Decoding Neanderthals

Decoding Neanderthals - Video Cover
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Decoding Neanderthals. 2013. Directed by Nick Clarke Powell, narrated by Lance Lewman, technical producers Alison Turner and Tom Bosley. NOVA Production by Arrow International Media Ltd for WGBH. DVD, 53 minutes. Featuring John Hawks, April Nowell, Ed Green, Svante Paabo, Joao Zilhao, Metin Eren, Wil Roebroeks, Christ Stringer, Thomas Wynn, Frederick L. Coolidge, Friedrich Palmer, and Michael Walker.

Keeping Up with Neaderthal Research

One of the things that's really difficult for any of us to do is to keep abreast of all that's happening in a particular field that is not our speciality. Academic and field researchers tell me they have a tough time keeping up reading the literature in their own field and closely related fields, in addition to field work, laboratory analysis, writing, report writing, teaching and lecturing, and other duties related to their jobs. The rest of us, those of us not actively working in archaeology, can only get information piecemeal: a news story breaks about some topic and we might have time to read up on it in the newspaper and online. But it's unsatisfactory, let's face it, because we miss out on the bigger picture.

Which is why I like NOVA's science videos so much: they bring the kind of overview we need to get a broader insight into ideas that scientists are in the process of discovering.

A prime example of this is Decoding Neanderthals, a 2013 film which brings together a dozen researchers in different aspects of recent Neanderthal research to explain and summarize what that research has done to rewrite the Neanderthal past.

Diverging from Traditional Views

Decoding Neanderthals features several story lines reported within the last, say, five years, lines which diverge from the traditional understanding of Neanderthals as our pitifully stupid and lumbering ancient uncles.

First, Metin Erin describes his work reevaluating the difficulty of Neanderthal tool making abilities: the Levallois stone working technique. Wil Roebroeks and Friedrich Palmer then describe their experimental archaeology exploring the innovations Neanderthals needed 250,000 years ago to make a birch bark pitch to haft stone tools to wooden spears.

Next, genetic researchers Svante Pääbo and Ed Green discuss the implications of their recent mapping of the Neanderthal genome, including the recognition that the FoxP2 gene which has been associated with language ability is identical in modern humans and Neanderthals; and the evidence for interbreeding between our species.

Art and the Neanderthal

João Zilhão next describes three strands of evidence for the idea that Neanderthals made and wore personal body adornments, considered characteristic of modern human behaviors. These include the presence of manganese crayons at the site of Les Pradelles in France, perhaps used as face paint; cutmarks identified on crow and raptor bones suggesting the removal of feathers at several sites including Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar; and perforated seashells Neanderthal sites such as Grotte du Renne, believed to have been strung on necklaces or otherwise attached to clothing.

Next, Michael Walker discusses his work at the 50,000 year old site of Sima de las Palomas in southern Spain, where the earliest possible intentional burial of Neanderthals has been found.

And, finally, anthropologist John Hawks describes using the results of the 1000 Genomes Project to investigate where on our planet can you find the people with the highest percentage of Neanderthal DNA. Most of us have between 1 and 4% of Neanderthal DNA in us, but that is variable throughout the world, and what we can learn from that variability continues to flesh out the bigger picture of Neanderthal and human interaction.

Wrap Up

Decoding Neanderthals ultimately includes a recap of what we understand about Neanderthals today. Neanderthals evolved in Africa and left at least 800,000 years ago, spreading into Europe and other parts of the world as small groups.

Modern humans, our direct ancestors, arrived in Europe only about 40,000 years ago, and within 10,000 years ago, the Neanderthals disappeared: but not as we had assumed, that modern humans had killed them all or starved them out by successfully competing with them for scarce resources, but rather by swamping them with our larger numbers and, by interbreeding with them not once but many many times, absorbing them into our gene pool.

What that combination of genetic material did for our species is the bottom line of this video: that some of those Neanderthal genes that exist in some of us are related to the ability to fight off diseases such as Epstein Barr. The potential of research into Neanderthal/Modern Human DNA for improvements into modern health and medicine is just being recognized.

Bottom Line

Decoding Neanderthals is a fascinating glimpse of scholarly research brought together in one fast-flying hour-long video. Science changes all the time, and keeping up is difficult, even for those of us who try our best. Thanks to NOVA, who continue to provide broad overviews of the current research, we can still keep learning.

Whether you are a science teacher and want to give your students the latest information, a professional archaeologist in a different field, or you are like me, an enthusiast who likes learning new ideas, Decoding Neanderthals is for you, and thank NOVA and Public Broadcasting, only the latest in this terrific series.

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