Top 10 Neandertal Discoveries of 2014

2014 was a big year for Neandertals! Scientific discoveries were announced this year that shed light on Neandertal diet, culture, and  more. In celebration of 2014 coming to a close, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite 2014 Neandertal finds. Not all of the findings are directly about Neandertals, but they all illuminate some aspect of the Neandertal story. I should mention that this list does necessarily mean endorsement. Many of these findings have been, and will continue to be, debated by scientists. However, in my opinion, the findings are worth celebrating nonetheless! Check it out:

1. Neanderthal ‘artwork’ found in Gibraltar cave

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A geometric pattern inscribed on a rock in the back of Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, made us reconsider Neandertal intelligence yet again in 2014. Evidence for art in the archaeological record is often considered evidence of the ability for abstract thought, so this Neandertal inscription has potential implications about how capable Neandertals really were of thinking in abstract ways. Director of the Gibraltar Museum, Neandertal expert, and author of the PNAS paper on this discovery, Clive Finlayson, stated that this find “brings the Neanderthals closer to us, yet again.” Read a summary of the findings here.

2. Neanderthal ancestors in Spain point to “Game of Thrones” era of human prehistory

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Aaah the Sima de los Huesos fossils. The pit of bones continues to excite paleoanthropologists and illuminate the hominin past. A new analysis of 17 skulls from the site in Spain published this year suggest that Neandertals have deep evolutionary roots, and that their distinctive traits evolved piecemeal rather than as a package deal. The fossils date back to a shocking 430,000 years ago. Read a summary of the findings here.

3. Neanderthals and Humans Overlapped for 5,400 Years

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A team that published in Nature this year altered the clock for both Neandertal existence and Neandertal overlapping with modern humans. The team obtained new radiocarbon dates for around 200 samples of bone, charcoal, and shell from 40 European archaeological sites ranging from Russia in the east to Spain in the west. Read a summary of the findings here.

4. 45,000-Year-Old Man Was Human-Neanderthal Mix

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A 45,000 year old bone discovered on the banks of a Siberian river yielded the oldest modern human genome yet this year. The individual appears to have been related to both humans and Neanderthals. A study published in Nature reports that the DNA showed that the two human groups first mated around 60,000 years ago. The project was led by Neandertal expert Chris Stringer. Read a summary of the findings here.

5. 100,000-Year-Old Human Skull with Neanderthal-Like Inner Ear Found in China

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A CT scan on a 100,000 year old early human skull showed a surprising inner ear formation (part of the temporal bone), previously thought to be a solely Neandertal feature. Read a summary of the findings here.

6. Discovery of Neandertal Poop Provides Insight into Neanderthals’ Diet

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Neandertal fecal fossils dating to 50,000 years ago suggest that Neanderthals balanced their meat-heavy diet with plenty of veggies, berries and nuts. Read a summary of the findings here.

7. Pigeon-eating Neanderthals may have been smarter than we thought

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In more news out of Gorham’s cave and Clive Finlayson’s team, they’ve discovered cut marks and teeth marks on the fossilized bones of ancient rock doves. This contradicts scientists’ previous view that Neanderthals did not possess enough skills to catch birds. Read a summary of the findings here.

8. Neanderthals Lived in Small, Isolated Populations, Gene Analysis Shows

From the Neandertal genome expert Svante Paabo, came more news this year about Neandertal genetics. Their recent analysis suggests that Neandertal populations were small and isolated from one another. Read a summary of the findings here.

9. Neanderthals were Good Parents, New Study Finds

A 2014 study reevaluated Neandertal archaeological sites to test the hypothesis that children were an integral part of the symbolic Neandertal society. This paper discusses the implications of burying dad children and caring for sick and injured children in Neandertal culture. Read a summary of the findings here.

10. Early Neanderthal Site Endangered

Researchers in Kent face a race against time to excavate and examine the surviving remains of a 250,000 year old Neandertal archaeological site. Erosion, animal burrows, and plant roots threaten to damage the site. A reminder that sites revealing information about the hominin past are rare and fleeting, and scientists often have limited time to uncover important information. Read a summary of the findings here.

In conclusion:

A couple of things become obvious when glancing over these links, one being that the amount of fun people have with Neandertal headlines. From Game of Thrones references to “Sex with Neandertals” headlines, journalists went to great lengths to get the public’s attention (which is great, if that’s what it takes!).

Another conclusion that can be drawn from this list is that an interesting range of research is currently being explored to understand Neandertals. I’m pretty excited that fossilized fecal remains, CT scans, cave engravings, and new DNA all made the list. It means that scientists are getting creative about what sorts of evidence to look for to answer questions about the hominin past. In conclusion, it’s been a big year, here’s to an even bigger 2015!

Bonus Link: everything you know about the Neandertals is wrong

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