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Episode 10

Discovering Religion: Episode 10 – Neanderthal

Ever since our childhood we have been introduced to the concept the caveman. Our imaginations were swept away by cartoons like the Flintstones that romanticized what life might have been like back in the days of the Stone Age. Even recent advertisements for Geico Insurance have jokingly brought the cavemen into the 21st century.

When we hear the word Neanderthal, common images that spring to mind are that of a brutish figure dragging the woman of his fancy off to a cave or a man dressed in a loincloth chiseling away at the first wheel.  Although the “caveman” has been immortalized in popular culture, a majority of us understand that at one time humans did indeed live in caves, dressed in animal skins and hunted wooly mammoths during the last great ice age.

Their endeavors have been well documented on the walls of their former homes, as can been seen in this vivid depiction of a hunt that has been preserved for millennia. In fact, anthropologist have learned much about the Neanderthal by studying their remains, and it is well understood that early humans began as hunter/gatherers. Then with more experience and the slow accumulation of knowledge they learned to tame the land, develop agriculture, and eventually how to harness the materials found the earth to usher in the Bronze Age then the Iron Age, leaving the Stone Age behind.

However, all that we currently understand about the life of early man and every shred of evidence discovered by countless anthropologists, biologists, and archeologists is dismissed by the Bible’s account of the first human beings. In Genesis 4 we are introduced to the Cain and Able, whom the Bible portrays as the first naturally born humans on planet Earth, the children of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 4:3 we learn, “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.”  The first murder is committed by Cain as the result of to his jealousy toward God’s preference of Able’s sacrifice of a lamb over his vegetable offerings.

The Bible makes a clear declaration at the beginning of human history mankind had a solid understanding of the principles of agriculture and the domestication of animals. The Bible appears to put forth the claim that God somehow inspired the almost instantaneous development of such concepts as crop rotation, irrigation, the design of tools for plowing and harvesting, how to breed and domesticate livestock and so on.

With the rapid accumulation of knowledge in producing and preserving food, humans of the Biblical history were not bound to the daily struggle of hunting or gathering their sustenance and were instead free to devote their time and resources toward other pursuits. In fact, this is exactly what the Bible describes. We saw in part 2 of this series there was 1,556 years from the appearance of Adam to the Flood of Noah. Civilization during this period of time had grown so fast and become so corrupt it was necessary for God to cleanse the Earth and start anew.

However, the technology of agriculture and animal domestication was not lost in the Flood, for Noah passed on this information to the following generation as is evidenced by numerous cultures known to exist before and after the time of the Flood. However, if we are to accept the Bible’s version of human history, what does this say about the anthropological evidence of early humans that has been collected from across the globe?

The Bible claims the very first humans had such advanced techniques in the acquisition of food they were able to immediately organized themselves into great societies consisting first of villages, then cities and eventually kingdoms. So, exactly when did the caveman exist? Who were the Neanderthals and where did they come from?

Five hundred thousand years ago Europe was a cold and unforgiving place to live. To the north was a great ice sheet that brought polar conditions to much of the continent. Herds of wooly mammoth roamed the grass land, and limestone caves provided shelter for the people of this region. These are the Neanderthal and they are the first humans to adapt to these harsh conditions.

The Neanderthal’s world was much smaller than the one we know today. Arctic tundra in the north and vast stretches of sea and then desert to the south restricted their territory to Europe and western Asia.  Even at their peak, it is estimated that as few as 100,000 Neanderthals lived within this boarder.

Bones and artifacts have been found as far south as Israel. To Uzbekistan and the Ukraine in the east. Poland, Germany, and even Wales to the North. And to Portugal in the far west. But southwest France was one of the most densely populated regions. Home to as many as 3,000 Neanderthal.

The size of their caves and the debris within them suggests Neanderthals lived in very small groups. Perhaps no more than 25 members, and sometimes as small as 8. The cave was the center of their world. Within its walls they slept, ate, butchered meat, and even defecated. The discarded waste that littered the floor of Neanderthal caves became buried and then over time fossilized. Far from the ape-like and brutish characters of popular myth, we now know they were a strong, intelligent and highly adapted species.

The glaciers not only changed the landscape, but also the features of the Neanderthals that lived there. The Neanderthal bones were strong, a direct result of the stress they were subjected to. The walls of Neanderthal legs bones were particularly thick. Joints of the elbow, hip, and knee were also enlarged, shaped by the continual pressure and stress of their lives. Seen in contrast to the modern leg beside it, Neanderthal legs are not only thick and bowed, they are much shorter than our own. Short, heavy bodies reduced the skin’s surface area, helping to maintain their body temperature.

Even their noses evolved to cope with the extreme cold weather. Their nasal cavities were larger than ours, and contained extra capillaries and mucus to warm and moisturize the air. This combination of feature makes Neanderthal the first human species specifically adapted to a cold climate.

Meat makes up about 12% of our diet, but the Neanderthal’s diet was very different. By analyzing samples of Neanderthal bone we can tell a lot about what they ate. Extremely high levels of carbon and nitrogen confirm meat made up the bulk of their diet. Fossilized feces known as coprolites have also been analyzed and are shown to consist almost entirely of protein. It also evident from the feces their food was well digested, suggesting Neanderthals evolved to specifically cope with a diet consisting of up to 85% meat, on par with carnivores. The Neanderthals also had a variety of tools, used to do anything from chopping wood to scraping hides, they even fashioned knives and spears.

The life of the Neanderthal was extremely difficult. Nearly half of all Neanderthal children died before adolescence. Skulls that do not have all of their adult teeth descended from the gums make up much of the fossil record. Defects in their dental enamel suggests starvation was one of the major killers. But it is the many skeletal remains of babies that provides the most poignant evidence of how harsh life was.

Despite everything we know about Neanderthal, scientists wanted to examine their DNA to see once and for all how similar or dissimilar Neanderthals were to modern day humans. Throughout the 1990s there were several trials in the amplification of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA by use of PCR, or Polymerase Chain Reaction, a technique which can be used to create many copies of an initially small number of molecules. The results were conclusive — the Neanderthal genome was well outside the limits of modern-day humans.

However, In 2008, Svante Paabo, of the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in addition to a number of other scientists, successfully sequenced the  first complete Neanderthal genome, extracted from a 38 thousand year old fossil from Croatia. The scientists created a graph showing the numbers of base pair differences between humans, Neanderthals, and chimpanzees. Because they were able to compare across the entire genome, rather than only a small portion of it, the differences between humans and the Neanderthal was far more striking. The conclusion of the study was this:

“Analysis of the assembled sequence unequivocally establishes that the Neanderthal mtDNA falls outside the variation of extant human mtDNAs, and allows an estimate of the divergence date between the two mtDNA lineages of 660,000 years ± 140,000 years.”

Thus, we are provided with unwavering evidence, Neanderthals are a different species of hominid from that of modern-day humans. However, this begs the question of what happened to the Neanderthals? And if Neanderthal was  just our cousin, where did we come from?