Friday, July 24, 2009 | By: Khush Singh-Celebrity & Indian Bridal Makeup Artist

CSI Stone Age: Did Humans Kill Neanderthals?

A painting imagines the world of Neanderthal men

A painting imagines the world of Neanderthal men

Using modern-day forensics, Steven Churchill, an associate professor
of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, has determined that
Shanidar 3's wound was most likely caused by a thrown spear. At the
time of his death, only humans, who had adapted their hunting
techniques to the open plains of Africa, had developed projectile
weapons; Neanderthals, who hunted in the close quarters of forests,
used thrusting spears. (Read "What Makes Us Different?")

"There's only one species that had the sort of weapon to inflict this injury," Churchill says. "And that's us [humans]."

The study, published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution,
is part of a growing body of evidence that suggests contact between
Neanderthals and humans was often violent and may have played a part in
the extinction of our closest prehistoric relatives. Squat, rugged, and
well suited to cold, Neanderthals dominated Eurasia for the better part
of 200,000 years, surviving an ice age, but the species mysteriously
disappeared around the same time modern humans spread out from Africa
into their habitat.

To learn the cause of Shanidar 3's wound, Churchill and his team
used a specially designed crossbow to fire stone-age projectiles at
precise velocities at pig carcasses (a pig's skin and ribs are believed
to be roughly as tough as a Neanderthal's). When he stabbed a pig
carcass with the force of a thrust spear, Churchill found that the
pig's ribs "were busted to hell. The high kinetic energy had caused a
lot of damage in the area." But Shanidar 3 had a solitary rib puncture
with no such damage. (See pictures: Happy 200th Darwin Day!)

At kinetic energies consistent with a thrown spear, the pig's rib
bore damage resembling Shanidar 3's isolated rib puncture. What's more,
Churchill found that the weapon that killed Shanidar 3 entered at about
a 45-degree downward angle. According to Churchill, "That's consistent
with the ballistic trajectory of a thrown weapon, assuming that
Shanidar 3 — who was about 5 ft. 6 in. [1.67 m] tall — was
standing." Churchill also found that Shanidar 3's rib had started
healing before he died. By comparing the wound with wounds documented
in medical records from the American Civil War, a time before
antibiotics, Churchill hypothesized that Shanidar 3 probably died
within a few weeks of the injury.

While Churchill's research may have shed more light on the
cause of Shanidar 3's death, the reasons for his species' fate remain a
mystery. Some scientists believe that Neanderthals went extinct after a
particularly volatile period of climate change shrank their arboreal
hunting grounds. Others suggest they may have interbred with humans. A
newer theory focuses on a violent end at the hands of Homo sapiens.
Earlier this year, Fernando Rozzi, an anthropologist at Paris's Centre
National de la Recherche Scientifique, found a Neanderthal jawbone that
had been butchered in precisely the same way that humans cut up deer
carcasses in the early Stone Age. Rozzi said humans likely cut out and
ate the Neanderthal's tongue and used his teeth to make a decorative
necklace. "Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands, and in some
cases we ate them," Rozzi said at the time of the discovery. (Read "The Evolution Wars.")

Churchill believes our early contact with our shrunken,
strange-looking cousins was probably complex and varied and was likely
one of many factors that led to their extinction. "I suspect that
interactions were different
all over the place, much like the European colonizers had different
interaction with other races. In some places the interaction was
peaceful and there was interbreeding and cultural exchange, and in
other places it was pretty violent." In other words, the Neanderthals
may have disappeared, but
the species that Shanidar 3 came into contact with in his Iraqi home
— a creature capable of both cooperation and violent
confrontation — is most certainly the same species that dominates
the globe today.


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