The missing link

As Neanderthal man has come into better view in recent decades, so has a larger mystery about him whose geographic focus is Israel.

neanderthal 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
neanderthal 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He had red hair, light skin and was not as dumb as you think, in fact not dumb at all.
Neanderthal man has suffered a bad press since his remains were first excavated in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856, three years before Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species. Short and powerfully built, he had prominent brow ridges, large front teeth, a sloping forehead and a protruding jaw. His braincase was even larger than that of modern humans, but there was no mistaking him for an intellectual giant. His appearance was that of a “gorilla-like character” equipped with the sinews and brutish instincts that permitted him to survive among the beasts of the field.
“His lowering face accentuates his squat ferocity,” wrote Popular Science in 1921. Accompanying the article was an artist’s rendering – the first “scientific” reconstruction based on the Neander Valley remains – showing a dark, hairy figure gripping a spear as he surveys the landscape for prey.
“And was this the being from whom we sprang?” asked the caption.
The implicit answer was yes. Archeological finds showed that Neanderthal man disappeared about 30,000 BP (before present), giving way to modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens), taller, slimmer, recognizably “human” – apparently the next rung on the evolutionary ladder.
The image of Neanderthal man began to change in the 1950s when a century-long accumulation of hundreds of Neanderthal fossils led researchers to conclude that he had been greatly underrated. For more than 100,000 years he had coped with the cold, sometimes glacial, climate of Europe. He had controlled fire, made tools and crafted animal traps. He was the first creature to bury his own kind. “Once seen as dull-witted cavemen, Neanderthals were intelligent, adaptable and highly effective predators,” anthropologist John J. Shea of State University of New York would write.
About a decade ago, his image was softened even further when it became possible to extract DNA from some of the fossils. Neanderthal’s genes showed him to have fair skin, red hair and possibly even freckles. Anatomical and genetic evidence showed that he had the capacity for speech. “What is emerging,” wrote a British archeologist, Prof. Stephen Mithen, “is a picture of an intelligent and emotionally complex creature whose most likely form of communication would have been part language and part song.”
However, the DNA also showed that this increasingly sympathetic being had been climbing a different evolutionary ladder than Homo sapiens. Although scientists do not rule out sexual contact between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, the DNA analysis establishes that there was no significant crossbreeding and that modern man carries no Neanderthal genes. It is not clear whether this was due to lack of sexual activity or whether the two were separate species and thus could not produce fertile offspring.
Neanderthal Man and Homo sapiens had diverged from a common ancestor in Africa close to a million years ago. When Neanderthal’s ancestors trekked north from Africa, his uncles remained behind and developed into Homo sapiens. It is clear from the archeological evidence that Neanderthals were for tens of thousands of years the sole hominids roaming Europe. Their stout build resembles that of cold-climate peoples today, like Eskimos. Some researchers have estimated that the Neanderthals never numbered more than 15,000 at any given time.
When Homo sapiens finally arrived in Europe, they displaced the Neanderthals in a relatively short period, a few thousand years. “What makes it so mysterious is that the Neanderthals were well adapted to the climate, very good hunters, very good toolmakers,” says Dr. Silvana Condemi, a French paleoanthropologist who lectured on the subject last month at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.
The most widely accepted explanation is that the Neanderthals could not compete for game with the more numerous and better organized and armed Homo sapiens. The Neanderthals, who lived in small groups, are believed to have had only thrusting spears and stone knives, which obliged them to engage in close combat with often fierce prey, a scenario supported by the serious wounds many of the fossils display. The numerous fractures to ribs, spine and skull among Neanderthals is attributed to this close combat. Some researchers see a similarity with the wounds suffered by modern rodeo professionals and suggest that Neanderthals may even have wrestled some of their prey to the ground as in rodeo steer wrestling.
Homo sapiens are believed to have had stand-off weapons – throwing spears – offering greater efficiency and to have hunted in larger packs. Apart from this tactical advantage, some researchers suggest that Homo sapiens may also have dealt directly with the Neanderthal competition by killing them off. But there is no evidence for this and the two populations did apparently live in proximity for thousands of years. The last redoubt of the Neanderthal, as far as archeology tells us to date, was the cliffs of Gibraltar at the edge of the continent.
AS NEANDERTHAL man has come into better view in recent decades, so has a larger mystery about him whose geographic focus is – where else? – modern-day Israel.
In the 1930s, fossils were found in the caves of Skhul and Tabun on the western edge of the Carmel range alongside tools and other artifacts associated with European Neanderthals, the so-called Mousterian culture. This was the first indication that Neanderthals had reached this part of the world. Fossils associated with the Mousterian culture were uncovered shortly afterward in the Qafzeh cave near Nazareth by René Neuville, the French consul in Palestine. Similar finds followed.
French paleoanthropologist Bernard Vandermeersch carried out follow-up excavations at Qafzeh decades later and closely studied the fossils found in the country by those who had preceded him. In 1981, he published a paper which came to an astonishing conclusion: While all the relevant fossils found in Israel from the Paleolithic period were indeed linked with the Mousterian culture, not all were Neanderthal. In some of the caves – like Qafzeh and Skhul – the remains were clearly of Homo sapiens.
The fact that the Neanderthals had ventured this far south had been the first surprise. Even more surprising was the fact that Homo sapiens adopted for thousands of years the same Mousterian tool kit their Neanderthal predecessors created, defying the accepted notion that evolutionary change in mankind goes hand in hand with technological progress. “This has challenged established ideas concerning parallelism between biological evolution and cultural evolution,” says Condemi, a former student of Vandermeersch. What the evidence points to instead is apparent acculturation – an extended period of close contact between early modern man and the species he was destined to displace, with the latter offering him a helping hand.
The greatest surprise, however, was yet to come. New dating tools which became available in recent decades – like thermoluminescence, which measures the residual energy in flint which had been exposed to fire in antiquity – obliged a reassessment of fossil dates. Experts had initially believed the early modern humans unearthed at Qafzeh and Skhul to be contemporary with the first human remains found in Europe, which they closely resembled. The new dating pushed the Israeli cave finds back some 60,000 years – to 90,000 and 100,000 years BP respectively. Many of the Israeli Neanderthal finds proved much younger than that, turning the accepted chronology – Neanderthals older, Homo sapiens younger – upside down. The Neanderthal skeleton at Kabara dated to 60,000 BP and those from Amud cave to 55,000 BP.
In Europe, the chronology had been clear cut. Homo sapiens arrived about 40,000 BP and within about 10,000 years had displaced the last of the Neanderthals. But in the Middle East, the chronology was a mess. According to the archeological evidence, Neanderthals were still on the scene tens of thousands of years after modern man set up home in the Qafzeh and Skhul caves. Further complicating the scenario was the discovery in the Tabun cave on the Carmel of a Neanderthal fossil dating 130,000 BP – that is, predating by 30,000 years the Homo sapiens at Qafzeh, who in turn predated the Neanderthals of Kabara and elsewhere. Adding to the confusion, the Tabun Neanderthal fossil was itself predated by a Homo sapiens found in the same cave, but it is not clear by how much.
The explanation suggested by researchers is that climatic changes in Europe triggered the southern migration of some Neanderthals to the Middle East, including the Iraq-Syrian border area, although some experts admit to still being puzzled by the evidence. The fact that all the Middle East Neanderthal fossils are “classic” Neanderthals and not earlier forms shows that they did not evolve in the Middle East but came fully formed, as it were, from outside the region. This presumably means Europe, since no Neanderthals or proto-Neanderthals have been found in Africa.
As for Homo sapiens, Vandermeersch believes that those who would make their way to Europe about 40,000 BP originated not in Africa, as is generally believed, but in the Middle East itself. They evolved, he suggested, from fossils like the 200,000-year-old remains unearthed at Mugharet-el-Zuttiyeh, a cave near the mouth of Wadi Amud at the western shore of Lake Kinneret. If this could be proven, Israel’s – and to be fair, the region’s – claims on historical importance would be matched by its claims on prehistory as well.
“The anthropological specimens found in Israel have been crucial in changing our ideas about the evolution of modern man,” says Condemi.
Israel and its immediate neighbors formed the land bridge across whichmankind’s ancestors forayed cautiously out of Africa more than amillion years ago on the way to their destiny. It is in the caves ofmodern-day Israel that early man, pausing on that epic trek, apparentlylived in closer proximity with his Neanderthal cousins than anywhereelse and for longer periods.
Dr. Condemi, who spent six years at the Centre de Recherche Français inJerusalem doing research on fossils, believes that the silent dramas ofpre-history played out in this land merit more attention, alongsidebiblical archaeology, and that new excavations should be undertaken.“Paleolithic studies were very popular in Israel until about 1970,” shesays. “It will be good if people realize how important this is.”
Should Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resume, the negotiators mightconsider a joint visit beforehand to the Carmel caves for a whiff ofperspective. They would find it poignant, and perhaps instructive, tonote that the attempt by two populations – “cousins” on parallel tracks– to coexist in this narrow strip of land despite their differencesgoes back, literally, to the beginning of mankind. Back then it seemsto have worked.