This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Neanderthals Are Back in the News!

I don't think most of us give much thought to our very distant relatives--the Neanderthals. But they are back in the news because scientists have discovered ancient art on the walls of caves in Spain that seems to have been put there before Homo sapiens ever arrived in Europe. BBC News has a summary of the paper just published in Science.
Contrary to the traditional view of them as brutes, it turns out that Neanderthals were artists. A study in Science journal suggests they made cave drawings in Spain that pre-date the arrival of modern humans in Europe by 20,000 years. They also appear to have used painted sea shells as jewellery.
Art was previously thought to be a behaviour unique to our species (Homo sapiens) and far beyond our evolutionary cousins. The cave paintings include stencilled impressions of Neanderthal hands, geometric patterns and red circles. They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales - situated up to 700km apart in different parts of Spain.
These discoveries bring back to light the fact that we Homo sapiens used to share the planet with other human species, even if we prefer not to think about our roots. One person who has been thinking about these things is Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian who has written a best-selling book titled "Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind." I just finished reading it and while I'm not sure that I agree with everything he says (more on that in subsequent blog posts...), he writes well and obviously knows a lot. Here's his quick summary of where we fit into history (from pages 5 and 6):
Homo sapiens [modern humans] belong to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history's most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly, without parents, but that's just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother. 
Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is 'an animal belonging to the genus Homo', and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.
He then points out that humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago and that our human siblings include Homo rudolfensis (East Africa), Homo erectus (East Asia), Homo neanderthensis [--"man from the Neander Valley" (in Germany)]--(Europe and Western Asia), and a few others. However, for reasons about which we can only speculate, for the past 10,000 years Homo sapiens have been the only humans on the planet--still around so that we can enjoy the art of the Neanderthals.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting news here. Not sure what to make of it: