Modern evidence, including DNA analysis confirms the opinion that modern man, in the form of Homo sapiens, first came out of Africa as early as 160,000 years ago. Of the pioneers who moved across Asia, one group moved south-east down through the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, crossing over into Australia during a brief window of opportunity 65,000 years ago when water levels dropped. They also reached Papua possibly as early as 65,000 years ago eventually moving from there across the Pacific.
What happened to the Neanderthals was the same as what happened to the vast majority of species that have ever lived on earth - they went extinct. There is nothing unusual about that, and as we discover more about human evolution we learn that the Neanderthals were just the must recent of many different types of humans and human ancestors that have suffered the same fate. But what is unusual and so intriguing about the Neanderthals is that they went extinct so very recently, less than 30,000 years ago, and by doing so left our species, Homo sapiens, as the only member of our genus alive on the planet. This is certainly very unusual, as all other types of animals including our closest relatives the chimpanzees and gorillas have at least two species alive, while most types of animals have many more.
Moreover, Neanderthals seemed to have everything in their favour - they had brains as large as modern humans, a physiology extremely well suited to living in their Ice Age environments, they were able to make complex stone tools and were effective big-game hunters. And yet, after having flourished across Europe and western Asia for more than 200,000 years, their population numbers dwindled and they went extinct. Exactly what happened to them remains a key question for archaeologists and anthropologists.
The classic Neanderthals
Homo neanderthalensis evolved from a species, Homo heidelbergensis, that colonized Europe soon after 1 million years ago. Quite which fossil specimens are assigned to which species is a matter of some dispute among anthropologists, but it is evident that by 150,000 years ago classic Neanderthal features had evolved. These include a face with a rather large projecting nose and large eyebrow ridges, and a cranium that is flat and sloping when compared with the high and rounded vault of a modern human. Their bodies were stout and robust with large barrel chests and muscular arms and legs. Their bones were thick and heavy, reflecting strenuous lives involving great physical activity. From the remains found in the caves they occupied we know that they were capable big-time hunters, killing horse, deer and bison with stone-tipped spears. Their haunting was often undertaken in rather harsh glacial environments - open tundra-like landscapes. Survival depended upon social co-operation and sharing as much as brute strength. During the time of their existence there were marked environmental changes. At around 125,000 years ago forests spread across Europe, but Neanderthals proved quite able to adapt to the new types of plants and animals that became available for food and as sources of material for making shelters, clothing and tools. All in all, they were a highly successful species, inhabiting some of the most demanding environments humans have ever known, adapting to change, seemingly set to survive into the modern world. So what went wrong?
From an evolutionary point of view nothing went wrong: all that happened was that a new species entered the landscapes in which the Neanderthals hunted and gathered, out-competing them for food, for caves and for sources of stone. A rule of ecology states that two different species cannot share the same 'niche' - and that is exactly what began to happen in western Asia from about 100,000 years ago, and in Europe from 40,000 years ago. The new species was ourselves - Homo sapiens.
Neanderthals vs. modern humans
Having evolved in Africa at c. 130,000 years ago, groups of Homo sapiens began dispersing into Asia and Europe soon after. Quite why they showed such wanderlust remains unclear, but it is evident that by 60,000 years ago they had spread throughout Southeast Asia and crossed into Australia. Other groups had travelled to Israel by 100,000 years ago, and buried their dead in the caves of Qafzeh and Skhul. And there they may have come face-to-face with Neanderthals - or not. Although Neanderthals were living in precisely the same area at 125,000 and 63,000 years ago, whether they were also there when modern humans arrived, or had all travelled into Europe, remains unclear to archaeologists.
There can be little doubt, however, that once modern humans entered eastern Europe at 40,000 years ago, and then spread rapidly to the west, the two species became aware of each other's presence. There are no archaeological signs of direct contact other than a collection of bone and antler jewellery that some Neanderthals began making in southwest France at around 33,000 years ago. This was a completely novel activity for them, but an established part of modern human culture. The Neanderthals appear to have been copying the modern humans, using their own techniques and choosing their own materials, but inspired by what they saw the modern humans wearing. Very soon after this, all traces of Neanderthals are lost from Europe - except for within the Iberian peninsula. There are no signs of physical combat having taken place, let alone murder or the type of genocide that happened when Europeans came into contact with the Aboriginal peoples of America and Australia. But what we know from the archaeological record is that modern humans had a way of life that was nearly identical to that of the Neanderthals.
They also hunted large animals, employed stone as a raw material, required the use of caves for shelter. This is a classic case of niche overlap - and one species had to give way to the other. That it should be the Neanderthals is perhaps surprising. After all they had occupied Europe for many thousands of years and unlike the incoming modern humans had a physiology well suited to the harsh, cold conditions - the modern humans retained a stature and limb proportions much more suitable for equatorial regions, not Arctic-like landscapes. Yet modern humans must have had at least one major advantage, and that seems to have been their culture, which was in turn a consequence of a different type of mind or intelligence.
The most glaring difference between the Neanderthals and modern humans is that the latter made art - carving statuettes and painting cave walls. This may itself have given them an advantage because art can be used to help people to adapt to harsh landscapes, it can, for instance be used as a store of information - the tribal encyclopaedia - such as concerning animal behaviour, while at the ceremonies associated with the art many people would have gathered and swapped information in a manner that never happened in Neanderthal society.
Of the many unsolved questions of prehistory, one of the most intriguing is why homo sapiens prevailed over the 18 or so other upright apes who cohabited the Earth from 300,000 to 12,000 BC. While it has been politic to disparage Neanderthals as a byword for primitive, these bipedal silver medallists were for a long time more numerous, were always stronger and had a bigger brain than homo sapiens. And it is now emerging that they left more to us than fossils.
The early orthodoxy had it that we "tool makers" simply wiped out Neanderthals with a combination of spear and fire-making, domestication of dogs etc. However, an emerging school argues that human and Neanderthal ancestors interbred, producing a transfer of genes in a species blend, rather than clean-cut extinction.
By 2003, the Human Genome Project had largely mapped the role of each of the 20,000 to 25,000-odd genes in our double helix. In 2008, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology extracted and identified 60 per cent of the Neanderthal genome from bone fragments preserved in the Croatian Vindija Cave.
The researchers demonstrated that 1 per cent to 4 per cent of (non-African) human DNA comes from Neanderthals.
A tantalising question is which human traits do we owe to the legacy of that primaeval co-mingling? Neanderthals were concentrated in northern Europe and appear to have been largely, or exclusively, redheads. Two copies of the recessive gene on human chromosome 16 yields a classic helpful mutation. A defective protein (MC1R) on the plasma membrane allows a pale-skinned redhead to process more vitamin D with less sunlight - giving an evolutionary edge in cold climes to sun-starved Vikings, Celts and their northern European cousins. It also delivers higher pain thresholds.
The highest concentration of the gene combo is found in Scotland where fully 40 per cent of the population are carriers. However, in this respect, we need to recognise that most of us are, in fact, part-Neanderthal.
Much of the art, however, appears to have been made after the Neanderthals had disappeared from the European landscape. What it probably reflects is a much greater creativity and ingenuity in the minds of the modern humans - they were just that much better at finding game and gathering plants, they were able to invent tools to exploit a wider range of resources, and began to exploit the landscape at a level of intensity far beyond that which the Neanderthals had over achieved. And hence, as the population of the modern humans expanded, that of the Neanderthals dwindled as they had to find the nooks and crannies where modern humans had not yet reached.
Iberia is hardly a nook and cranny of Europe, yet is appear to have remained the province of Neanderthals alone for the last few thousand years of their existence. Curiously, modern humans seem to have put a temporary halt on their otherwise relentless global journey and only entered Spain and Portugal at about 28,000 years ago. Some anthropologists claim that a skeleton found at Lagar Velbo in Portugal dating to about 24,000 years ago shows that modern humans and Neanderthals had interbred, as this individual's limb proportions are very Neanderthal-like while its skull is very sapiens-like. Mounting evidence, however, suggests that this was not the case and the skeleton is simply that of a rather robust young boy, modern human through and through. Yet the possibility for some hybridization remains - there is a chance that some specifically Neanderthal genes survive within some of us today.
The very last Neanderthals are found at sites in the far south, most notably in Gibraltar. There they not only hunted animals but also gathered shellfish to eat. Those archaeological traces may be of a relict group, unable to expand their numbers due to the dominance of modern humans in the surrounding landscapes. And when the last member of the group died, so too did the species. Just one more to add to the millions that have suffered extinction in the history of the planet.
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Modern discoveries, including genetic research, has confirmed the view that modern man with Homo sapiens first evolved out of Africa. This is based on continuing widespread evidence, including genetic research and that derived from fossils, artifacts, archaeological sites and, more recently from the use of genetic surveys that indicate a remarkable similarity between all human beings. In summary, the evidence still suggests that all modern humans have descended from East African ancestors who first emerged some 100,000 years ago.
Indeed, all humans outside Africa - from Australian aborigines to Icelanders - are descended from just one small group of modern humans that made their exodus from Africa less than 100,000 years ago. It is now possible to show that any two people from around the globe, share a common ancestry by comparing their DNA. It is also now possible to show where those ancestors live and when they left their homeland.
The first known pre-historic man has been given the name Homo ergaster who arose in Africa some 1.9 million years ago. He is linked to Homo erectus who developed from, and eventually replaced Homa ergaster, in Africa and Asia. Homo ergaster has been identified with early stone tool technology.
Homo erectus arose approximately 1.6 million years ago and populated Africa, Asia and Europe. They were supplemented about 40,000 years ago by archaic Homo species, although a Javanese group may have been a contemporary of Homo sapiens.
Modern man in the form of Homo sapiens arose in Africa some 160,000 years ago from Homo erectus. Homo sapiens were distinguished by lighter skeletons and bigger brains than earlier Homo groups, whom they eventually displaced in populating the globe.
In migrating out of Africa, it is apparent that Homo sapiens displaced their predecessors in western Asia about 45,000 years ago then moving north and west as they did in Europe. One group moved east across Asia while another moved south-east down through the Indo-Malaysian archipelago island-hopping to Australia and eventually out across the Pacific Islands possibly displacing relic populations of a much earlier human ancestor, Homo erectus.
The time scales suggested to this migration agrees reasonably well with evidence from hundreds of archaeological sites across Australia. Unpublished research also indicates that in Borneo and Timor that humans first reached the Australian continent at least 45,000 years ago. Many researchers are also of the view that Homo sapiens possibly reached Australia as early as 75,000 years ago.
The human beings who reached both Papua and the Australian continent must have been accomplished seafarers. They most likely came from the north in boats, possibly outrigger canoes which were capable of being steered safely across at least a hundred kilometers of open sea. That was the shortest possible voyage from the nearest point of land in Timor. At that time, New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania were still joined in a single land mass. All the coastal sites that may have contained direct traces of this migration were inundated by a 120 meter rise in sea level at the end of the most recent ice age.
In recognizing the fact that the eastern islands of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago which formed the migration path from Asia have never been linked to either Papua New Guinea or Australia suggests that the first inhabitants of these regions came from a seafaring coastal culture.
Certainly, the evidence now suggests that the early inhabitants of Melanesian Papua New Guinea arrived in the region much earlier than previously thought. This arrival was at least 40,000 years ago with carbon dating of camp sites confirming an occupancy of at least 25,000 years. What is apparent also is that these early Melanesians came from a seafaring culture and were capable of making voyages of at least 100 kilometers of open sea.
Archaeologists believe that Polynesian people came from a small central group on the island of Taiwan. Genetic studies have now indicated the manner that the ancestors of the sailors of the great canoes started out on their journey further along the trail in eastern Indonesia.
Researchers in New Zealand have also recently concluded that the male and female ancestors of Maori came from different places. The team, from Victoria University in Wellington, have found that Maori women have genetic markers that suggest their ancestors came from mainland South-east Asia, probably about 6,000 years ago. As they travelled south from island to island, it appears that Melanesian men joined the men and women on the boat, with a small group of people eventually arriving in New Zealand about 1,000 years ago.
Melanesia Origins 1
Modern evidence, including
DNA analysis confirms the opinion that modern man, in the form of Homo
sapiens, first came out of Africa as early as 160,000 years ago. Of
the pioneers who moved across Asia, one group moved south-east down
through the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, crossing over into Australia
during a brief window of opportunity 65,000 years ago when water
levels dropped. They also reached Papua possibly as early as 65,000
years ago eventually moving from there across
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