In the 90s, Bruniquel Cave was discovered to have a chamber containing an interesting human-built structure made from broken stalagmites. Carbon dating of a burnt bear bone within the chamber put the age of the activity at 47,600 years ago, smack dab in the Neanderthal era in that area. But recently, after a lull in research about these cave structures, analysis of uranium levels in the broken stalagmites resulted in a much older date for the construction: 176,500 years ago.
Nor is it clear how the Neanderthals made the structures. Verheyden says it couldn't have been one lone artisan, toiling away in the dark. Most likely, there was a team, and a technically skilled one at that. They broke rocks deliberately, and arranged them precisely. They used fire, too. More than 120 fragments have red and black streaks that aren't found elsewhere in the chamber or the cave beyond. They were the result of deliberately applied heat, at intensities strong enough to occasionally crack the rock. "The Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought," the team writes.
My answer to that question, having read nothing about it beyond this article, is "it sounds like a bit of a stretch, but what an interesting thing to think about". This theory about how humans and wolves (and later, dogs) teamed up to outcompete Neanderthals for food is being forwarded by anthropologist Pat Shipman, author of the new book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.
Modern humans formed an alliance with wolves soon after we entered Europe, argues Shipman. We tamed some and the dogs we bred from them were then used to chase prey and to drive off rival carnivores, including lions and leopards, that tried to steal the meat.
"Early wolf-dogs would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired," said Shipman. "Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows.
"This meant the dogs did not need to approach these large cornered animals to finish them off -- often the most dangerous part of a hunt -- while humans didn't have to expend energy in tracking and wearing down prey. Dogs would have done that. Then we shared the meat. It was a win-win situation."
At that time, the European landscape was dominated by mammoths, rhinos, bison and several other large herbivores. Both Neanderthals and modern humans hunted them with spears and possibly bows and arrows. It would have been a tricky business made worse by competition from lions, leopards, hyenas, and other carnivores, including wolves.
"Even if you brought down a bison, within minutes other carnivores would have been lining up to attack you and steal your prey," said Shipman. The answer, she argues, was the creation of the human-wolf alliance. Previously they separately hunted the same creatures, with mixed results. Once they joined forces, they dominated the food chain in prehistoric Europe -- though this success came at a price for other species. First Neanderthals disappeared to be followed by lions, mammoths, hyenas and bison over the succeeding millennia. Humans and hunting dogs were, and still are, a deadly combination, says Shipman.
A new analysis of the genomes of two extinct human species (Neanderthals and Denisovans) shows more clearly that they interbred with our species of human, contributing 2-4% of our modern genomes in some cases.
"What it begins to suggest is that we're looking at a Lord of the Rings-type world -- that there were many hominid populations," says Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London who was at the meeting but was not involved in the work.
But, more interestingly, the analysis also detected the Denisovans also bred with an as-yet-unknown species of humans.
The Denisovan genome indicates that the population got around: Reich said at the meeting that as well as interbreeding with the ancestors of Oceanians, they also bred with Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans in China and other parts of East Asia. Most surprisingly, Reich said, the genomes indicate that Denisovans interbred with yet another extinct population of archaic humans that lived in Asia more than 30,000 years ago -- one that is neither human nor Neanderthal.
Is this the first time a new human species has been discovered through DNA evidence alone?
In the last few years, scientists have discovered that before Neanderthals went extinct around 30,000 years ago, they interbred with modern humans. As a result, many humans alive today contain Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, typically between 1-4%.
Yesterday, a few of the editors at The Atlantic had their genes analyzed for Neanderthal DNA: Alexis Madrigal had 3.6%, Steve Clemons had 4.3%, and James Fallows had 5%. Personal genetic information company 23andMe added the ability to determine your Neanderthal DNA percentage a few months ago and it turns out 2.7% of my DNA is from Neanderthals, compared to 2.5% for the average 23andMe user.
If you have a 23andMe acct, you can check your percentage by logging in and going to "Ancestry Labs" in the sidebar.
I thought that said "Netherlanders"...I was ready to put that in the "odd things I didn't know about the Dutch" column.