Friday, October 03, 2008

Modern is as modern does?

ResearchBlogging.orgSince I last posted, there's been a lot of 'chatter' on the interwebs about the 'modernity' displayed by Neanderthals in their subsistence patterns, because they appeared to have hunted very similar ungulates than Aurignacian foragers and, especially because they have been shown to procure and consume sea mammals exactly as early modern humans at Gibraltar. All sorts of people have talked about the latter (here, and here), but there's one aspect of this discovery that's been puzzling me ever since I read the actual report (Stringer et al. 2008), and it's got me adjusting my spectacle and saying "Not so fast..."

That aspect is, quite simply, the frequency of sea mammal remains present in those assemblages. Now, the authors and commentators have been right in emphasizing that both Middle and Upper Paleolithic hominins display the same behavior and that is a big deal: it is one more solid uppercut to the jaw of the argument that Neanderthals and modern humans were somehow fundamentally different from a behavioral standpoint. That this is true for subsistence patterns is especially important since, as a colleague of mine likes to emphasize, it's how much calories you can extract from an environment that allows you to have more babies and keep them alive (i.e., be reproductively successful)! So, showing that people in the late Middle and early Upper Paleolithic procured resources similarly is an important observation indeed. This is the basis on which people can somewhat legitimately claim that Neanderthals could act in 'modern' ways.

In contrast, my view is that the sea mammals from Gorham's and Vanguard Caves do not support the idea that Neanderthals acted in a recognizably modern way. But here's the catch: neither did the early Upper Paleolithic, presumably modern human, foragers! In other words, yes, Neanderthals and early modern humans acted in comparable manners, but no, that behavior is not what we can really consider modern, based on what we know from historic and prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

What leads me to this conclusion is the proportion of sea mammals to other animals at those sites. I consider the mollusks uncontroversial, since there's plenty of evidence they were exploited by coastal Neanderthal and early modern humans as far back at OIS 6. So, focusing on sea mammals and fish, what do we get?

We get a really weird pattern! Let's start with the material from Vanguard Cave (Stringer et al. 2008: Table 1). We have a NISP (number of identifiable specimens - I could use MNE's instead, but the results are only marginally different, and laden with their own peculiar problems) of 9, with NISP's of 172 for terrestrial herbivores and 20 for carnivores. This means that herbivore remains are almost 20 times more abundant than those of sea animals. Perhaps even more interestingly, carnivore remains are twice as abundant as those of sea animals. The authors talk about the low rate of carnivore gnaw marks on the sea and land mammals at the site (in addition to the absence of traces of human processing on the carnivore remains), implying that carnivores and humans probably occupied the cave at different times. That being the case, it means that carnivores that were not accumulated by humans are twice as frequent as the sea mammal remains.

Before discussing what I think this means, let's turn to Gorham's Cave, where modern human behavior is presumably also documented, in Level III (Stringer et al. 2008: Table 4). In this case, for Neanderthals (Level IV), if you lump together seal and fish (NISP = 3), it means that herbivores (NISP = 49) are 16 times more frequent than sea animals. As for carnivores (NISP = 36, again assumed to be non-accumulated by humans), they are 12 times more frequent than sea critters. In Level III, the sea animal NISP is 5, while that of herbivores is 186 (37 times more frequent than sea animals!) and that of carnivores is 30 (or six times the amount of sea critters). There are also some interesting patterns of small game use at Gorham's, which I'll return to in a bit.

But first why is this pattern of relative representation of sea animals important? Because this is not how ethnographically documented foragers that depend on sea animals. In fact, foragers that have access to sea mammal tend to focus on them a lot! The data I summarized above suggest that the sea mammal:herbivore ratio of the Gibraltar assemblages is as follows:

Vanguard: 172:9 = 19.1
Ghoram's IV (Neanderthal): 49:3 = 16.3
Gorham's III (H. sapiens): 186:5 = 37.2

In contrast, for ethnographically-documented forager groups that depend to sea animals and land mammals, the same ratio ranges from 0.16 (meaning sea animals are six times more frequent than land mammals in the group's diet) to 12 (where land mammals are 12 times more frequent than sea resources) (this is based on data summarized in Kelly 1995: Table 3-1). That latter figure is probably an overestimate, however, since the one group that is associated with the ratio value of 12- the Aeta - procures extra amounts of meat to trade for carbohydrates with neighboring agriculturalists, a situtation that is clearly inappropriate for the comparison being undertaken here. Shifting to the next group down the list of most 'meat vs. fish', we get the Nunamiut, with a ratio of 8.7. This allows us to complete the table above thusly:






Assemblage Ratio
Vanguard 19.1
Ghoram's IV (Neanderthal) 16.3
Gorham's III (H. sapiens) 37.2
Most sea mammal focused hunters 0.16
Least sea mammal focused hunters 8.7/12


Whether we go with the Aeta or the Nunamiut, the picture is the same: the ratio of land to sea resources of hunter-gatherers is much lower than that documented in any of the three assemblages presented by Stringer and colleagues (2008). Notably, the ratio for those foragers that heavily depend on sea resources is smaller by orders of magnitudes than that found in any of the Gibraltar assemblages. Perhaps most importantly, the Gibraltar ratios are much, much higher than those of those hunters that target the least amount of sea mammals in their diets.

Plainly put, this means that when foragers exploit sea animals, they exploit a hell of a lot more of them than is documented in Vanguard and Gorham's Caves. One may quibble about the fact that I overlooked the Vanguard mollusks in this analysis, but since these are absent from the Gorham's Cave faunal assemblages discussed here, for the purposes of comparing early H. sapiens and Neanderthal behavior, the case stands nevertheless. In short, what we're seeing at Gibraltar bears departs significantly from the subsistence strategies of known forager groups.

Now, obviously, we have to be careful not to impose on the past observations from the present, the old "tyranny of the ethnographic record" (Wobst 1978). However, there is a reason why people focus on sea animals when they have access to them: they are often full of sweet, delicious fat. So, when they know when, where and how to procure sea animals (even if it's only on a yearly basis, when they are most likely to be found beached), hunter-gatherers will preferentially target them, and accumulate them in large numbers. Most critically, the Gibraltar pattern departs significantly from that of those foragers that depend the least on sea critters, which should give one some serious pause.

Stringer et al. (2008: 14323) argue that the presence of sea mammal remains in all the levels of Vanguard Cave and in the Neanderthal and H. sapiens deposits of Gorham's Cave reflects

"that Neanderthals were not only systematically exploiting terrestrial mammals but also marine mollusks, pinnipeds, and cetaceans. Their distribution through the stratigraphy suggests that securing marine mammals was not an accidental or isolated practice, but a focused behavior possibly repeated seasonally or over longer periods... Significantly, the range of species exploited and the age distribution pattern of the prey strongly indicate that the coastal exploitation of resources by Neanderthals was not a sporadic and isolated occurrence but one that required a knowledge of the life history of prey and its seasonality."


Color me skeptical here, and this in spite of my opinion that the behavioral capacities are still systematically underappreciated in contemporary paleoanthropology. But overall, we're talking about numbers of sea animal remains that are absolutely dwarfed by the preponderance of land mammals and that in all cases are significantly rarer than even those of carnivores that occupied the site when humans were absent. Call it what you will, but this is not a behavior that is modern in any real way.

The take-home message here is that, just because some behavior is associated with morphologically 'modern' humans, it does not mean that it is actually modern. In the end, who knows, maybe Neanderthals and early European H. sapiens did exploit sea mammals seasonally - but empirically, the evidence presented by Stringer et al.(2008) rather points to unsystematic, opportunistic acquisition of parts of beached carcasses. But the fact that the Gibraltar data are so odd in light of everything we know about the subsistence patterns of sea-oriented foragers underlines the importance of always defining what is meant by 'modern behavior' and of situating behavioral reconstructions of Neanderthals and early H. sapiens in the broader context of the hunter-gatherer behavioral record. Doing so usually yields some very interesting results indeed!

References

Kelley, R. L. 1995. The Foraging Spectrum. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Stringer, C. B., J. C. Finlayson, R. N. E. Barton, Y. Fernandez-Jalvo, I. Caceres, R. C. Sabin, E. J. Rhodes, A. P. Currant, J. Rodriguez-Vidal, F. Giles-Pacheco, J. A. Riquelme-Cantal (2008). From the Cover: Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (38), 14319-14324 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805474105

Wobst, H. M. 1978. The Archaeo-Ethnology of Hunter-Gatherers or the Tyranny of the ethnographic record in Archaeology. American Antiquity 43:303-309.

21 comments:

Anne Gilbert said...

I suppose it all depends on how you define "modern" behavior. If collecting marine mammals and mollusks is a hallmark of "modern" behavior, then Neandertals were just as "modern" as H.(s.) sapiens. If, OTOH, there is some more precise definition of "modern" behavior(is there any?), modern" behavior, neither among Neandertals, nor among "modern" humans.

OTOH, I think it is by now undeniable that Neandertals and "modern" humans behaved similarly, under similar circumstances, so it's probably undeniable that their brains worked in similar ways, and their respective intelligence capacities were roughly equal. Beyond that, it'hard to say anything at all.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Anne -
well, that's the point exactly! People often go with the assumption that 'modern' behavior is whatever is associated with morphologically modern humans. The point here is that just because early moderns acted one way doesn't necessarily make it modern. In this case, the Gorham's Cave sea animals point to a strategy distinctly unlike anything used by modern hunter-gatherers, not even close. So, in this instance, sea mammal exploitation doesn't seem to qualify as representing 'modern' behavior by early European H. sapiens. Ergo, if Neanderthals were behaving the same way, they also were not acting 'modern.' Sure, they seem to have exploited sea mammals to a degree - probably when they encountered beached carcasses or parts thereof - but nothing that compares to any documented pattern of systematic sea animal procurement.

JRS

Maju said...

Thanks for this clarification, Julien. Most interesting.

Anne Gilbert said...

Julien of course raised a good point. I'm not disputing that. My point is slightly different: in the first place, I'm looking at "similarity" v. "difference" between Neandertals and "moderns". To me, it's less important whether N's and AMH were both "modern" or "not modern", than whether they acted similarly or differentlNy, given similar circumstances. And it looks to me as if, behaviorally, there wasn't that much qualitative difference between the kinds of behaviors Neandertals did, and those of contemporary "moderns", is just not that great, whether or not you can call these behaviors "modern" or not.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

Color me skeptical that a NISP of 3 or 9 tells you anything about relative dietary importance no matter what the total NISP is. Would we expect marine and terrestrial resources to be consumed in the same location? The same season? To call this systematic utilization (ala Stringer) seems a huge stretch.

Anne Gilbert said...

The NISP number does, however, tell you that marine something, was consumed, at some time, in that place. Exactly what this tells you about the total diet of either moderns or Neandertals, is another story.
Anne G

beckyws said...

Hi Julien,

I agree that the NISPs are very low. But isn't even the lowest comparison group you use, the Nunamiut, still pretty heavily sea-focused because of the environment they live in? Ok, MIS 3 isn't exactly a cup of tea, but southern Spain would be much richer in resources than the Arctic of today. Systematic exploitation is perhaps not supported by the data, but are there no modern groups who use marine resources on a more opportunistic basis within mainly terrestrial diets? In this sense it might still be called modern behaviour, just not marine-focused modern behaviour.
Another thought- modern/historic group territories are likely to be smaller than during MIS 3, so perhaps higher marine focus in modern groups is due to lack of access in rich environments to other resources.

Anne Gilbert said...

bec(kyws:

IIRC, the Nunamiut people live around Anuktuvuk Pass, which isn't close to north coastal Alaska at all. OTOH, the native people of Barrow, Alaska still get a lot of their sustenance from the marine mammals that pass through there(though some of this might change with the apparently changing climate and the thinnning of the ice pack). This is, in part, "environmental", since most Inuit people actually do live close to marine shores and use the sea ice to obtain food(or at least they did, traditionally). I think, though, that Julien has a point here, if, for no other reasons than conditions like this probably did not obtain during "Neandertal times" around Gibraltar.
Anne G

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Becky -
thanks for the comment. Unless I'm terribly mistaken, the Nunamiut actually depend very little on any sea resources at all - they are by and large caribou hunters, hence the very high ratio of land-to-marine resources. The point that I was trying to make is that the Gorham's Cave NISPs reflect an adaptation that is even more land-focused than that of the Nunamiut, the most land-focused of all foragers known to use at least some marine resources reported in Kelly's "The Foraging Spectrum." This, in my view, argues strongly against the fact that Middle and Early Upper Paleolithic groups that occupied the site were specifically targeting marine resource. The opposite seems to be true. Now, admittedly, I haven't considered shellfish data from Gorham's Cave here, since none are reported in the tables in the Stringer et al. paper, but I also haven't considered leporids or birds either, which would further skew the ratio away from a marine-based strategy. All of this to say that, when you consider them in context, I think that these new data really don't reflect systematic exploitation of marine resources in either the Middle or the Early Upper Paleolithic, which means that while modern humans and Neanderthals appear to have been behaving similarly, they were acting in a manner very different from that of any known foragers that systematically exploit marine resources. In that light, I think that your suggestion to look for analogs in foragers that opportunistically exploited marine resources is a very good one, especially if we can adequately situate the Gorham's Cave data in their paleoenvironmental context.

Anne - a good way to explore this would be to see whether there appears to have been any trade of marine resources between coastal and inland peoples at that time. The only problem I see with this is that the coastal people themselves don't appear to have exploited marine resources to any important extent at all!

Anne Gilbert said...

Julien and Becky:

Well, my point was, that AFAIK, the Nunamiut people not only don'tlive anywhere near the ocean shore, but as Julien pointed out, they were traditionally mostly caribou hunters. Of course, I've that, traditionally, some people around the Barrow area went inland to hunt caribou during the late summer and fall, before everything froze up and you could start hunting marine mammals again. Of course, they also probably hunted caribou for their fur as well. In any case I kind of wonder if any studies have been done to see whether or not "inland" and "coastal" people in the prehistoric Iberian Peninsula did the kind of trading Julien wants to know about. Did they do any trading at all? I've never heard of any such studies.
Anne G

Maju said...

I kind of wonder if any studies have been done to see whether or not "inland" and "coastal" people in the prehistoric Iberian Peninsula did the kind of trading Julien wants to know about. Did they do any trading at all? I've never heard of any such studies.

A. Steenhuyse (Anthrosite) mentioned earlier this year that some of the bone tools from Isturitz (Northern Basque Country) are made from whale bones (apparently better for impact tools). Isturitz is today some 100 km inland and in the Ice Age this may have been double that distance to the sea. Whatever the origin of those whales (hunted or just scavenged) the case is that some coastal materials arrived well inland. Were these the same tribe that migrated from the coast to the interior and vice versa or they just traded with coastal groups? Hard to say.

This anyhow belongs to a later (Magdalenian) period and only now has been discovered in spite of the tools being known for decades.

Anne Gilbert said...

Maju:

I think the problem here is, that by the Magdaleniam, all you have is "modern" humans. Whether the foraging patterns of "moderns" in the Magdalenian period correspond to known foragers in historical time, I don't know. If they don't, do their foraging patterns differ from the ones found among "modern" and Neandert people of an earlier period? Or are they altogether different from either? This study, and the questions generated here, raise a lot of questions that IMO ought to be studied and possibly answered.
Anne G

Maju said...

Can't say.

Gamble (1999) argued quite solidly that Aurignacians (H. sapiens) already had a "modern" foraging behavior, specially because they exploited much larger areas than Neanderthals. So I assume that many of the patterns we find later, in the Magdalenian age, were already in the Aurignacian one and surely even before, as part of the very system of our species. But we are also a culturally evolving species (and presumably also were Neanderthals, at least to some degree), so maybe some dynamics were only incorporated later. Hard to say when most of the data is mere typological catalogues of stone tools.

Anne Gilbert said...

Maju:

Well, agiin, we're back to what you define as "modern". I have a fair amount of trouble with people like Gamble, who have rather consistently argued that Neandertals were very "different" in their behavior compared to "moderns". Most people would tend to accept this as given; after all, "we" are here and "they" aren't. But here's the problem for me: what archaeological evidence there is, seems to suggest that the "moderns" living at the same time, were behaving in ways remarkably similar to those of Neandertals(or you can look at this the other way around)! However this is explained(or explained away), it would seem that the two groups had very similar "living strategies". And in neither case were the popularions especially high(though there were, in total, a lot more "moderns". So you could probably say that if the foraging strategies of the Gorham's Cave people weren't like those of known marine area foragers today, neither were those of the "moderns"(Gamble notwithstanding to the contrary). Besides which, a lot more has been learned about both Neandertals and "moder9ns" since 1999, and fortunately our ideas about both groups are changing.
Anne G

Maju said...

Besides which, a lot more has been learned about both Neandertals and "moder9ns" since 1999, and fortunately our ideas about both groups are changing.

Not so much more really. But certainly there is in the Internet a faction of people who are very much "Neanderthalist", try to idealize them (this is IMO specially true in reconstructions, nowadays more and more Sapiens-looking, and I'd say more and more Nordic-looking too, quite arbitrarily) and will often defend that Neanderthal genetics in some modern humans, specifically West Eurasian or Europeans, does exist (in spite of zero evidence in favor of it and a good deal of evidence against).

I think that the "Neanderthalist" camp is ideological, emotional, romantic... but not really objective. It's the last trench of multirregionalists.

But sure, Neanders were a lot like us. A lot like but not quite the same thing probably. At some moment, faced with each other, alike but also different... there was clear competition. Initially they won (probably becuase of being much stronger and also best adapted to cold climate) but in the end they were displaced away and cornered until they just vanished. This probably means that, in spite of being weaker and less well adapted to cold climate, our species must have got some other clear advantages that made the difference. These advantages may not be as obvious as raw skull ccs, pure brawn or biological adaptation to the northern climates (in all of which Neanders were surely superior) so it must have to do with other subtle cues, maybe like those Gamble suggests.

Certainly Neanders didn't travel too much, at least in comparison with Humans. I had some good laughs when it was presented in the media that "Neanderthals did travel" because one Greek Neanderthal was found to have been raised 100 km away from his burial site. 100 km is not any real distance for a hunter-gatherer (modern HGs can do that in one day maybe), so it was like "why are they claiming the opposite of what their result suggest?" Enfin...

Anne Gilbert said...

Maju:

Several things here:

First of all, many of the reconstructions of an earlier era(e.g. the earlier 20th century)were done by people who were IMO extreme "difference-mongers", and they tended to make Neandertals look pretty "apish". However, in 1957 or so, a pair of anatomists by th, whe name of Straus and Cave, discovered that the Old Man of La Chapelle aux Saintes, from which a lot of these "apish" reconstructions were derived, had a bad case of arthritis. You probably would have a bad case of arthritis too, if you lived in dank, dark cave during a cold and clammy Ice Age. In any case, reconstructions of Neandertals became much more "humanlike" after this.

However, toward the end of the 20th century, there was a sort of "revise the revisionists" movements among some of those who studied Neandertals, especially in light of the claims about modern human origins made by molecular geneticists. This was, IMO overkill, because no archaelogical study that I know of, has shown that much behavioral difference between Neandertals and "moderns". Even where there are differences, they don't seem, IMO, to be terribly significant in an overall evolutionary sense. It is true that on the Internet there are a number of people who are ready to counter the arguments of the "difference mongers" with facts and figures, and this is partly because, to begin with(some time before the Internet really took off), the "difference mongers" seemed to be the only voices in this discussion. As for "multiregionalism", if you really examine the innumerable papers, articles, etc. regarding modern human origins, I think you will find that very few people, even those who see Neandertals as perfectly "respectable", fall into a "strict" multiregionalst camp any more. And as for "romanticizing" or "idealizing" Neandertals. . . .well, there are a lot of people who "romanticize" or "idealize" supposedly "heroic" modern humans! Just pick up any novel about prehistoric times, and I think you will see exactly what I mean.

Finally, to get back to the question at hand, it's really, I think, "how different, if at all, were the people living in Early Upper Paleolithic times, from foragers known in historical time(regardless of whether or not they were Neandertals?") And "were Neandertals living at that time, all that different from "moderns" living at that time?" I don't pretend to have any answers to this, but there is a considerable debate around this issue. See any of the works by Paul Mellars(e.g. The Neanderthal Legacy and contrast that Zilhão or Francisco d'Errico, for example. I suspect that whatever "side" you come down on, depends on how much you are willing to see similarities as well as differences(or vice versa).
Anne G

Maju said...

I know that issue about the Neander with arhritis, nevertheless I do see in neanderthal skulls and body some sgnificative differences with modern humans that are kind of obviated in some modern "romantic" reconstructions. For instance the face you use as avatar is probably a pretty good approach ut I have seen others that look more like moderns than real Neanders. Not to mention other "Nordicist" fancies like the Gibraltar kid with extreme pale skin who would have died of cancer at age 15 if that was true (southern Iberia was then also very sunny, even if much colder - latitude has not changed).

It's true that nearly nobody stands anymore for pure multirregionalism but most of those that liked this model in the past are now defending significative inter-species admixture with no evidence and rather evidence of the opposite, if anything. That's why I called it "the last trench of multirregionalists". Obviously I cannot discard the possibility that some very minor admixture may have happened but, even for that, there is zero evidence as for now.

Finally, to get back to the question at hand, it's really, I think, "how different, if at all, were the people living in Early Upper Paleolithic times, from foragers known in historical time(regardless of whether or not they were Neandertals?")

IMO, the problem here is that there may have been significative differences of behaviour depending of the species. Sure: both species were intelligent and flexible, both were human (in the sense of evolved brainy Homo sp.) but they had diverged for a long time (maybe close to a million years) and that may have caused them to behave and even learn and think in slightly, yet significative, different ways.

Personally, without such (maybe tiny but surely decisive in the long run) differences, I cannot explain how the weakling H. sapiens outcompeted the super-strong and locally adapted H. neanderthalensis. In fact I tend to think that Neanderthals outcompeted us first of all (at least in the Levant), precisely because they were stronger and best adapted biologically, and we could only "beat" them after some sort of (mostly cultural) adaptation to the conditions of Eurasia.

But, besides that eventual adapatation to non-tropical climate and ecology, our ancestors must also have got some other advantages: precisely the ones that allowed them to adapt relatively fast, not just to occupy the presumably empty niches of south and east Asia (and beyond) but also to take over the already claimed ones of West Eurasia. If Neanders were so much identical to us in everything, that would not have happened, specially considering that they were much stronger than us. They would have expanded more and taken us out of all Eurasia or most of it.

I don't see the "Neanderthal genocide" as anything heroic. Genocides are never heroic but criminal and despicable. I cannot take any pride on that but shame if anything. But they certainly imply some sort of advantage in the side of the perpetrators, as nobody goes to death without defending him/herself - and I bet Neanderthals were no exception. As technology doesn't appear to have been the key element of advantage, the key variable must have been something else: some socio-economical, cultural, psychological maybe factor. And so far the best explanation I have read is that of Gamble - although it's just a theory, a plausible model, of course.

Anne Gilbert said...

Maju:

Just to letcha know. . . my avatar is actually "photoshopped" into a redhead(there's a story behind that, but this isn't the place to tell it). "She" actually started out dark haired, dark eyed and olive skinned, and "morphed" through photography into a Neanderlady, so to speak. There are a number of people(and the genetic evidence seems to bear this out, in the shape of an MC1R gene that suggests Neandertals were light skinned and light-eyed and light-haired) who think that N's were pretty "pale". This may well have been true, given that, most of the time, most Neandertals did not live on the Iberian Peninsula. IOW, many of them probably were rather light skinned, light eyed, and light haired, as some people in the more northerly parts of the Iberian Peninsula are today(no, I'm not necessarily suggesting such people have "Neandertal genes", whatever those may be). IOW, they probably varied as much in skin color as people in Europe do today. And this is not "Nordicist" or "romantic", it's simply what is known, now, "genetically" speaking, from molecular DNA studies.


Certainly the Neandertal fossil skeletons are distinctive; they seem to have denser bones and more muscle attachments than is usual amone most contemporary "moderns". OTOH, some of this may be partly due to "environmental" factors: they had to make do with more "muscle power" than later "moderns" had to. It is the head shape that is most distinctive about them, however, and even here, there seems, in some later Neandertals, to have been some changes toward more "gracile" skeletal structure(particularly noted among some late Vindija specimens --- see various papers by Fred Smith on this). Whether this was due to gene flow from "moderns", better equipment, or some other factor, we don't know.

Finally, as for "outcompetition", this is an extremely attractive theory to some, especially for those people who have some vague ideas about "competition" being a "driving force" in history. The problem with this is that apparently the Neandertals were one of the smallest and most scattered human populations that ever lived(and people in harsh, erratic climates, even today, tend to have rather comparatively small populations). There were a lot more of "us" than there were of "them". It is not hard to see why there are few or no "Neandertal genes" in the descendants of those "modern" populations that may have encountered them, even if (as I tend to think), at least some Neandertal populations just got absorbed into some early "modern" ones and effectively disappeared. This is not "outcompetition"; this kind of "population dynamics" happens in nature, today, sometimes right before your eyes, so to speak. There are, of course, lots of arguments around this, but it seems to me that if Neandertals were at a disadvantage, it was largely due to differences in population size, not "smarts", or "strength" or "outcompetition" whatever that is supposed to mean.
Anne G

Maju said...

There are one or two individuals who were probably redhaired (different gene than modern humans though) but overall I don't think there's any particular reason to think that southern European Neanderthals were as light pygmented as Northern European Sapiens of today. And most Neanderthals lived in Southern or Middle Europe (and also West Asia and North Africa - Mediterranean climate, Ice Age variant, was the rule for them, specially as Scandinavia and most of Britain was uninhabitable then). All the rest is mere typical Nordicist empty speculation. Ultra-pale types certainly would either have tanned or died in Iberia, even in the Ice Age - though this doesn't mean they did not style blondisms at all, just that they could not lack of skin pygmentation so radically: they had to be able to tan.

most of the time, most Neandertals did not live on the Iberian Peninsula.

Not just Iberia but all Mediterranean Europe, Asia and Africa. They evolved in Europe, what may mean less pressure for dark skin, specially in Central Europe, but not in Scandinavia certainly. Let's be realistic, please, not romantic.

...

It is the head shape that is most distinctive about them, however, and even here, there seems, in some later Neandertals, to have been some changes toward more "gracile" skeletal structure(particularly noted among some late Vindija specimens --- see various papers by Fred Smith on this). Whether this was due to gene flow from "moderns", better equipment, or some other factor, we don't know.

I do suspect gene flow from Sapiens really. But it's true in any case: some late Neanders appear more "modern", what may bring some confussion about our overall affinities/differences as species.

Finally, as for "outcompetition", this is an extremely attractive theory to some, especially for those people who have some vague ideas about "competition" being a "driving force" in history.

I am not any particularly competitive person nor think competitivity only can explain all. But I have to accept that when different species (or even populaions within a single species) forage in the same niche, they will clash and the fittest will in the long run displace the rest. It's mere Darwinian dynamics, we like it or not. In the case of modern humans, specially since Neolithic, this may have been largely replaced by aculturation and assimilation (cultural instead of mere bilogical dynamics) but overall the survival of the fittest dynamics prevail anyhow. I don't like it but it's how Nature is, so it's useless to complain.

The problem with this is that apparently the Neandertals were one of the smallest and most scattered human populations that ever lived(and people in harsh, erratic climates, even today, tend to have rather comparatively small populations). There were a lot more of "us" than there were of "them".

In the same niches? That can only mean that "we" exploited those niches much more effectively than "they" did. Maybe they were too dependent on mammoths and wooly rhinos, while we could live on rabbits and deer. IDk but it's obvious that "we", specially since the onset of UP, took over their lands and left them with nothing.

...it seems to me that if Neandertals were at a disadvantage, it was largely due to differences in population size, not "smarts", or "strength" or "outcompetition" whatever that is supposed to mean.

But why that low population size? Because they could not exploit their niche as effectively as we did. Why exactly? That remains a mystery but also talks of some decisive adaptative advantage on our side.

Anyhow H. sapiens was also at very low denisties then. Only in the (once Neanderthal) Franco-Cantabrian province we appear to have thrived to relatively large numbers but more at a later stage (Gravettian and after) than in Aurignacian times.

Anne Gilbert said...

Maju:

I really think you're carrying this "difference mongering" to an extreme. You're not alone; lots of "difference mongers" do when it comes to Neandertals. You appear not to feel very comfortable with anything but a really sharp line between "us" and "them", and this is beginning to bother me. For one thing, while the MC1R gene I mentioned is (somewhat) different from that found in any modern human population, there also appear to be a number of local variations in current modern populations that apparently affect skin color! Thus it is not very surprising to me that the "Neandertal variant" is somewhat different. If the Neandertal nuclear genome is ever decoded, I have a feeling that the similarities will be very much greater than the differences. And if red hair might not have been real common among Neandertals, it's quite likely that most of them tended to be light haired and light eyed. Which doesn't necessarily make them exactly "the same" as modern Europeans, but it would hardly have prevented them from acting and looking "human" whatever that may mean.

YOu also make inferences about their low population level, which may or may not be true. OTOH, surely you're not implying that some modern foragers, such as the Inuit(who also had relatively low population levels, and (somewhat) widely-scattered settlements or traditional areas, were or are not efficient exploiters of their "niche"? By all accounts, they certainly were, and from what is known archaeologically of Neandertal foragers where their hunting has been studied, they did a pretty good job of hunting, with the tools they had. Low population density can be looked at as just a way of "conserving the resources" in a difficult environment; if early "moderns" in Europe had low population densities too, then they were probably under much the same constraints in the eaqrlier "Aurignacian period" as the Neandertals were. As you have pointed out, "modern" humans were apparently concentrated(in some places), in larger populations, but this was in the Gravettian period, and by that time, there weren't any Neandertals that we know of. My conclusions here aren't "romantic" or "romanticizing" Neandertals, they're based on what evidence there is, both archaeological and "genetic".
Anne G

Maju said...

Well, and what bothers me is the presumption of ancestry with no evidence and rather all type of evidence against. You say that the Neanderthal redhair gene is "somewhat" different but it actually is a totally different one, even if apparently has the same or similar function (re. hair, we know nothing about its effect in other pygmentation components). Different genes can have same function but not for that reason they stp being different, this is if anything convergent evolution and nothing else. And it could well be a mere evolutive coincidence, not even affected by any evolutionary pressures whatsoever (after all redhairs are rare, both among ancient Neanderthals and among modern Europeans/West Eurasians - what suggests they have not been strongly selected for).

If the Neandertal nuclear genome is ever decoded...

They are on that. Hopefully the results will be published soon.

... I have a feeling that the similarities will be very much greater than the differences.

Feeling, vibe... subjective, emotional, irrational. Data does not say that so far.

...it's quite likely that most of them tended to be light haired and light eyed.

Why? I would not claim that they were of dark brown pygmentation but I see no particular reason for them to have evolved into a very depygmented variant, specially when 2/3 of their range were around the Mediterranean Sea.

YOu also make inferences about their low population level, which may or may not be true. OTOH, surely you're not implying that some modern foragers, such as the Inuit(who also had relatively low population levels, and (somewhat) widely-scattered settlements or traditional areas, were or are not efficient exploiters of their "niche"?

I don't say they were not efficient exploiters. I can even imagine they were even better exploiters than us in some senses (better to keep the natural balance, as often happen with natives everywhere) but they were less effective in a productivist/reproductivist sense. Because otherwise they would not have been displaced. As simple as that; no moral or intellectual judgement here, just production effectivity in terms of expansion and/or survival of the population. Again objectivity vs. subjectivity: they died off, we thrived, even in spite of them being stronger, presumably better adapted to local conditions and they having the advantage of defense.

Something worked better for H. sapiens than for Neanderthals, and this is just a (pre-)historical fact. We must not pretend to change the facts of prehistory, we should look for explanations. Why c. 60,000 BP Neanderthals thrived and expanded deep into Asia, probably displacing our foreparents in that process, and then the inverse happened: our ancestors took over the Neanderthal country and "the other Humankind" went extinct?

I think we need some explanation for that. If things were all the time just the same, then such radical changes would have never happened. There must be a reason for Neanderthal extinction just as we moved in.

Low population density can be looked at as just a way of "conserving the resources" in a difficult environment; if early "moderns" in Europe had low population densities too, then they were probably under much the same constraints in the eaqrlier "Aurignacian period" as the Neandertals were. As you have pointed out, "modern" humans were apparently concentrated(in some places), in larger populations, but this was in the Gravettian period, and by that time, there weren't any Neandertals that we know of.

Agree. Though (as a side note) Neanders probably survived in some areas until almost the beginning of Gravettian. Aurignacian penetration in Iberia south of the Ebro is very much scattered and limited to the Mediterranean coastal strip, what suggests a very low density penetration in that early phase. Not sure right now, but the Croatian Neanders have been dated to relatively recent dates anyhow and they may have survived even for longer in North Africa.

But in any case, if we and they had similar densities and similar ways of exploiting the enviroment, how come we just took over most of the European Neanderthal range in just something like 1000 years, maybe less (C14 is not that precise)? Why the "sudden" Aurignacian expansion and the sudden recession of Neanderthals into their last highland isolated refuges? What gave H. sapiens the decissive edge in this competition for the European lands and their resources?

You say that nothing: that there was no difference. I just don't make sense of that, sorry. No difference means no change, no opportunity for such change to happen, much less so quickly.

But facts, data, say otherwise.