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Eating Themselves To Death

A new theory about the end of the Neanderthals:

"TSE's could have thinned the population, reducing numbers and contributing to their extinction in combination with other factors (such as climate change and the emergence of modern humans)," he said.

Such diseases have very long incubation periods, he further explained, so affected individuals may not show symptoms for a very long time. Similarly, people who consume TSE victims may not exhibit signs of illness immediately after eating.

"Neanderthals would have been unlikely to spot any causal relationship between cannibalism and TSE symptoms," Underdown said.

No kidding.


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mike shupp wrote:

Oh, come on!

The Neanderthals perished between 20-30,000 years ago. We have 3 pieces of relatively solid knowledge about that period. 2 inferences. And 1 likely conclusion.

1. Anatomically modern human beings (Homo sapiens sapiens or us or "Cro-Magnons") were moving into the same territory the Neanderthals occupied; they competed for the same resources (flint, elk herds, berry patches, rain-resistant caves).

2. Climate was deteriorating. In fact there was a major ice age from roughly 30,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE. Much of Europe was essentially kept in wintry conditions -- or even covered by glaciers -- year round for thousands of years.

3. Neanderthal culture at the time modern Homo sapiens sapiens appeared in their backyard (Aurignacians, at 38-40,000 BCE) was less well developed than ours. There's evidence that the Neanderthals did learn quite a few of our tricks -- bead-decorated clothing, for example, which suggests a "modern" sense of self-identification and perhaps some sort of social stratification. We picked up some things from Neanderthals -- using pitch and tar to bind wood and rocks into simple tools ("spears"), for example, and the "technology" of grinding paints and food stuffs with deliberately shaped mortars and pestles.

I.e, Neanderthals were probably "primitive" when compared to Cro-Magnons, but more or less as British natives might have been seen as primitive by invading Romans 2000 years ago or as contemporary Equadorian highlanders might be seen as primitive in comparison to Americans. Not really a whole lot, in other words.

4. This we don't know, but it is a reasonable inference. Physically, Neanderthals were heavier than modern Homo sapiens; analyses of their skeletons suggests they faced more physical stress (they worked harder, they broke more bones, they died younger). The inference is that Neanderthal bands were smaller than Cro-Magnon bands -- they roamed around in groups of 4-6 say rather than 8-12. (The rationale is, modern humans and Neanderthals might cover equal amounts of territory while foraging for food, fire material, etc. in the course of a day, but because of their greater metabolic requirements, territories of the same size would support fewer Neanderthals than modern humans.)

5. The second inference is that smaller bands are more likely to be disrupted/adversely affected by mortality than larger bands. (Assume one of the parents dies during a winter for a Neanderthal band with two adults and two children; assume also two parents and a child die at the same time in a Cro-Magnon band which began with four adults and five children. Which group is more likely to endure till Spring and more likely to hunt/forage successfully during Summer and Fall?)

6. After answering the question in (5) imagine it repeated several thousand times for the several thousand Neanderthal and Aurignacian bands competing for the same chunks of territory in France and Germany and Italy and Northern Spain and so on 30,000 years ago. Imagine it repeated 10-20,000 times for each of the years in which Neanderthals and our European ancestors contended for the same limited resources. Imagine (KNOW!) a steadily deteriorating environment, which seems likely to favor groups with strong social bonds and likely to reward the larger groups which tolerate/encourage social or technological experimentation. Are Neanderthals or modern Homo sapiens more likely to "win" such a contest?

I think the conclusion is forced: Cro-Magnons outlasted Neanderthals in the territories where they co-resided because (a) their larger bands were more resiliant to ice age stresses, and (b) _possibly_ because they possessed better technology. We don't need cannibalism, or gross mental insufficiency, or lack of any other "modern" characteristics to esplain the demise of the Neanderthals.

But most folks these days find such an explanation insufficently dramatic.

--mike shupp

Ryan wrote:

I'm not sure I can agree with the premise that "(a) their larger bands were more resilient to ice age stresses", in reference to Cro-Magnons' advantages over Neanderthals.

I can easily imagine a larger band being less capable of coping with what I see to be the one of the largest Ice Age inspired stresses, food shortage, in an age before agriculture.

With a limited food supply, a larger group means more mouths to feed and less food to go around, increasing malnutrition, starvation, and disease, decreasing chances of survival, whereas a smaller group has an easier time keeping themselves fed. There are contemporary examples in nature, like the effects of a harsh winter on deer over-population - there isn't enough for everyone to eat and stay healthy, but there is enough for few to eat and stay healthy, i.e. if the deer population had been less, more would have survived the winter (traditional hunter/wildlife steward meme).

Or if you want to turn the cannibalism idea around, consider the Donner party. If they had been 44 instead of 87 (all 87 people in the party were not used for the transport and gathering of food), they may have all wintered through and survived with the same amount of supplies.

Of course, you could say that the larger group of Cro-Magnons would have the numbers advantage if it came to killing the Neanderthals and eating them.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on February 28, 2008 7:08 PM.

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