Nearly 40,000 years after disappearing from the planet, Neanderthals are having a moment. In recent years, tantalizing new evidence suggests that our primitive, heavy-browed cousins were chefs, jewelry-makers and painters. And what we are learning from the genetic clues they left behind—and the promise of what those clues will tell us about ourselves in the years ahead—won Swedish paleo-geneticist Svante Pääbo the 2022 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology this fall.
The most recent discoveries, un-earthed in a Siberian cave, show why scientists are so excited. By Neanderthal standards, the Chagyrskaya Cave qualified as luxury housing. The two-chambered, cliffside cavity in Southern Siberia’s Altai Mountains boasted a three-story-high limestone entrance overlooking a vast, green river valley, from which residents could easily have spotted herds of migrating bison, horses, reindeer and other tasty game, or just reveled in the cave’s King of the World views. “It’s the perfect place,” says Bence Viola, a paleontologist at the University of Toronto, who studies ancient humans.
Which is why Viola, a jovial, thirty-something Hungarian-born scientist who describes field work as “camping with friends,” wasn’t surprised when a longtime Russian collaborator pulled a fossilized mandible in a plastic bag out of his shirt pocket one vodka-fueled evening at a conference in 2010, and boisterously declared: “I have a surprise for you!” Viola was able to confirm by sight that the remarkably well-preserved fossil, dug out of the recently discovered cave’s entrance, had come from a Neanderthal.
Even so, Viola couldn’t have predicted how rich an archeological haul Chagyrskaya would yield. So far, the 11-year excavation has produced a treasure trove of 90,000 stone tools, 300,000 bone fragments and, as Viola and Russian collaborators laid out in the journal Nature in October, rice-sized samples from some of the 80 confirmed Neanderthal bones. These are the remains of the world’s first known Neanderthal family—at least 11 genetically connected individuals, including a father, his teenage daughter and their cousins, who all perished around the same time, probably from starvation.
These and other finds, together with advanced technology that’s become available to paleontologists within the last decade, have smashed the popular conception of Neanderthals as hairy, primitive, knuckle-dragging cavemen who carried clubs and spoke in grunts. Neanderthals, we now know, were likely more intelligent, sophisticated and complicated than previously believed. Pääbo and other scientists have rapidly increased their understanding of Neanderthals—and, by way of contrast, exactly what it means to be a modern human. [Continue reading…]