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Neanderthals Reenvisioned

Ackerman, Sandra J. American Scientist; Research Triangle Park Vol. 105, Iss. 1,  (Jan/Feb 2017): 6-7.

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New techniques for determining the age of fossils and sediments are providing insights into human origins.

The public image of Neanderthals as low-browed, hulking brutes is due for a makeover. We humans sometimes like to think of ourselves as quite distinct from our extinct cousins, but the evidence from more and more fossil sites suggests that Homo neanderthalmsis and Homo sapiens shared many personal qualities. We now know, for instance, that Neanderthals took care of their elderly and disabled relatives, buried their dead in ritualistic ways, and, in certain contexts, apparently imbued natural objects with symbolic meaning. Moreover, these near-humans must have been able to adapt to many different habitats: In the period between about 450,000 and 40,000 years ago, they left their traces in locales as far-flung as Portugal, China, and the Indonesian island of Flores. Their adventurousness is matched today by the boundless curiosity and ingenuity of researchers developing new ways to find out more about them.

The talks and posters presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution, hosted by Madrid's Museo Arqueológico Regional, spanned the past two million years of human evolution. Neanderthals came in for an outsize share of the attention, though, perhaps because the Iberian peninsula abounds in Neanderthal sites. Two of the most intensively studied of these sites lie in north-central Spain: Atapuerca (which includes the evocatively named Sima de los Huesos, or Chasm of Bones) and Pinilla del Valle.

The site of Sima de los Huesos is famous for its large collection of hominin fossils: One stratigraphic layer alone was found to hold several thousand of them, including many skull fragments. Using a new dating technique, a research team led by paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, has established...