Researchers have long debated what happened when the indigenous Neanderthals of Europe met “modern humans” arriving from Africa starting about 40,000 years ago. The end result was the disappearance of the Neanderthals, but what happened during the roughly 10,000 years that the two human species shared a land?
A new review of the fossil record from that period has come up with a provocative conclusion: The two groups saw each other as kindred spirits and, when conditions were right, they mated.
How often this happened will never be known, but paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus says it probably occurred more often than is imagined.
In his latest work, published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, analyzed fossil remains from various parts of Europe. He concluded that a significant number have attributes associated with both Neanderthals and the modern humans who replaced them.
“Given the data we now have, it would be highly improbable to argue there is no Neanderthal contribution to the early European population that came out of Africa,” Trinkaus said. “I believe there was continuous breeding between the two for some period of time.
“Both groups would seem to us dirty and smelly but, cleaned up, we would understand both to be human. There’s good reason to think that they did as well,” he said.
Although Neanderthals live in the public imagination as hulking and slow-witted, Trinkaus and others say there is no reason to believe they were any less intelligent than the newly arrived “modern humans.” Neanderthals were stockier and had larger brows, sharper teeth and more jutting jaws, but their brain capacity appears to have been no different than that of the newcomers.