral pigments on skin, and probably even the use of animal hide for clothing articles.

As for the question of how these supposedly modern hominids eventually died out the face of the earth, the Oxford archaeology professor points out to DNA analysis of latter Neanderthals show tracts of homozygosity, or when one gene inherits two alleles on a gene locus identical in both parents - suggesting close blood relation between those parents.


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