Between Neanderthals and Sapiens, there was sex… but little love

LHis relationship between Neanderthals and early Sapiens has sparked heated debate. For a long time, the most widely accepted interpretation was a confrontation between two species, in a “war” of 100,000 years, the time of their existence on the planet, with the key to a victory for our species. We now know that, in addition to the possible hatred of the Sapiens, there are other possible reasons for their disappearance.

The defeat of the Neanderthals, the extinction of the last “sister” species, may be due to climate changes, or it may be linked to their physiology, or the effects of an epidemic that will destroy them. New archaeological data and advances in understanding our genome have completely changed the way we can now tell our shared history with Neanderthals.

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Central Europe: the territory shared by both species

The population density of Eurasia during the Late Pleistocene, about 129,000 years ago, must have been very low. This is not a simple number, but a consideration of the possibilities of encounters that may have happened in the past between the two communities. Neanderthals like Sapiens were few in number.

We do not have reliable data about the Middle Paleolithic, but we do have data from the early Upper Paleolithic (Aurignacian), where it is estimated that there were between 900 and 3,800 people in central Europe. In other words, the inhabitants of a small village are now spread across central Europe. Considering a living area of ​​more than 10 million square kilometers, the population density is very low, about 0.103 people/100 km.2.

In addition to the low population density, the habitats (caves, shelters or rivers) are repeatedly used by the same groups over time. Therefore, the possibilities of contact between the two species must be very limited.

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There were more meetings than expected

The encounters between Neanderthals and Sapiens were more than it seems, and not only for reasons of competition.

Experts have been able to sequence Neanderthal DNA in human remains, such as those from El Sidrón (Asturias), Vindija (Croatia) or Mezmaiskaya (Russia), and we have been able to start making comparisons with modern populations of DNA, as well as before. sapiens arriving in Europe.

The importance of sequencing has recently culminated in the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to its pioneer, Svante Pääbo, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. This comparison proves that the relationships between these human groups are more frequent than previously thought. Conversely, different species may have common ancestry. But we now know that we have a genetic load of between 1 and 4% of Neanderthal DNA, even if all Sapiens do not show signs of hybridization, as is the case with African populations.

In 2018, the discovery of the remains of a girl, the daughter of a Neanderthal woman and a Denisovan man, proved that interbreeding was a viable process.

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More recently, human remains from the Bacho Kiro site in Bulgaria and Zlatý kůň in the Czech Republic prove that contact was frequent.

For now, encounters must be limited to specific geographic and chronological contexts. At least we know that it probably happened in the Altai Mountains of Siberia about 100,000 years ago, in the Near East about 60,000 years ago, and in Central Europe about 40,000 years ago. , and all are based on the genetic records of Sapiens and Neanderthals .

The “love” relationship between two species should be limited to the integration of isolated individuals within alien groups. The selection processes of generational culture must have carved out our limited Neanderthal genetic load.

Similar but not the same

We often forget the importance of culture as a factor in the differences between human groups. Although they do not recognize themselves as a separate species, they must consider themselves different, as reflected in their material culture.

For example, about 300,000 years ago, the first Sapiens developed an industry similar to that of the Neanderthals but changed it in a short time to very complex patterns. However, theHomo neanderthalensis it was maintained with some modifications until its extinction. Even assuming that symbolism and art were part of the richness of the Neanderthals’ culture, their generalization and expression were simply not comparable to Sapiens.

During the past 100,000 years of contact between these species, the Neanderthal culture undoubtedly seems to be the big winner. This Neanderthal industry, known as Mousterian, has been recorded in European sites with little variation for 300,000 years. In fact, the cultural hybridization that took place in the Near East confirms the relative victory of Neanderthal tool-making methods over Sapiens.

Can we consider this a dominance of one species over another? It is possible that the socio-demographic situation conditioned a cultural response in favor of the Neanderthals, but the flexibility and plasticity of the Sapiens may have been the key to this absorption of the Mousterian at the time when the two species came into contact with a period of about 5,000 years old.

In contrast to the strong territorial sense of the Neanderthals, the Sapiens may have followed their occupation of the same territory with greater mobility, slowly exhausting the traditional resources of the “competing” species.

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A battle was won first

Neanderthals were able to adapt to extreme climate changes and exploit different environments and resources through complex technology.

Perhaps their cultural immobility, combined with the new conditions created by the rare and possibly early arrival of Sapiens in Eurasia, determined their gradual disintegration in favor of Sapiens, who were able to making agile migrations and adapting to the environment with greater flexibility. .

It’s a slow but winning “war”. It is not easy to know whether the last Neanderthal groups were aware of their own extinction and whether they left their traces in isolated forts.

This interspecies conflict results in sex, but apparently with little love. Otherwise, Neanderthal DNA may be more present in the human groups that evolved in Europe.

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* Javier Baena Preysler, catedrático de Prehistoria, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Concepción Torres Navas, postdoctoral investigator Prehistoria, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

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