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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Neanderthals: Closer than we thought?

According to a recent report, Neanderthals may have
held out at Gibraltar until about 24000 years ago. If so, it is more probable that the Ice Age killed them off than that modern humans did. There is also the distinct possibility that there were once hybrids between the 'thals and current humans. The report is based on a recent paper in Nature.

By the way, Casey Luskin argues, in Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, that Neanderthals were a subspecies of modern humans, which sounds reasonable to me. In particular, Luskin warns against ape-man folklore that may give a very different picture of this vanished type of human than the reality:
Neanderthals may be depicted as culturally primitive or Homo erectus may be portrayed as a bungling and primitive humanlike form. Ironically, the same textbook may portray an australopithecine ape as physically anthropoid, but with gleams of human-like intelligence and emotion in its eyes.12 These reconstructions are only loosely based upon fossil evidence and provide a highly subjective evolutionary interpretation. If the hominid genera Homo and Australopithecus represent distinct basic types, then it might be improper to imply convergence of intelligence and emotional faculties between the two groups. As famed physical anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton from Harvard University cautioned in 1931, "alleged restorations of ancient types of man have very little, if any, scientific value and are likely only to mislead the public."13

Meanwhile, museums have been training their docents the correct spin, when questions about human origins arise. The fact that we don't really know, and for all our researches may never know, is not something we readily face up to. Do give Luskin's article a read, to get some sense of the difficulties.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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