In pursuit of decoding the mystery of Neanderthals

Model of a Neanderthal man, Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany

The long-debated puzzle on the demise of Neanderthals and expansion of early modern humans into Europe may be resolved after Dr. Eugène Morin, assistant professor of anthropology at Trent University, completes his project, “Reassessing the Chronology, Composition and Climatic Implications of three Neanderthal and Early Modern Human Sites from France”, part of his ongoing research on Neanderthals.

Dr. Morin, who has been working on Neanderthals for the last 15 years, is one of the five Trent researchers who recently received the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight grant.

Morin received the grant for his research on the differences between Neanderthals and early modern human behaviors during the middle to upper Paleolithic period.

“We will die on it, we will take forever,” Morin said, if he is to work on the question of Neanderthal replacement or evolution. So, instead, he will explore some of the aspects of his research, such as foraging strategies, which he sees has the possibility of completion in five to ten years. As he exhausts the possibilities of research or contribution in one field, Morin will then move on to other aspects of exploring the Neanderthals.

Symbolism, nutrition, foraging, and how different population interacted in the past are some of the features of his project.

Further, Neanderthals raise an interesting question because it is unclear as to whether it is a different species or different population simply at the population level. It might suggest that once, in the recent past, humans were far more variable than they are today in terms of biology, and that is another interesting feature to look at from his study, he said.

“At the end of this current research, we will get more information on potential similarities or differences between the two populations. We will have a better grasp of spatial and temporal patterns because it is one thing to talk about them, but these people have been there for 150 to 200 thousand years. So, things have changed, even during their times. It would be interesting to find out if early Neanderthals were different from the late Neanderthals,” Morin explained.

His current research is essentially to learn about the interaction among humans, animals, the ecosystem, and climate change.

According to Morin, this set of variables will give insight into how climate change affects animals and how animals in turn impact the human ecosystem. It will also help effectuate more data about Neanderthals as an anthropological population.

The importance of exploring the current aspect of the study mainly comes from the fact that there were a lot of episodes of climatic changes during the Paleolithic times, and some of them have resonance for what is seen today.

For instance, there are episodes of climatic change as seen in animal remains, which is dramatic. Morin cited an example on how hunting for certain species resulted in completely wiping out those species within less than a few centuries. In some cases, it had resulted in intense changes in demography. So it is interesting to see how climatic change has affected the Neanderthal and early modern human populations, he continued.

While people are not the hunters anymore, it is clear that it has as impact on demography, and raises questions about how climate changes affects human demography.

Neanderthals and the early modern humans probably didn’t have as much of an effect on the environment, at least not to the extent that people have today. However, the findings will enable scientists to predict how certain directional changes in climate can affect human subsistence and how it changes the ecosystem.

Morin’s past study contributed to research in this field because it suggested that many of the differences, including behavioural, seen between Neanderthals and early modern humans are more a matter of degree rather than of kind. The Neanderthals are a lot like early modern humans in many ways, especially in terms of foraging strategies.

From his own research, Morin has found that Neanderthals transported animals mostly for their content in marrow, and relished on the animals’ fat more than the meat.

Morin suggests that fat was an important resource, perhaps even more important than protein or the meat.

“What is interesting today is we only talk about meat, while the [modern] hunter-gatherers were not concerned about meat as much as we are. [It] challenges us to consider about their emphasis on meat,” said Morin.

He added that today, fat is seen as something very terrible, and a culprit for many diseases, but Neanderthals liked eating tremendous quantities of fat and they weren’t necessarily in poor health either.

It suggests that there is something more than simple equation between fat consumption and disease prevalence.

Further, it puts forth the question about the quality of fat. In present society, there is only a single type of fat, whereas in hunter-gatherer times, there was both soft and hard fat.

Talking in terms of nutrition, Neanderthals had different behaviours with respect to food, implying that 21st century society has a certain set of attitudes about food that may need to be revisited.

Saint-Césaire, a paleoanthropological site in southwestern France, is the excavation site for his study. According to Morin, Paleolithic research requires a team of specialists, as the sites can be anywhere from 40 to over 100,000 years old, and hold myriads of information.

Time has changed the artifacts and types of object found, some bones degrade, and lithic fragments change in some ways. In addition, the cave is itself a complex system that changes continuously.

Currently, Morin’s team of researchers include specialists for radiocarbon dating, studying bone tools, stone tools, and carnivores, identifying the layers, and Morin himself, who is dealing with the fauna.

“There has always been that big debate about whether Neanderthals have been replaced by incoming modern humans, or whether they evolved in some way to early modern humans. And this has always been a puzzle to me and a topic that attracted most of my interest for Neanderthals,” Morin said when asked about his interest in the subject.

The SSHRC is an independent federal government agency that funds university-based research and graduate training through national peer-review competitions.

The goal of SSHRC’s Insight and Insight Development programs is to build knowledge and understanding about people, societies and the world by supporting research excellence in all subject areas eligible for funding from SSHRC.

About Ugyen Wangmo 87 Articles
Ugyen Wangmo is a self trained media personal, steadfast to 'right to information'. She has about six years of media experience through a variety of roles as Reporter, Editor, Stringer, and Freelance writer. She graduated from Trent with a degree in Chemistry and Biology. When not nosing around for leads to write a thing or two about, she indulges in books, fashion, and dance.