Learning to Love Neanderthals

Does the 25,000-year-old body of a child found in Portugal make it more likely that they are our ancestors?

By Robert Kunzig|Sunday, August 01, 1999

By Robert Kunzig
What you want, when you hold a pendantfashioned 35,000 years ago by a Neanderthal—a fox's tooth with a tiny holefor a leather string—what you want is something only the movies can give.A close-up, in the lab's neon light, on the mottled canine between yourfingers, the focus so tight you can see the scratches made by the stonetool. The picture fades, and next you see the same tooth in different hands,stronger ones with beefy fingers: the hands of the craftsman. He is piercingthe tooth with a sharpened piece of flint. Behind him squats a rough tentof hides stretched over mammoth tusks; behind that the dark mouth of acave. Before and below him a river meanders lazily between birches andwillows. Reindeer graze on the far bank. On an early morning in spring,in northern Burgundy during the Ice Age, the light coming in low over thefar bluff catches the craftsman's pale, weathered face. It is a human face.The eyes, under the jutting brow, are human eyes, alive with concentration,with memories of other seasons at this place, with intelligence and hope.

No, hold it: Maybe those Neanderthal eyes are blank as a cat's, allsurface, with nothing behind them but dumb instinct and a bit of animalcunning—no memories, no plan, no clue.

Back to spring 1999 and the lab, at a modern campus of the Universityof Paris. An archeologist named Dominique Baffier holds the tooth.

For the past few days newspapers the world over have been reportingthe discovery in Portugal of the skeleton of a 4-year-old child, dead for25,000 years. The discoverers, led by Portuguese archeologist JoãoZilhão, are making a ground-breaking claim, that the skeleton showstraces of both Neanderthal and modern human ancestry, evidence that modernhumans did not simply extinguish the Neanderthals, as many researchershad come to think. Instead the two kinds of human were so alike that inPortugal, at least, they intermingled—and made love—for thousands of years.

Mixed marriage? The skeleton of a 4-year-old child foundat a cliff site in Portugal's Lapedo Valley shows features of both Neanderthalsand modern humans.
The claim is controversial. So, too, and for similar reasons, is thefox tooth Baffier is holding. A collection of such ornaments is arrayedon the table in front of her, along with delicate bone tools—awls for punchingthrough animals hides, needles for sewing or perhaps for pinning up hair.All these artifacts were dug from the mouth of a limestone cave four decadesago at Arcy-sur-Cure, a hundred miles southeast of Paris. Just in the pastyear, though, the Arcy artifacts have become the subject of heated debate.Zilhão, Baffier, and several French colleagues claim the artifactsshow that Neanderthals were not inferior to our ancestors, the Cro-Magnons.Independently, they underwent the same leap into modernity, the same emergenceof symbolic thought that millennia later allowed Cro-Magnons to paint oncave walls.

A fox-tooth pendant is not a cave painting, as Baffier well knows, forshe studies those paintings too. But it is a symbolic statement. "Oh, it'sbeautiful," she says quietly, turning the Neanderthal pendant in her fingers,peering at it over her glasses. "It's beautiful and it's moving. A 35,000-year-oldbijou—isn't that moving?"

João Zilhão, director of the Portuguese Institute of Archeology,got the call from his wife and fellow archeologist, Cristina Araújo,while he was at a conference in Japan. She had heard from João Maurícioand Pedro Souto, coworkers at a Neanderthal cave site. They had heard froma student named Pedro Ferreira, who had gone looking for rock art in theLapedo Valley, about 90 miles north of Lisbon, and had found some smallpaintings.

Last November 28, Maurício and Souto went to the Lapedo Valley—whichis really a small, steep ravine, a bit over a mile long and a stone's-throwwide. Olive groves and wildflowers, vegetable fields and villages sprawlup to the lip of the canyon, but its cool, lush depths are a world apart.The small stream at the bottom, the Caranguejeira, is hidden by reeds andbushes; the canyon walls themselves are practically hidden by a riot ofdiverse greenery.

Ferreira showed Maurício and Souto his rock art, and they confirmedthat it looked man-made and old (Copper Age, it turned out). Then theylooked across the ravine to the south side. Above the treetops they couldsee a limestone wall leaning out over the canyon. Prehistoric humans likedto take shelter under overhanging rocks like that. Maurício andSouto decided to have a look.

They found a mess,construction debris strewn along the base of the cliff, including an abandonedtrailer, an old tractor hood, and a giant section of concrete drainpipe.In a fissure in the wall, just above eye level, Maurício and Soutosaw sediments laced with stone tools, lots of animal bones, and black flecksof charcoal—the remains of Paleolithic campfires. But all along the wallthey could also see the white gouge marks left by the teeth of a steamshovel. To build a road, the owner of the area had created a flat terracewhere before there had been a tall slope of sediment—sediment that hadwashed off the top of the cliff and collected at the base over tens ofmillennia. He had used a steam shovel to dig the dirt from the cliff.

In retrospect the demolition man did archeology a big favor. Otherwise,what is now the base of the cliff at Lapedo would still be buried. Mauríciosaw a rabbit burrow disappearing under the rock. He reached his hand inand pulled out a radius and an ulna—the bones of a human forearm, thoughhe wasn't sure of that at the time.

When the news reached Zilhão, he called Cidália Duarte,a physical anthropologist at the Portuguese Institute of ArchitecturalHeritage. They and Araújo went up to Lapedo the next weekend. WhileZilhão examined the stone tools embedded in the cliff face sevenfeet up, Maurício took the bone lady to the bones in the burrow."I looked at them," Duarte recalls, "and I said, ëOoh—this is human! Thisis a kid!'" Meanwhile, Zilhão was looking at the stratigraphic sequence.He began to add it up: "If the kid is down there, and this up here is Solutrean. . . "

Solutrean is the third of four successive cultures—Aurignacian, Gravettian,Solutrean, Magdalenian—of the Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age. TheSolutrean happened around 20,000 years ago. If the Lapedo Valley kid wasseven feet below Solutrean sediments, that suggested he died thousandsof years before the Solutrean. Zilhão looked at the bones: Theywere stained reddish with ochre. Red ochre is one of the things Upper Paleolithicmoderns painted caves with, but they also buried their dead with it; thecolor seems to have had symbolic significance.

"So I immediately recognized that something big was there," says Zilhão."The question was whether the bulldozing had completely destroyed the burial,and all we had to do was collect the fragments, or if something was stillthere intact."

The next day, Monday, they went back to their day jobs in Lisbon. Thefollowing Friday evening they were back at Lapedo, with Duarte and Araújodigging. "By Sunday evening we were really upset, because all we couldfind were bits and pieces, fragments of bone, and they didn't even havethis reddish color," Duarte recalls. With night falling and spirits crumbling,they started tidying up the dig. Those final offhand brushstrokes did it:The red began to appear. Soon, as Araújo and Duarte gently sweptaway more dirt, they saw a patch of sediment as red as wine and as largeas . . . a small child.

Now they faced a paleontological emergency: The skeleton was almostat the surface, exposed to the elements, which in this case included BoyScouts. A troop had walked by during the weekend and regarded the diggerswith ominous curiosity. That week Duarte signed up for an unscheduled vacation.Zilhão quietly abandoned his airy director's office and his paperworkat the archeological institute. "I just went away without telling anybody,"he says, "so as not to run the risk of a leak."

They started digging in earnest. Right away they realized how luckythey had been: In removing tens of feet of dirt, the steam shovel had missedby just a few inches the body of the child. Unfortunately it had not missedthe skull—Duarte could only find fragments of that. One of the first, though,was a beauty: the left half of the lower jaw, including teeth. It had asharply pointed chin, which is just what you would expect from a Cro-Magnon;Neanderthals had weak chins.

The child was lyingon its back, with its head and torso tilted a bit toits left, toward the cliff, and its right hand on its pelvis. Its rightside was crushed, but the left side was intact. Ribs, vertebrae, pelvis,fingers, toes, the long bones of the arms and legs—all were there. Duarteand Araújo worked steadily through the Christmas holidays, hidingtheir work every night under the old tractor hood. Soon they had a newproblem: up to 500 visitors a day. Zilhão's desire to keep the excavationsecret had run into his desire to have it documented. He had asked Portuguesepublic television to videotape it, which the tv folk were happy to do—providedthey could also run the story. On Christmas Day it opened the evening news:"A Child is Born."

The Neanderthals at Arcy-sur-Curemade pendants out of animal teeth by punching a hole or etching a groovein the root.

On Christmas Day itself, Duarte was at the site alone. "I wasn't goingto leave it there all exposed," she says. The work that day, on the ribcage, was particularly delicate. She was digging with a syringe, squirtingacetone around the bones to dissolve the dirt—acetone evaporates quickly,so it doesn't soak the bone—and then removing it with a paintbrush anda plastic spoon. She was squatting, kneeling, and sometimes lying on herside next to the Kid. Earlier, near the clavicle, she had found a tinyseashell, covered with red ochre, with a minute hole. The Kid had wornit as a pendant.

At first Zilhão and Duarte guessed they had excavated a boy.The arms and legs looked robust. But then Erik Trinkaus, a paleoanthropologistat Washington University in St. Louis, had a look at them. He decided theKid was robust not because he was male, but because he had Neanderthalblood.

Trinkaus is a leading authority on both Neanderthal and early modernhuman anatomy. When the excavation started, Zilhão let him knowright away. "João went out and got a digital camera and startede-mailing me images," Trinkaus says. He got excited too: While Upper Paleolithicskeletons in general are rare, there are no reasonably complete children'sskeletons at all. Right after New Year's, while Duarte was still excavating,Trinkaus hopped a plane to Portugal.

He measured all the bones he could, especially the limbs—his specialty.In 1981, Trinkaus published a paper on limb evolution that is still cited.In it he documented a geographic pattern in people today: They get shorterthe farther they are from the tropics and the closer they are to the poles.More precisely, their extremities get shorter. Inuits and Lapps have shorterforearms relative to their upper arms and shorter shinbones relative totheir thighbones than do the Masai of East Africa. There is a simple explanation:Shorter, stockier bodies fare better in cold climates because they haveless surface area to radiate heat. By measuring fossil limbs, Trinkausshowed that Neanderthals, denizens of ice age Europe, were hyperarctic—theyhad an even smaller shinbone-thighbone ratio than do Lapps. Early modernsfrom the Near East and Europe, on the other hand, were decidedly tropicalin their legginess, like Africans today.

The fragile rib cage of the Kid was excavated asa single block encased in plaster; it is now being cleaned in Cidália Duarte's lab.
This was some of the earliest evidence for a theory of human originsthat had not even been formulated then, but has since become orthodoxy.The out-of-Africa theory holds that humans today are descended from a smallpopulation of (long-legged) early moderns that walked out of Africa around100,000 years ago. As they spread all over the world, they replaced whateverarchaic humans they met, which in Europe were the Neanderthals. In thisview, Neanderthals are a distinct population and maybe even a distinctspecies that went extinct at the hands of our ancestors, leaving no legacyat all.

Two years ago, when a team led by Svante Pääbo, now of theMax Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, isolateddna from a Neanderthal bone, many people thought the case had been clinched.The Neanderthal dna was different enough that there seemed to be no traceof it in modern dna; it suggested that Neanderthals and modern humans hadevolved separately for half a million years and were unlikely to have interbred.Trinkaus was not moved: "There's a general impression that if somethingcomes out of a million-dollar machine, then it's truth, whereas if somethingcomes out of a bunch of dirty old bones that we clean with paintbrushes,then it's vague and ambiguous."

Based on his analysis of dirty bones from the Czech Republic and Croatia,Trinkaus has long favored a sort of watered-down out of Africa, in whichthe gene pool of modern humans migrating into Europe was seasoned by interbreedingwith Neanderthals. The amount of interbreeding would have varied from placeto place. One place Trinkaus didn't expect to see much, though, was onthe Iberian peninsula, the last refuge of the Neanderthals.

Cro-Magnons reached northern Spain nearly 40,000 years ago, but forsome reason they didn't spread south for another 10,000 years. By the timethey crossed the Ebro frontier, as Zilhão has dubbed it after thelarge river in northern Spain, their kind had already executed strikingcave paintings. South of the Ebro they encountered Neanderthals who werestill making stone tools in the Middle Paleolithic fashion and not makingornaments at all. The better-armed modern invaders would have been almostas tall as the Masai and maybe as black; the indigenes would have beenshort and as pale as Lapps. It would be easy to picture the former simplywiping out the latter. But it is from this clash of cultures and anatomies,Trinkaus argues, that the Kid was born.

The sharp point ofthe Kid's chin screamed Cro-Magnon. So did the relativelysmall front teeth: Neanderthal front teeth were large compared with theirmolars. So did the red ochre burial style. And so, finally, did the radiocarbondate: At 24,500 years old, it was much younger than the last signs of Neanderthals.

From his Cro-Magnon ancestors, the Kid got smallfront teeth and a pointy chin—but the chin doesn't jut out as a Cro-Magnon's should.
But when Trinkaus measured the angle between the horizontal tooth lineand the vertical line from the frontmost tooth down to the chin, the symphysealangle, he got a clue that this was a strange Cro-Magnon. Instead of juttingforward of the teeth, the chin retreated a shade behind them. Cro-Magnonchins didn't do that, Trinkaus says, but Neanderthal chins did.

Even more significant, he thinks, are the limb proportions. Trinkausmeasured the shinbone and the thighbone and found that the ratio fell wayover at the Neanderthal end of the curve. He compared the circumferenceof the bones with their length, and found that the child had leg bonesstrong enough to support a stocky Neanderthal body. The limb proportionsalong with the receding chin are enough, Trinkaus says, to prove the childhad Neanderthal ancestors as well as Cro-Magnon ones. "It only takes onefeature," he says. "We've got two."

But many of his peers are skeptical. Arctic limb proportions don't provea Neanderthal influence, some argue, since Lapps have them too; maybe theKid was just an ordinary Cro-Magnon who had adapted to the ice age. Andthe mere fact that the skeleton is that of a child—whose features werestill changing, and for whom no good Cro-Magnon comparisons exist—makessome researchers uneasy. "If an adult skeleton had been found, nice andcomplete, I'm sure we would still have fierce discussions," says Jean-JacquesHublin of the French National Center for Scientific Research. "But interpretingthe remains of a child, of which almost none of the skull is left—that'sreally a perilous exercise."

This summer, as the dig progresses, Duarte will be looking for morepieces of the child's skull. Finding its two front teeth would be nice(Neanderthals had big ones), or the occipital bone in the rear of the skull(it bulged out in Neanderthals), or even the tiny labyrinth of the innerear. Hublin has used that feature, and that feature alone, to diagnosea Neanderthal bone at Arcy-sur-Cure.

Duarte also hopes to find the Kid's parents; Upper Paleolithic burialsoften come in groups. But Trinkaus does not expect she will find a Neanderthalmom and a Cro-Magnon dad. Zilhão's archeological evidence suggeststhe Kid was born at least two millennia after Neanderthals and Cro-Magnonsfirst met in Portugal. The Kid, Trinkaus argues, must be the product ofinterbreeding over that entire period, not a one-time hybrid produced bystar-crossed lovers. "This is not just two individuals who happened tomeet in the bushes," he says.

There is likely to be fierce discussion about that conclusion too. Theout-of-Africa model can readily tolerate a little hanky-panky between Neanderthalsand Cro-Magnons. "In fact I expect it," says Hublin. A few hybrids wouldn'teven disprove the view that Neanderthals were a different species. Animalsof closely related species can sometimes interbreed, and sometimes theoffspring are even fertile.

But if whole populations of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons were blending,the notion that Neanderthals were replaced by immigrant moderns beginsto lose meaning. To out-of-Africa proponents, such blending would conflictwith the genetic and fossil evidence, and with the simple observation thatpeople today look like Cro-Magnons and not like Neanderthals.To paleontologistswho don't believe the out-of-Africa model, however—who think modern humansevolved all over the world from interbreeding populations of archaic humansincluding Neanderthals—Trinkaus's Lapedo kid is welcome news.

Trinkaus himself has never taken sides in this bitter debate. He seesit now moving onto his middle ground: A migration out of Africa happened,sure, but the migrants also interbred to varying degrees with the peoplethey met along the way. Neanderthals are not us, but neither are they anevolutionary dead end—the Kid, if he is right, puts the truth in the middle."Trinkaus is in the stratosphere," says Zilhão. "He has believedthis for a long time. I couldn't care less—they could just as well be differentspecies as far as I'm concerned. This just comes in handy."

It comes in handy as ammunition in a separate fight that is Zilhão'sown. That debate concerns how smart Neanderthals were, and it is centeredon the cave digs at Arcy. When French archeologists excavated there inthe 1950s, they found dozens of animal-tooth pendants, bone tools, and40 pounds of red ochre spread over the floor. At other sites, such artifactshave been attributed to modern humans. A few years ago, though, after Hublinct-scanned a skull fragment found alongside the artifacts, and revealedthe inner ear, he convinced most people that the bone was that of a Neanderthal,and so were the artifacts.

The conventional explanation is that the Neanderthal craftsmen at Arcymust have been imitating our ancestors. Modern humans were invading westernEurope at around the time—35,000 to 45,000 years ago—when the Neanderthalswere at Arcy. And whereas the few dozen ornaments found there are practicallythe only ones attributed to Neanderthals, thousands have been found atCro-Magnon sites. Many researchers say it is common sense to assume thatNeanderthals were "acculturated" by Cro-Magnons. Some even argue that theNeanderthals didn't really understand what they were doing: They copiedsuch modern behaviors as wearing pendants, but they couldn't appreciatethe symbolic meaning.

Lurking under all this is the question of why we survived and the Neanderthalsdidn't: Was it because their brains were inferior? That idea drives Zilhãoup the wall. "What's involved here is not the wiring of the brain cells,it's the wiring of the brains into what we call culture," he says. "Fortythousand years ago, people couldn't read or write—are we saying they didn'thave the intelligence?"

In a controversial paper published last year with Francesco d'Erricoof the University of Bordeaux, and Dominique Baffier, Michèle Julien,and Jacques Pelegrin of the University of Paris, Zilhão tried toshow that the Neanderthals were intelligent enough to make the Arcy artifacts—andthus the transition to Upper Paleolithic modernity—all by themselves. TheArcy Neanderthals, the researchers argued, made their tools and ornamentsusing techniques quite unlike those of the moderns—punching a clean holethrough a fox tooth, for instance, whereas modern humans did a cruder jobof gouging. Zilhão and d'Errico also claim to have proved, througha technical reanalysis of the highly uncertain dates attributed to nearlyevery relevant site in western Europe, that the Neanderthals couldn't haveimitated Cro-Magnons—because they were acting modern thousands of yearsbefore any Cro-Magnons were around.

The Lapedo Valley kid drops into the murky waters of this debate likea cannonball. Some researchers say it makes no difference at all if theKid is a hybrid. But if Trinkaus and Zilhão can prove that modernhumans and Neanderthals mixed extensively in Portugal, it would surelyaffect our view of Neanderthals—by giving us an inkling of the view ourancestors held. Would they really have fraternized with beings who weretoo dim to understand the purpose of a necklace?

"If you have two populations of hunter-gatherers that are totally differentspecies, that are doing things in very different ways, have different capabilities—they'renot going to blend together," Trinkaus says. "They're going to remain separate.So the implication from Portugal is that when these people met, they viewedeach other as people. One group may have looked a little funny to the otherone—but beyond that they saw each other as human beings. And treated eachother as such."

Neandertals: A Cyber Perspective
Neanderthal Museum
Portuguese Archeological Institute
ArchNet from the University of Connecticut

Comment on this article

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar

Log in to your account

Email address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it emailed to you.

Not registered yet?

Register now for FREE. It takes only a few seconds to complete. Register now »