Monday, February 01, 2010

Neanderthals news - Feb. 1 edition

Some interesting Neanderthal tidbits in the news today:

  • First, there's a report of the first Neanderthal remains to be found in Poland, indeed in all of Eastern Europe north of the Carpathians Mountains. The remains consist of three teeth thought to date to ca. 100-80,000 BP and found associated with abundant faunal and lithic material. I'll be writing about this report in detail very soon.

  • Second, an analysis of the TAS2R38 gene in the El Sidrón 1253 Neanderthal sample, indicates that Neanderthals, like modern H. sapiens, were able to taste the bitter chemical phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) found in certain green vegetables and some poisonous plants. That the gene could be expressed similarly (thought not always, which is very intriguing) in modern humans and Neanderthals "indicates that variation in bitter taste perception predates the divergence of the lineages leading to Neanderthals and modern humans." The actual study (available free, btw) has been out for a while, but had somehow slipped by my attention, hence its inclusion in today's Neanderthals tidbits.

    Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

    "The placement of the teeth along with flint tools has led the team to hypothesize that the site could have been some kind of primitive burial site, which would point to a belief in the afterlife."

    Or, of a really bad toothache and primative tooth pulling dentistry. A good hard kick from any of the megafauna present at the site (perhaps a hunting camp?), or from fellow Neanderthals in a fight, would presumably be enough to prematurely loosen up some teeth.

    Also, why does the presence of three teeth necessarily imply that the owner was dead at the time they were deposited. Who leaves flint inventory that hasn't been turned into finished tools in a grave?

    Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

    Andrew -
    The study itself doesn't really talk about the 'burial' aspect that the press report put a great deal of emphasis on. That said, you're right, loose teeth can accumulate in other manners than solely through the death of their 'owner.' I doubt they could have been dislodged by close encounters with large fauna - to the extent that an animal encounter would result in loose teeth, I doubt humans would have been able to collect them. As for caveman-on-caveman action, there's a little bit of evidence for interpersonal violence in Neanderthals, but nothing associated with tooth loss. Likewise, the Neanderthal diet doesn't seem to have resulted in very many cavities, so I don't know how much tooth pulling or other forms of 'primitive dentistry' would have been going on. In general, teeth recovered in paleoanthropological research are assumed to represent either deceased individuals or immature ones (in the case of deciduous teeth). Some recovered human teeth (though admittedly not Neanderthal ones) show scraping marks that indicate they were forcefully removed from the gums, suggesting postmortem extraction. The authors of the Stajnia study don't desrcibe such marks on the S5000 molar, though.

    Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

    I was thinking of a "man kicked in jaw by mammoth", teeth loosened, loose teeth pulled in cave (perhaps by hand) kind of scenario, rather than a cavity or teeth lost on the spot and recovered kind of scenario. Mammoth hunting has to be at least as brutal as rugby where that kind of thing happens with some regularity.

    Still, you are certainly right that the evidence has value without the burial aspect.

    terryt said...

    "indicates that variation in bitter taste perception predates the divergence of the lineages leading to Neanderthals and modern humans."

    Do they provide a date for its postulated origin, or is it just assumed it is of such a date? Interesting that not all modern humans have it which suggests selection for the gene has not been too strong.