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The Neanderthal should be Classified as a Subspecies of Modern Man
The debate on Neanderthal man's place in human evolution has continued unabated since the discovery of the first Neanderthal fossil in 1856. One camp believes Neanderthal man is a human ancestor and should be classified as a subspecies of modern manohomo sapien neandertalis. The opposition argues that Neanderthal man is a distinct species, homo neandertalis, entirely separate from modern humans. This paper seeks to prove that Neanderthal man is indeed related to modern humans by looking at key elements of Neanderthal physiology, behavior, and culture.
Recent findings on the mitochondrial DNA taken from the right humerus of a Neanderthal skeleton failed to show significant similarities with the mitochondrial DNA of modern humans. According to the study, one sequence of Neanderthal DNA shows significant variances from the same sequence in moderns. From this, researchers concluded that Neanderthals diverged about 600,000 years ago to form homo neandertalis, a genetic line separate from that of the modern homo sapien sapiens. (The Washington Post, 1997)
The study, however, was based solely on DNA from one Neanderthal individual because the genetic material is scarce and difficult to extract. One individual's DNA may be an inadequate indicator of the genetic variability within an entire species. (Shipman, 2002) Until more Neanderthal genetic material becomes available, fossil evidence remains the best source of study for on Neanderthal man's physiology and culture.
Neanderthals shared key physical characteristics with modern humans. They both have the same skeletal structures. Their brains were roughly the same size in relation to their bodies. Based on their joint structures and cranial capacities, anthropologists believe that Neanderthals were capable of doing many activities that modern humans could do. (Trinkaus and Shipman, p. 412)
Proponents of the homo neandertalis argue that Neanderthal bones were much thicker. They also point out how Neanderthal limbs were shorter in relation to a stocky torso. However, the body mass of modern humans who live in colder climates also show a similar ratio. Eskimos, for example, are typically larger and have shorter limbs compared to people from warmer climates. Similarly, animals who live in cold climates have shorter tails, ears or beaks than their counterparts in warmer areas. The shortened limbs help retain body heat. (Holliday, p. 248) Instead of evidence of a different physiology, the stocky build and shorter limbs of Neanderthal man are adaptations to their arctic living conditions, an adaptation they share with modern humans.
The Neanderthal brain volume ranges from 1200 to 1750 ml, making it 100 ml larger than the average brain of a modern human. The larger Neanderthal brain can be explained by their larger physique. (Trinkaus and Shipman, p. 144) Even today, human brain size varies according to a person's body size.
In addition to physiology, fossil evidence also sheds light on the human-like social behavior and cultural practices of Neanderthal man.
A study of a Neanderthal skull shows flexations at the base of the skull similar to modern humans. This means that Neanderthals had a larynx situated in the same place as humans. Unlike chimpanzees, Neanderthals had the power to enunciate a full range of vowel sounds. Like modern humans, they had the physical capacity for language. (Trinkaus and Shipman, p. 356)
Neanderthal man also engaged in a number of activities that distinguish modern humans from the rest of the animal world. For example, Neanderthal remains have been unearthed in burial sites all over Eurasia. The position of the remains demonstrates that the corpses were not simply thrown into the ground. Some graves have stone tools, animal bones and flowers buried in the ground along with the remains. In Uzbekistan, the grave of a young Neanderthal boy was encircled by mountain goat bones, horns and tools. (Trinkaus and Shipman, p. 255)
The fossil evidence shows that Neanderthals had burial rituals. This suggests an awareness of an after life. Each person had an identity that was distinct, whose passing was probably met with a sense of loss.
Adult skeletons with crippling injuries were also unearthed, indicating that Neanderthal ties were strong enough to compel them to care for injured or crippled members of their groups.
Finally, there is a plethora of evidence showing that Neanderthals and early modern humans interacted and behaved in very similar ways. Artifacts from France, for example, show that Neanderthals and early modern humans seem to have used the same caves and both hunted the same kinds of animals for food. Fossil remains of trout and other seafood indicate that both groups practiced fishing. The arrangement of fireplaces in the caves also suggest that Neanderthals smoked their catch for preservation. (Wong, 2002)
Aside from harpoons and other hunting weapons, the caves also yielded engraved art objects. Since the caves were only used as shelter during hunting trips and not as living quarters, some anthropologists believe that carrying that Neanderthals carried small art objects with them even while performing everyday tasks. Carrying such iconography may be akin to a modern human carrying a rosary. (Wong, 2002)
In conclusion, there is a wealth of fossil evidence to suggest that Neanderthal man is a subspecies of modern man, and should therefore be classified as homo sapien neandertalis. Allowing for the effects of a harsh, cold climate, Neanderthal physiology is remarkably similar to that of homo sapien sapiens. Neanderthal hunting tools and practices were similar to those of early modern humans. Neanderthals developed tools and had a capacity for language. They buried their dead, created artwork, had a concept of an afterlife and had a societal structure with strong social ties.
In both their anatomy and behavior, Neanderthal man exhibited many characteristics on which modern man bases its definitions of what it means to be human. When compared according to anatomy, behavior and cultural practices, Neanderthals bear more than a passing affinity to modern man. Hence, they belong in the human family lineage, under homo sapien neandertalis.
"DNA Suggests Neanderthal Not a Direct Human Ancestor," The Washington Post, 11 July 1997 sec. A, p1.
Holliday, T. "Postcranial evidence of cold weather adaptation in European Neanderthals." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 6 December 1998, p 248.
Shipman, Pat. "Special Report: Rethinking the Family Tree," World Book Online, [no longer exists], 13 November 2002.
Shipman, Pat and Trinkaus, Erik. The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 412.
Wong, Kate. "Paleolithic Pit Stop," Scientific American, Scientific American , 13 November 2002.
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