Now that we know for certain that early Homo sapiens had babies with Homo neandertalensis, it's time to get real about what it was probably like when those two groups of early humans met in Europe. Homo sapiens had just trudged up out of Africa, and Neandertals had been living in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years. But they were still the same species, capable of forming families together - and of sharing cultural knowledge, too.
Svante Paabo, whose lab at the Max Planck Institute was responsible for sequencing the Neanderthal genome, recently discovered that DNA from these barrel-chested people is still present in many Europeans today. In a recent lecture, Paabo joked about all the mail he'd received since announcing his discovery. A lot of it was from men claiming that they believed they were Neandertal throwbacks who should be studied. The women who wrote him rarely claimed to be Neandertals, but often offered up their husbands for study.
These letters are more than just amusing. As Paabo pointed out, they reveal a prevalent stereotype of Neandertals - that they were men. And usually they're portrayed as unattractive men, to boot.
But several new studies demonstrate that Neandertals were anything but macho brutes. They wore feathers, created art, and had a culture as developed as that of their Homo sapiens counterparts. That's probably what brought the two groups together in the first place. Anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore recently reported on a newly-defined Neandertal culture, called Uluzzian, which offers us a picture of what life was like among Neandertals when the Homo sapiens first arrived. These Uluzzians weren't simple people who were "civilized" by invading Homo sapiens. They had their own way of life - one which was probably very attractive to the human newcomers.
Riel-Salvatore identified projectile points, ochre, bone tools, ornaments and possible evidence of fishing and small game hunting at Uluzzian archeological sites throughout southern Italy . . .
"My conclusion is that if the Uluzzian is a Neanderthal culture it suggests that contacts with modern humans are not necessary to explain the origin of this new behavior. This stands in contrast to the ideas of the past 50 years that Neanderthals had to be acculturated to humans to come up with this technology," he said. "When we show Neanderthals could innovate on their own it casts them in a new light. It `humanizes' them if you will . . . The fact that Neanderthals could adapt to new conditions and innovate shows they are culturally similar to us," he said. "Biologically they are also similar. I believe they were a subspecies of human but not a different species."
"It is likely that Neanderthals were absorbed by modern humans," he said. "My research suggests that they were a different kind of human, but humans nonetheless. We are more brothers than distant cousins."
The more we learn about early human culture, the more obvious it becomes that Neandertals and Homo sapiens were forming communities together. And they weren't doing it because a "superior" human came and crushed the Neandertals. They were doing it because two groups of equals met and decided to shack up together.
Neanderthal reconstruction by Elisabeth Daynes. Drawing by Mauro Cutrona.