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Refound Neander-baby offers clues to evolution

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  • Djehuti Sundaka
    Refound Neander-baby offers clues to evolution 40,000-year-old infant bones found in French museum archives Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer Thursday,
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 6, 2002
      Refound Neander-baby offers clues to evolution
      40,000-year-old infant bones found in French museum archives
      Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
      Thursday, September 5, 2002
      ©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

      URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2002/09/05/MN177324.DTL

      Scientists are thrilled by the rediscovery of bones of a 40,000-year- old Neanderthal baby, which was originally unearthed in France in 1914, then lost.

      The rediscovery could shed light on the nature, evolution and fate of Neanderthals.

      One of the most disputed topics in the study of human origins is: Were Neanderthals big dumb lummoxes who disappeared down an evolutionary dead end because they couldn't compete with the sharper, technologically savvier direct ancestors of modern humans (Homo sapiens)?

      Or were Neanderthals comparatively cultivated beings (by Ice Age standards) who interbred with the sapiens line and, thus, are directly related to modern humans?

      The rediscovery of the Neander-baby's bones is reported in today's issue of Nature by anthropologist Bruno Maureille of Universite Bordeaux in France. He located the 4-month-old infant's bones while exploring the archives at the National Museum of Prehistory in the town of Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil.

      "They were not labeled. They were not identified. They were just in a drawer," Maureille told the Associated Press.

      Originally uncovered near a riverbank in southwestern France, the bones were later shipped to Paris -- then lost somewhere in the French scientific bureaucracy. Maureille rediscovered the bones in 1996. His detective work allowed him to link the drawer bone samples to those unearthed in 1914.

      The "beautifully preserved skeleton that has been lost to science for almost 90 years" is technically known as "Le Moustier 2," after the site where it was found, Maureille says in his one-page Nature article. It is "one of the most complete Neanderthal individuals to have been discovered."

      The baby's starkly Neanderthal-like features may help bury the old, romantic notion that Neanderthals are among our direct ancestors.

      Previously, some scholars suspected that Neanderthals interbred with the direct ancestors of humans. If that was the case, then why did the linebacker- like Neanderthals and our scrawnier human ancestors, the sapiens line, look so different?

      The proposed explanation: Neanderthals, having migrated from Africa to Europe much earlier than the sapiens line, had developed bulkier bodies, which provided insulation against the European cold.

      However, that theory doesn't jibe with the physical features of the rediscovered infant: Its bones are very Neanderthalish. Being so young, the infant couldn't have had time to develop such features in response to the chill environment. Therefore, the baby's features must be genetic -- evidence of an innate major difference between sapiens and Neanderthals.

      In Maureille's words, the infant's appearance differs "greatly from that of living human neonates (newborns), but shows many similarities with the features of (known) juvenile and adult Neanderthals." Among the infant's Neanderthal-like features are its inflated cheekbones, cylinder- shaped front teeth, and asymmetrically shaped inner ear bone.

      Famed paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., says the Le Moustier infant's bone collection "contains typical Neanderthal characters.

      "That would imply these (characters) are genetic and that the differences we see between Neanderthals and sapiens are real and genetic," says Johanson, formerly of UC Berkeley. He was not connected with the Maureille research, and commented on its implications in response to a Chronicle inquiry.

      Maureille's discovery "pulls the leg out" from suspicions that the infant was buried with another child, in possible imitation of sapiens funeral practices, says Michael T. Black, a UC Berkeley-educated anthropologist. He is now writing his doctoral dissertation on Neanderthals at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and is not connected with Maureille.

      Primeval sapiens sometimes buried more than one infant in a grave. Hence, researchers were initially intrigued by evidence that the Le Moustier 2 child had a grave mate -- i.e. was part of a "double burial." The possibility suggested some kind of mysterious cultural connection between Neanderthals and sapiens.

      However, Maureille's research shows that only one infant was placed in the original grave. The "double burial" was an illusion caused by the accidental mixing up of bones from another infant, he said.

      Neanderthals died out about 25,000 years ago. The likely reasons include competition with sapiens for scarce resources in Ice Age Europe.

      How "smart" were Neanderthals? Cartoonists have long exploited their somewhat brutish-looking appearance to depict cartoon "cavemen." That stereotype riled some scholars, who claimed Neanderthals were getting a raw deal.

      Black says that decades ago one scientist joked that Neanderthals looked so modern that "if you dressed them up, and gave them a haircut and a shave, you could put them on a New York subway and no one would notice."

      The "Neanderthals-were-smart" school of thought claimed semi-victory a few decades ago, when field researchers found pollen grains in a Neanderthal grave site. The grains implied that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers. If true, that suggested they were pretty sweet people, perhaps with quasi- religious beliefs.

      The "Neanderthal flowers" story was popular during the 1960s, when researchers hoped to replace the old anthropological view of early humans as "man the hunter" with "man the peacenik," Black jokes. Later, scientists concluded that the pollen grains blew into the grave by accident.

      The Neanderthals are a reminder that a highly successful, long-lived subspecies can dominate a huge region for eons, yet die out for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious.

      As Johanson says, "You can be around a couple of hundred thousand years, making a pretty good living, (but still) go extinct."

      E-mail Keay Davidson at kdavidson@....

      ©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

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