November 8th, 2010
12:01 PM ET
We recently learned Ozzy Osbourne apparently has some genetic traces of Neanderthal in him, and now scientists are finding out even more about this extinct human relative.
The modern human brain and the Neanderthal brain began at about the same size at birth, but their skulls show that they began developing very differently within the first year of life, scientists say.
Neanderthals evolved more than 400,000 years ago, lived as hunter-gatherers in Europe and Asia, and went extinct about 30,000 years ago.
Judging by the archaeological record, Neanderthals were well-adapted to their particular environment, but they were not as creative in terms of hunting strategies or artwork – for example, they apparently did not make cave paintings the way their human contemporaries did.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology scanned Neanderthals skulls and compared them with modern human skulls. Their results are published in the journal Current Biology.
Subtle changes in the early phases of brain development can have a huge impact on social cognition, communication, and how creative members of a species are, said study author Philipp Gunz of the Planck Institute.
The pattern of brain development described in the study may point to a diminished inclination to communicate through art, and possibly also help explain why modern humans had advantages over Neanderthals, he said.
"If you are an artist you have to understand symbols, you have to understand meaning, you have to look at the world in the certain way, and it seems that Neanderthals, for 200,000 years, didn’t feel like it," Gunz said.
Modern humans had a higher reproduction rate, and were more flexible in terms of their hunting strategies, he said.
But before we feel too good about ourselves, remember that Neanderthals actually roamed the Earth longer than our own species, Homo sapiens.
"It's not like we can look down on them. We haven't made it that far yet," Gunz said. "Their extinction, I would say, is not a direct consequence of this particular brain development pattern." But the cognitive differences may explain biologically why modern humans showed this creativity and flexibility in their behavior, he said.
Neanderthals had difficult living conditions, inhabiting Europe during the most recent Ice Age. In fact, for most of their time as a species, Neanderthals were on the border of extinction, Gunz said. They ate meat and hunted, and were probably social people who could communicate.
Back when humans and Neanderthals both lived in Europe, population density was low; there were only about 100,000 people on the continent, Gunz said. The first interactions between Neanderthals and humans could have occurred when both species were in the Middle East about 90,000 years ago or less, he said.
It's not certain if there was conflict or harmony between the two species, but there was most likely some interaction and interbreeding. A paper in May in the journal Science estimated that 1 to 4 percent of the modern human genome of non-Africans can be traced back to the Neanderthal
As scientists continue to study the Neanderthal genome, they will learn even more about this creature that seems to have something in common with many of us, not just Ozzy.
Photo: a representation of Neanderthals at the Museum for Prehistory in Eyzies-de-Tayac, France.
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