email a friend iconprinter friendly iconNeanderthals
Page [ 9 ] of 10

Of all possible cultural buffers, perhaps the most important was the cushion of society itself. According to Erik Trinkaus, a Neanderthal social unit would have been about the size of an extended family. But in early modern human sites in Europe, Trinkaus said, "we start getting sites that represent larger populations." Simply living in a larger group has biological as well as social repercussions. Larger groups inevitably demand more social interactions, which goads the brain into greater activity during childhood and adolescence, creates pressure to increase the sophistication of language, and indirectly increases the average life span of group members. Longevity, in turn, increases intergenerational transmission of knowledge and creates what Chris Stringer calls a "culture of innovation"—the passage of practical survival skills and toolmaking technology from one generation to the next, and later between one group and another.

Whatever the suite of cultural buffers, they may well have provided an extra, albeit thin, layer of insulation against the harsh climatic stresses that Stringer argues peaked right around the time the Neanderthals vanished. Ice core data suggest that from about 30,000 years ago until the last glacial maximum about 18,000 years ago, the Earth's climate fluctuated wildly, sometimes within the space of decades. A few more people in the social unit, with a few more skills, might have given modern humans an edge when conditions turned harsh. "Not a vast edge," Stringer said. "Neanderthals were obviously well adapted to a colder climate. But with the superimposition of these extreme changes in climate on the competition with modern humans, I think that made the difference."

Which leaves the final, delicate—and, as Jean-Jacques Hublin likes to say, politically incorrect—question that has bedeviled Neanderthal studies since the Out of Africa theory became generally accepted: Was the replacement by modern humans attenuated and peaceful, the Pleistocene version of kissing cousins, or was it relatively swift and hostile?

"Most Neanderthals and modern humans probably lived most of their lives without seeing each other," he said, carefully choosing his words. "The way I imagine it is that occasionally in these border areas, some of these guys would see each other at a distance…but I think the most likely thing is that they excluded each other from the landscape. Not just avoided, but excluded. We know from recent research on hunter-gatherers that they are much less peaceful than generally believed."

"Sometimes I just turn out the lights in here and think what it must have been like for them."

Page [ 9 ] of 10