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Found 2 results

  1. By Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer | LiveScience.com Neanderthals Doomed by Vision-Centered Brains Neanderthals' keen vision may explain why they couldn't cope with environmental change and died out, despite having the same sized brains as modern humans, new research suggests. The findings, published today (March 12) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that Neanderthals developed massive visual regions in their brains to compensate for Europe's low light levels. That, however, reduced the brain space available for social cognition. "We have a social brain, whereas Neanderthals appear to have a visual brain," said Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, who was not involved in the study. As a result, the extinct hominids had smaller social and trading networks to rely on when conditions got tough. That may have caused Neanderthals to die off around 35,000 years ago. Brain size riddle Just how smart Neanderthals were has been a long-standing debate. "Either they get regarded as lumbering brutes, or the other side says, 'No, they weren't that stupid. They had enormous brains, so they must have been as smart as we are,'" said study co-author Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford. To help solve the riddle, Dunbar and his colleagues looked at 13 Neanderthal skull fossils dating from 25,000 to 75,000 years ago and compared them with 32 anatomically modern human skeletons. The researchers noticed that some of the Neanderthal fossils had much larger eye sockets, and thus eyes, than do modern humans. [10 Odd Facts About the Brain] Low lighting The team concluded that Neanderthals used their oversized eyes to survive in the lower-light levels in Europe, where the northern latitude means fewer of the sun's rays hit the Earth. (Modern humans also tend to have slightly bigger eyes and visual systems at higher latitudes than those living in lower latitudes, where light levels are higher.) The researchers hypothesized that Neanderthals must, therefore, also have had large brain regions devoted to visual processing. And in fact, Neanderthal skulls suggest that the extinct hominids had elongated regions in the back of their brains, called the "Neanderthal bun," where the visual cortex lies. "It looks like a Victorian lady's head," Dunbar told LiveScience. Anatomically modern humans, meanwhile, evolved in Africa, where the bright light required no extra visual processing, leaving humans free to evolve larger frontal lobes. By calculating how much brain space was needed for other tasks, the team concluded that Neanderthals had relatively less space for the frontal lobe, a brain region that controls social thinkingand cultural transmission. Isolated and dying The findings explain why Neanderthals didn't ornament themselves or make art, Gamble told LiveScience. These results may also help explain the Neanderthals' extinction, Dunbar said. Smaller social brain regions meant smaller social networks. In fact, artifacts from Neanderthal sites suggest they had just a 30-mile (48.3 kilometers) trading radius, while human trade networks at the time could span 200 miles (321.9 km), Dunbar said. With competition from humans, a bitter ice age and tiny trading networks, the Neanderthals probably couldn't access resources from better climates, which they needed in order survive, he said.
  2. New Dating Methods Put Neanderthal Extinction Much Earlier Than Previously Thought Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online Popular theories have placed the Neanderthal extinction at about 35,000 years ago, based on dating of the earliest bone fossils found at a Neanderthal site in southern Iberia. However, researchers from Australia and Europe are now refuting that evidence after taking another careful look at the bones and implementing an improved method to filter out contamination. Based on the new study, the Neanderthal may have actually died out much earlier, closer to 50,000 years ago. This new theory shakes up the popular belief that has been held in place for some 20 years. It was a widely accepted fact Homo neanderthalensis persisted in southern Iberia while modern humans (homo sapiens) were advancing in the same region. But the international study, in which researchers from the Spanish National Distance Education University (UNED) participated, pokes holes in that hypothesis. If the new evidence holds any weight, then the popular theory that modern humans and Neanderthals co-existed—and possibly even interbred—for millennia has just been shot down, especially as another hugely accepted theory shows modern humans didn’t settle in the region until 42,000 years ago. The new study used the improved dating method “ultrafiltration,” a technique that removes modern carbon that can contaminate ancient collagen in bones. Using the new method, lead researcher Dr. Rachel Wood, of Australian National University (ANU), and her colleagues tested 215 bones from 11 sites where previous radiocarbon dating had supported the later survival of Neanderthals. The study is published today (Feb. 4) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The team found the vast majority of the bones contained insufficient collagen to be successfully dated. But of those that could be tested, Wood and her colleagues found enough evidence that placed the earliest record to be about 50,000 years ago at two separate sites. Wood said the new evidence doesn’t completely exclude the possibility that Neanderthals lived until 35,000 years ago. Because radiocarbon testing couldn’t be accurately completed on many of the fossils, it’s possible some may have been from a later period. But for the two of the 11 sites examined, Wood says the evidence suggests Neanderthals died out 50,000 years ago. “It is improbable that the last Neanderthals of central and southern Iberia would have persisted until such a late date, approximately 30,000 years ago, as we thought before the new dates appeared” assured coauthor Jesús F. Jordá, researcher of the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology at UNED. Wood and her team said the new dating method puts the extinction at closer to 50,000 years, but may be as late as 45,000 years ago, still much earlier than when modern humans started arriving in the region. “The problem with radiocarbon dating alone is that it does not provide reliable dates older than 50,000 years” explained Jordá. An additional problem is contamination; the older the samples are the more residues are accumulated. If contaminants are not removed the obtained dates are incorrect. “The results of our study suggest that there are major problems with the dating of the last Neanderthals in modern-day Spain,” said coauthor Thomas Higham, deputy director of the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at Oxford University in England. “It is unlikely that Neanderthals survived any later in this area than they did elsewhere in mainland Europe.” Chris Stringer, a senior research fellow at Britain’s Natural History Museum, said traditional dating techniques often lead to older radiocarbon dates, but as the technology improves, science has to follow suit. He added that the new technique now needs to be applied to other sites in Spain. “Until this is done, there must be a significant question mark over the possible late survival of Neanderthals in the region,” Stringer, who was not involved in the new study, told the Associated Press. If other sites turn out to be older, then it is likely that encounters between Neanderthals and humans had to have taken place much earlier than previously believed, he added. “Evidence from Britain, Belgium, France, Germany and Italy is increasingly pointing to a modern human presence before 40,000 years ago,” said Stringer. “The new chronology suggests that any interaction between the last Neanderthals and the earliest moderns in Europe will similarly move before, rather than after, 40,000 years.” There is a chance that Neanderthals survived longer in other areas of Europe. “There are some other possible areas that may have also acted as a refuge for the species, such as the Caucasus, but the ‘young’ radiocarbon dates in these areas have also found to be problematic,” Wood acknowledged. Over the years scholars have been perplexed over disparities in the dates given to Neanderthal sites in north and south Iberia, and now the new evidence may explain why previous dating methods didn’t match up. Higham, who believes there was some overlap between early man and Neanderthals, said further work would be needed to confirm the findings. The new dating technique had applied the earlier extinction at the sites of Jarama VI and Zafarraya. Most of the other sites could not offer clear radiocarbon dating except for Cueva Anton (Murcia), which still provided recent dates in accordance with the popular theory that Neanderthals existed until 35,000 years ago. However, even at this site, the team said the remains are not clearly related to Neanderthals and more testing needs to occur. In light of the new evidence, Jordá explained that “prehistory books would need revision”, especially as new results become available. “Although it is still controversial to change the theory in force, the new concept, which presents new data indicating that Neanderthals and H. sapiens did not co-exist in Iberia, is becoming accepted” he added. Source: Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online