The Improbable Primate by Finlayson Clive

The Improbable Primate by Finlayson Clive

Author:Finlayson, Clive
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: OUP Oxford
Published: 2014-02-13T05:00:00+00:00


The Exceptional World of the Neanderthal


As Homo sapiens sapiens—the lineage of southern Middle Earth—was starting to feel the pinch after 450 thousand years ago, a separate lineage had embarked on its own particular adventure in the non-tropical regions of Eurasia. That lineage had a common ancestor with sapiens, which genetic work has put at around 400 thousand years ago.1 This Eurasian lineage is often referred to as Homo heidelbergensis, the same name that is applied to the African lineage of Homo sapiens from the same period and which was the subject of Chapter 7. Others, as mentioned earlier, distinguish the African and Eurasian lineages, giving the name rhodesiensis to the Africans and retaining heidelbergensis for the Eurasian contingent. The nomenclature has clouded the continuous evolutionary process. At one end of the scale some authors have tried to make each regional version of heidelbergensis into a species in its own right and at the other end they have merged them into one. When considering fossils that show some characteristics typical of the Neanderthals, some authors refer to these as heidelbergensis while others talk of pre-Neanderthals, a term that reminds me of ‘archaic modern human’ and reveals the inadequacy of trying to put a continuous evolutionary process in a straitjacket. Since this lineage led to the Neanderthals but was derived from the common sapiens ancestor, I shall refer to it as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. For our purposes they are the Neanderthals, even if the earliest ones do not have all the features that have been defined as characteristic of them.

The Neanderthals lived across Eurasia but we cannot determine where they originated with exactitude, although the common but unsupported view is that it was in western Europe.2 At the height of their success, their range extended from the Iberian Peninsula in the west right across to central Siberia, and probably beyond, in the east.3 The achievement of the Neanderthals should not be underestimated and it matches that of humans in the drying world of southern Middle Earth. In Chapter 6 we saw how humans had struggled to survive on the northern edge of their range, in Europe, central Asia, and China. Occupation of northern territories was not permanent and populations were pegged back during cold periods. If that was bad, imagine what followed after 450 thousand years ago. The conditions that brought severe drought to Africa also brought extreme cold to Eurasia.

The Neanderthals, like their predecessors, could only survive in warm and humid refuges each time that the ice set off on a southerly excursion. The coastal south-westernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula between Gibraltar and Lisbon, the mildest and least arid part of Europe, was their main stronghold. The limit of their geographical range was marked in the south by the Mediterranean Sea and its high mountains. High mountains ran from there across Middle Earth, all the way to China. They were formidable barriers which were impenetrable at the best of times, let alone during a glaciation when ice descended from the lofty heights.


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