Friday, July 1, 2011

Prehistoric Mammal Week: Neanderthals.

Did you really think that humans would go unscathed this week? You're a mammal, too. The porn on your PC proves it - only mammals can have fine-ass racks. By looking at that porn, you hereby acknowledge that the lineage of Homo sapiens sapiens is fair game for Prehistoric Mammal Week.

Or, well, one of the hominids that might be related to H. sapiens. We're really not sure about Neanderthals.

Hell, we can't even give you the proper scientific classification; it's either Homo neanderthalis or Homo sapiens neanderthalis, depending on whether you consider Neanderthals their own species or a subspecies. However you prefer to classify them, they were first found Belgium. The name comes from a specimen found in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany. Although they were originally thought carnivorous brutes, plant matter has been found in their teeth, and the brain of an adult Neanderthal was as large as, if not slightly larger than, that of a modern human.

Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis derived from a common ancestor, Homo rhodesiensis, approximately 1 million years ago. Like humans, they lived in large social groups, made tools, and had a language. (One of the theories for the evolution of Basque, a language isolate, is that it is the last member of Neanderthal tongue.) The new view of Neanderthals gives them red hair and pale skin- both adaptations to a climate with less sunlight than Africa.

File:Neanderthal child.jpg
Uncanny Valley'd!

Neanderthals had several differences from modern humans. In general, they were stockier ("more robust") with barrel-like rib cages and proportionately shorter limbs. Their heads also had less neoteny, meaning that they look less baby-like than those of modern humans. They had almost no chin to speak of. We would not run screaming, just go, 'huh, that guy looks a little weird.'

The scary thing? Nobody knows what happened to them. These guys are one of our closest relatives, and nobody knows for sure how they died out. It's easy to see what could make something like tomorrow's animal die out, but a hominid? We don't like picturing ourselves, or even our cousins, going extinct.

There are constant debates raging about what, exactly, wiped out the Neanderthals. So far, there are three main theories concerning what killed them off.

One theory is that the H. sapiens from Africa violently eradicated the Neanderthals. Neanderthal skeletons have shorter limbs, proportionately, than those of hominids more readily recognized as the ancestors of modern humans. This meant that humans had a huge combative advantage over Neanderthals and could spend less energy hunting big game -not to mention each other. The not-Flintstones didn't stand a chance. Yep, Homo sapiens were always assholes.

The second theory states that Neanderthals were assimilated into H. sapiens. This is supported by European and Asian lineages having 1-4% of their genes in common with Neanderthals. There are a few subtle skull traits that also hint at hybridization. War and rape often go together; there is no reason that the first two theories could not gel.
Minus Dino and the tacky fashion sense, this might have happened.

The third theory cites climate change as the main reason for Neanderthals going extinct. Even though they were probably physically stronger than modern humans, they expended more energy per movement. Something as disruptive as a massive volcanic eruption would have put a largedent in their population. They were less adaptable in general. Humans won out because they dealt with the changing environment better.

The real reason could be one of the above theories. It could be two of them. Hell, it could even be a combination of all three of them. Whatever happened, it must have been pretty damn scary.

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