National Geographic : 2008 Oct
Neanderthals late in their time on Earth. But a deeper desperation is etched in their bones. Rosas picked up a recently unearthed fragment of a skull and another of a long bone of an arm, both with jagged edges. "These fractures were-clop-made by humans', Rosas said, imitating the blow of a stone tool. "It means these fellows went after the brains and into long bones for the marrow." In addition to the fractures, cut marks left on the bones by stone tools clearly indicate that the individuals were cannibalized. Whoever ate their flesh, and for whatever reason-starvation? ritual?-the subsequent fate of their remains bestowed upon them a distinct and marvelous kind of immortality. Shortly after the nine indi viduals died-possibly within days-the ground below them suddenly collapsed, leaving little time for hyenas and other scavengers to scatter the remains. A slurry of bones, sediment, and rocks tumbled 60 feet into a hollow limestone chamber below, much as mud fills the inside walls of a house during a flood. There, buffered by sand and clay, preserved by the cave's constant temperature, and seques tered in their jewel cases of mineralized bone, a few precious molecules of the Neanderthals' genetic code survived, awaiting a time in the distant future when they could be plucked out, pieced together, and examined for clues to how these people lived, and why they vanished. THE FIRST CLUE that our kind of human was not the first to inhabit Europe turned up a cen tury and a half ago, about eight miles east of Disseldorf, Germany. In August 1856 laborers quarrying limestone from a cave in the Nean der Valley dug out a beetle-browed skullcap and some thick limb bones. Right from the start, the Neanderthals were saddled with an enduring cultural stereotype as dim-witted, brutish cave men. The size and shape of the fossils does sug gest a short, stout fireplug of a physique (males averaged about five feet, five inches tall and about 185 pounds), with massive muscles and a flaring rib cage presumably encasing capacious lungs. Steven E. Churchill, a paleoanthropologist at Duke University, has calculated that to support Stephen S. Hall's next book is about the natural history of wisdom. This is David Liittschwager's fourth assignmentfor National Geographic. 40 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * OCTOBER 2008 his body mass in a cold climate, a typical Nean derthal male would have needed up to 5,000 calories daily, or approaching what a bicy clist burns each day in the Tour de France. Yet behind its bulging browridges, a Neander thal's low-domed skull housed a brain with a volume slightly larger on average than our own today. And while their tools and weapons were more primitive than those of the mod ern humans who supplanted them in Europe, they were no less sophisticated than the imple ments made by their modern human contem poraries living in Africa and the Middle East.