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"Neanderthals on Trial"

PBS Airdate: January 22, 2002
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NARRATOR: Inside this cave, twenty-eight thousand years ago, an epic human story came to an end.

For 200,000 years - more than 10,000 generations - Ice Age Europe belonged to the Neanderthals.

They were pioneers at the northernmost fringe of human territory.

But then things began to change.

There were strangers on the landscape, hunting the game, moving into the caves.

As time passed, their numbers grew while the Neanderthals declined...

...until at last the ancient people of Europe were gone...and the world belonged to modern humans.

For almost thirty thousand years, we forgot about Neanderthals.

We found our way to every corner of the planet and, eventually, into our own distant past.

One hundred fifty years ago, German quarrymen working in the Neander valley made a startling discovery - strange bones, human, perhaps, but not like any living human.

Ever since, the Neanderthals have been on trial.

Were they humans, like us? Or dumb brutes?

Were they our ancestors? Or an evolutionary dead end?

After more than a century of investigation and often bitter debate, we still don't have the answers.

Now, the keepers of the original Neanderthal bones have agreed to try something new.

They're going to sacrifice a piece of the precious skeleton for DNA analysis.

This, they hope, will solve the Neanderthal mystery once and for all.

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NARRATOR: More than 30,000 years ago, not far from this spot in central Germany, a Neanderthal man crawled into a cave and died.

His bones were discovered in 1856, and ever since, people have been asking questions: Who were the Neanderthals? What happened to them? And does any trace of them survive in modern Europeans?

Svante Pääbo is one of the latest in a long line of investigators to look into the case.

He's been entrusted with an important piece of evidence that may, finally, provide some answers.

Pääbo and his colleagues will try to extract DNA from a tiny piece of the original Neanderthal skeleton.

SVANTE PÄÄBO: The big difficulty now, when you want to extract DNA from an ancient bone is of course that the DNA in there is very destroyed and degraded, it may be totally gone. But sometimes there will be short little pieces of it. But there will also be lots of other DNA from bacteria, and say from contemporary archeologists or museum curators, or us, molecular biologists who have touched the specimens.

NARRATOR: They're looking for mitochondrial DNA, a type of genetic material that's found outside the nucleus of the cell and plays no role in determining our physical features.

But it does provide a record of ancestry.

This kind of DNA is inherited only from the mother and is passed intact from generation to generation as lineages diverge.

The only changes that occur are chance mutations that accumulate at a steady and predictable rate.

The number of mutation differences between any two lineages can reveal how far back in time they shared a common ancestor.

After months of painstaking lab work, they finally find what they're looking for.

SVANTE PÄÄBO: When we first found the first Neanderthal sequence, the first sequence that really looked like all our controls were right, we had no contamination, it was of course very, very exciting. It was sort of obvious to us that this was the first time that one ever looked at the DNA sequence that came from a sort of form of human that didn't exist anymore today.

NARRATOR: For comparison, Pääbo looked at almost a thousand mitochondrial DNA sequences from present day populations around the world.

He found that they differed from each other by an average of eight mutations.

But the Neanderthal DNA differed from all of them by an average of 26 mutations.

To accumulate that many differences, Pääbo calculates that the moderns must have shared a common ancestor about 150,000 years ago, but their most recent common ancestor with the Neanderthal would have lived more than 500,000 years ago.

For many anthropologists, Pääbo's study is one more compelling line of evidence that Neanderthals were a side branch of human evolution and not our ancestors.

IAN TATTERSALL: This is basically reinforcing what we know already. The DNA evidence is adding to the database upon which we can form our judgments about the Neanderthals.

NARRATOR: Ian Tattersall, from the American Museum of Natural History, is a paleoanthropologist who takes a hard line on Neanderthals.

He believes that they had Europe to themselves for almost 200,000 years, and then, between 30 and 40 thousand years ago, they were overrun by a new kind of hominid from Africa - Homo sapiens - anatomically modern humans.

He's quite sure that they were different species. It was a complete replacement with no mixing, and Neanderthals contributed nothing to the ancestry of modern Europeans.

IAN TATTERSALL: I would say there's no way that we could have genes that were specifically Neanderthals because we couldn't interbreed with Neanderthals.

I am absolutely convinced that Neanderthals were a separate species from Homo sapiens, because the anatomical differences between the two are so enormous.

NARRATOR: Neanderthals had long skulls with big, projecting faces, low foreheads, heavy browridges, large noses and receding chins.

Some modern humans may have one or two of these features, but no one has the whole package.

IAN TATTERSALL: The structure of the jaws was very, very different. The nature of the teeth was very, very different. Throughout the skeleton, you find a whole package of differences which are quintessentially Neanderthal and very different from modern Homo sapiens.

And that's only part of the argument. The rest of the argument comes from the archaeological record.

NARRATOR: For more than 100 years, excavations in caves and rock shelters throughout Europe have been telling the same story.

In the levels associated with Neanderthals, archaeologists find the same basic tool kit over and over for tens of thousands of years, typified by flaked hand tools. But in the early modern levels they find delicate stone blades, and much more.

There are new kinds of tools in new materials like bone. And there's art, engravings, figurative carvings, and eventually, exquisite paintings on cave walls... all signs of a human psyche steeped in symbolic thought and self awareness.

IAN TATTERSALL: What you're seeing is a set of behaviors which had never been displayed by any other hominids that ever existed, in the history of the world, including the Neanderthals.

That to us is another indication that we're dealing with two species, but there is of course resistance to this notion among some of our colleagues.

ERIK TRINKAUS: We can call Neanderthals a different species, they certainly look different. We can sort them out. If we had one alive today we would say, this is not a modern human. But in terms of saying, are they so different that we wouldn't blend them into our populations for marriages, have offspring and all that sort of stuff, no, they're not that different.

NARRATOR: Erik Trinkaus thinks he has the evidence to back this up.

It came to light when a construction project accidentally exposed a 25,000 year old campsite in the hills north of Lisbon, Portugal.

Archaeologists from the National Museum found bits of charcoal, a few stone tools, and some butchered animal bones.

They called in their boss, João Zilhão, to inspect the site.

JOÃO ZILHÃO: At that time they told me that they also had found a few bones that they thought were human. And when we, we looked at those bones, we recognized immediately that they were indeed human, and that they belonged to a child.

This was a major find. And so we immediately set up a salvage excavation, and in early January we were able to move the skeleton back to the museum for study.

NARRATOR: At the National Museum in Lisbon, work on the skeleton continued through the winter.

Early on, Erik Trinkaus arrived from the U.S. to help with the reconstruction.

ERIK TRINKAUS: When I first saw the skeleton in Lisbon, my impression was that we have an early modern human child.

We reassembled a bunch of the broken bones, took a few notes on them, a few photographs and stuff like that. And all through that I assumed that it was just a strongly built modern kid.

NARRATOR: There was no reason to think anything else. Radio carbon dating showed that the child died 25,000 years ago - 3000 years after the last Neanderthals disappeared from Europe.

But back in the U.S., as Trinkaus studied his notes and photographs, he found something unexpected.

ERIK TRINKAUS: The proportions of the leg bones seemed awfully strange to me. The tibia, the lower leg bone, was proportionately rather short. And I was kind of chewing on this, kind of thinking about it, and then all of a sudden it hit me, my God, it looks like a Neanderthal!

NARRATOR: Neanderthals' lower leg bones are invariably shorter than the thigh - a common feature of populations adapted to cold climates.

ERIK TRINKAUS: Early modern humans in Europe have very long tropical leg proportions, indicating some recent African ancestry. The Neanderthals have very short lower legs, early modern humans have very long lower legs and there's no overlap between the two groups.

NARRATOR: Trinkaus began to find other features that looked more Neanderthal than modern - details of the teeth, the jaw, and the ear region.

ERIK TRINKAUS: And so we started coming up with this strange mosaic of some features that looked Neanderthal like, some that looked modern human like, some that looked a little intermediate.

NARRATOR: The e-mail began to fly.

JOÃO ZILHÃO: No way were we expecting what came out of Eric's analysis. It was a real surprise. We checked and double checked everything because this did not meet the expectation.

NARRATOR: But the closer they looked, the more convinced they became that Trinkaus was right.

JOÃO ZILHÃO: So how do you explain that a modern human child that has some Neanderthal traits? There's only one possibility, and that, that Neanderthals were part of his ancestry.

If there was admixture, that means that moderns mated with Neanderthals, which means that they looked at them as human. If our modern ancestors thought Neanderthals were human, why should we today persist, or, or, insist in saying that they were not?

NARRATOR: Skeptics look at the same skeleton and see no evidence of interbreeding, just a stocky, modern child with short legs.

IAN TATTERSALL: There is absolutely no evidence that I can determine from the anatomy of this child which, admittedly, I have not seen in the, in the original. But none of the evidence that has been presented is convincing to me that this is a hybrid individual.

NARRATOR: But Zilhão thinks the resistance to their discovery reflects a deeper ambivalence about Neanderthals.

JOÃO ZILHÃO: In many ways, Neanderthals have been identified with the things we don't like about being human. You know, the opposition has been between moderns, as the artists, you know, the civilized people, and Neanderthals as the brutish, archetypal cave man, the beast. But this is an opposition that our culture created. The time has come, I think, to, to get rid of this idea, and look at them as our ancestors.

NARRATOR: Reconstructing the story of human evolution has always been as much art as science.

In fact, artists have played a direct role in shaping our perceptions of the ancient past.

Parisian sculptor Elisabeth Daynes is one of the most sought after interpreters of early human ancestors, and especially Neanderthals.

Her work is part of museum displays all over the world.

Each of her figures is based on a cast of a specific individual. She works with physical anthropologists to be sure the anatomy is correct, and then tries to discover the personality.

ELISABETH DAYNES: [translated from French] This little boy is not at all intended to be an archetype of Neanderthal children. He's really an individual person, and I have tried to find his character, his attitude, and bring him to life.

NARRATOR: Most people recognize that the artistic portrayal of ancient ancestors is a subjective process.

But most are not aware that the science behind them is also highly interpretive.

The art of different eras reflects just how unsettled our perception of Neanderthals has been.

For more than 100 years they've been pawns in a scientific battle over where to draw the line between ourselves and our pre-human ancestors.

Milford Wolpoff, from the University of Michigan, is one of the staunchest defenders of Neanderthals.

Where some see separate species, he sees one big human species with a wide range of variation.

He thinks Neanderthals are victims of the same kind of thinking that once consigned some modern humans to subhuman status - more primitive, less intelligent, and less civilized than the European ideal.

MILFORD WOLPOFF: People looked at human races as different evolutionary attempts. Some, always the European race, got far in the process of evolution, others didn't get very far at all. So Neanderthals fit into this picture of different kinds of human beings, some more human than others, all sort of competing with each other, and the competition led to the best surviving, the fittest surviving in the evolutionary terms and then the others died out.

NARRATOR: Early in the 20th century, the respected French anatomist, Marcellin Boule, expelled Neanderthals from the human family altogether.

Boule was Director of the Institute of Human Paleontology in Paris, and he believed that Neanderthals were too primitive to be the ancestors of modern Europeans.

In 1908, he came into possession of the most complete Neanderthal skeleton yet found. The bones looked freakish and deformed.

Either he didn't notice or he ignored the fact that it was the skeleton of an old man distorted by arthritis.

MILFORD WOLPOFF: When he saw this skeleton with all of its strange features, he couldn't fit this into a human idea, a human paradigm, and so he called it another species.

It fit in his whole idea of biology that organisms differed by type, not by range, not by variation, not by adaptation, but by essential type. And so he found it easy to consider Neanderthal, an essentially different type of thing than any human beings are. Once he reached that conclusion, it was a small step to say it's a more primitive thing. It's more ape-like.

NARRATOR: In an illustration he approved, Boule made his judgement perfectly clear: the Neanderthal was a beast... a splayed foot, long-armed, slack-jawed apeman, not even able to stand up straight... an evolutionary failure.

It was an image that stuck for the next 50 years.

But after WWII, the tide turned.

In the era of civil rights, a new generation of anthropologists rejected racial type casting as a way of understanding human variation, and some began to question whether Neanderthals were really all that different.

They were also wary of judging the capabilities of people based on their physical features.

Attention turned from Neanderthal anatomy to behavior.

In the 1950's and 60's, evidence from a site called Shanidar, in Iraq, put Neanderthals in an entirely new light.

ERIK TRINKAUS: The Shanidar fossils show a very high frequency of injuries, healed injuries of all different kinds. The most extreme example of this is this arm bone from Shanidar I. It's an upper arm bone that's withered, has a healed fracture here, a healed over amputation just above the elbow.

This is the bone from an arm stump that this individual lived with for 20 or 30 years. And what that says is that these people were taking care of their injured kin. They were taking care of people who had serious injuries so they could survive them and continue to be functional members of the social group for many years. Ah, it was a dangerous lifestyle, but they were compassionate, they were caring, they were human.

NARRATOR: Even more powerful, was the evidence of a burial at Shanidar with flower pollen in the grave, an image that completed the humanization of Neanderthals.

HAROLD DIBBLE: The big word is compassion. They were able to show compassion on the part of Neanderthals. You've got a flower burial. That's a, that's a very compassionate act. And then you've got this got this individual with a withered arm that wasn't able to fend for himself, therefore the clan is, is coming around him and supporting him and so forth. I mean it just fit everything that, that movement at the time, in the '60s and the '70s was looking for.

NARRATOR: Recast as Stone Age flower people, Neanderthals were welcomed back in the family as direct, European ancestors just a few evolutionary steps away from becoming modern humans.

But their new status didn't last long. Within a few years they were back on trial, once again.

Since the 1980's, genetic studies have consistently found that all people living in the world today are descendants of a small population that first arose in Africa about 150,000 years ago, when the Neanderthals were already in Europe.

Fossil evidence seems to point in the same direction, showing a trail of modern anatomy moving out of Africa and into the Middle East by about 100,000 years ago.

So it appears that Neanderthals and moderns evolved independently of each other, at least for a while.

But what happened when they met is not so clear.

IAN TATTERSALL: What happens in Europe is you have the replacement of one kind of hominid by a new kind of hominid. We couldn't interbreed with Neanderthals because we were different species. We couldn't meaningfully exchange genes.

MILFORD WOLPOFF: I will say that no matter how different human beings are, when human populations come into contact, they may trade, they may fight, they may ignore each other, or they may merge, but the one thing they always do is interbreed.

NARRATOR: Some believe the DNA has settled the issue, but geneticist Svante Pääbo warns against jumping to conclusions.

SVANTE PÄÄBO: Something that I feel a bit bad is that our results have often been depicted as the Neanderthals are totally different from us, and there have been no connection, no interbreeding and so on. From our data there's no positive evidence of interbreeding. But that does not mean that we can exclude interbreeding. We will never know something about sexual practices in the Pleistocene. We only know that they did not contribute this part of our genome to us.

NARRATOR: So the debate goes on, from questions of kinship to the very nature of Neanderthals. Did they have language? Could they think and reason and plan ahead? How human were they?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but there are a lot of opinions.

HAROLD DIBBLE: Well, basically there are two kinds of people. You've got the people who look at Neanderthals as being smart, and you've got the people who look at Neanderthals as being dumb. And this has created quite a polarization in the field right now. The dumb Neanderthal people tend to look at their behavior as being primitive and much different from ours. They couldn't speak. They couldn't even really think like we do. Different species, of course. Smart Neanderthal people, these are the ones you could dress up and send to Harvard or Yale and they'd fit right in. They were, maybe a primitive technology, but still a human technology. Primitive language, but still very much a human language with human culture and stuff like that. And they've set up these two kinds of, of opposite extremes and that's where the argument is. There's very little room in the middle.

NARRATOR: After all this time, why is our picture of Neanderthals so unclear?

We have hundreds of thousands of their stone tools and artifacts.

We have the fossil remains of perhaps 400 individuals.

Generations of scholars have studied this evidence in every conceivable detail.

But there's very little consensus about what it all means.

HAROLD DIBBLE: We're dealing in a situation where we don't really understand the kind of evidence we've got. It's like talking about astronomy versus astrology. You know, we look at the stars and you're wondering, what effect do the stars have on our lives? So we map out the constellations and we try to see patterns and how it may affect personalities and what not. But after a while it becomes clear that what you have to do is ask boring questions, like, what is light?

The same here with the stone tools and the different fossils. We want to ask big questions about them, but until we start to know what that evidence is, what it really means, we're just making up stories.

NARRATOR: For instance, most arguments about possible kinship between Neanderthals and moderns are based on features of the skull, but they often end in a stalemate over which features are valid evidence.

What's really needed, some say, is a better understanding of the skull, itself.

DANIEL LIEBERMAN: We delude ourselves into believing that the variations that we can measure, those bumps, those grooves, those little nodules coming out of a skull, that those actually give us information that answer the questions we're asking in the first place. And, and they may not.

I'll give you an example. This is a Neanderthal. It's a classic Neanderthal about 60,000 years old, from France. It's got a big, huge projecting face and a big brow ridge. And it's got a projecting back of its skull. It's called an occipital bun. It's like somebody took their fist and punched out the inside of its brain case. And here's an early modern human from Europe, about 30,000 years old.

And he's obviously not the same as a Neanderthal, his face is a lot smaller, and it's underneath the brain case a lot more. But it still has pretty big brow ridges, and it's also got somewhat of an occipital bun. So the question is, are the large browridges and the occipital bun on this fellow inherited from, from the Neanderthal? Are these things the same or do they just look the same?

NARRATOR: Lieberman and colleagues Dennis Bramble and Brian Richmond, want to find out what purpose an occipital bun might have served in the first place.

They suspect it might have something to do with the bio-mechanics of running.

DANIEL LIEBERMAN: When you and I go running, every time our foot hits the ground our head has a tendency to jolt forward. And we have to hold our heads steady, otherwise we wouldn't be able to see very well when we ran.

NARRATOR: They've wired Brian so they can see how his neck muscles work to keep his head steady.

But what if the runner was a Neanderthal?

DANIEL LIEBERMAN : OK, Brian, time to give you some brow ridges.

NARRATOR: To find out, they've rigged a mask with weights to simulate the heavy Neanderthal face.

DANIEL LIEBERMAN: You look marvelous. OK, good to go.

NARRATOR: It looks like the Neanderthal would have faced special problems as a runner.

DANIEL LIEBERMAN: It's pretty interesting. What we saw is that when you run with a human face, without the face mask, there are a lot of vertical accelerations once you break into a run, but the face doesn't accelerate much in the horizontal plane. But as soon as you put that mask on you move the center of gravity forward and have to make those neck muscles work harder. All of a sudden you get huge horizontal accelerations.

NARRATOR: Unchecked, this kind of motion would impair the runner's vision and balance.

Lieberman suspects that the Neanderthal's occipital bun evolved to solve the problem, by counterbalancing the large, heavy face.

But if that's the case, why would the modern human have a bun?

DANIEL LIEBERMAN: It turns out that there are lots of human populations that have occipital buns. Some of these early modern Europeans have them and there are some recent people in Europe who have them. If you're a Lapp or a Finn, you're more likely to have the occipital bun. But bushmen from South Africa often have occipital buns. And Australian aborigines often have occipital buns.

But in all cases, these are populations that have very narrow skulls and very big brains. And that's because the brain has to grow on the skull base. And if the skull base is narrow the brain can only go up, to the side to some extent, but also backwards. And it works perfectly. People with narrow heads and big brains are much more likely to have occipital buns.

NARRATOR: If Lieberman is right, the occipital buns in Neanderthals evolved for different reasons than those in moderns, which means they would provide no evidence, one way or the other, about ancestry.

In this kind of detective work, eliminating false leads is half the battle.

DANIEL LIEBERMAN: This experiment is not going to be a smoking gun. Any experiment is not going to be a smoking gun. Any bit of morphology is not going to be a smoking gun. And that's because skulls are really complex. And there's no way we're going to get any simple answers from such a dynamic, complex system. But the more we understand about how skulls grow, the more we understand about how skulls function, the better we will be at teasing apart the complex information that we get.

NARRATOR: Archaeological sites can also be deceptive, tempting investigators to find the evidence they're looking for, whether it's there or not.

HAROLD DIBBLE: I think every archaeologist would love to find a Pompeii that preserves perfectly where people were eating, sleeping, preparing the food, and so forth. Because you could reconstruct so much about the prehistoric life. And it's amazing right now how many people have sites like that.

I think that the odds of finding as many Pompeii's as we have claims for, are about zero.

NARRATOR: A classic case of wishful thinking happened 50 years ago in southwestern France at a place called Fontéchevade.

Archaeologist Germaine Henri-Martin spent 20 years of her life excavating what was then considered one of the most important sites in Europe.

Shannon McPherron and Harold Dibble have been trying to unravel what really happened in this cave.

HAROLD DIBBLE: So this is the site of Fontéchevade where Germaine worked for a number of years just before the war and just after the war, up until about 1954. When she first got here the site was practically all the way filled. In fact, you'd have to crawl in the cave at that time.

SHANNON MCPHERRON: The cave has a deep sequence. When she first started excavating at the top, the first layers that she came across were the Aurignacian. That's the time of anatomically modern humans. Under that she encountered a Mousterian level. That's the period of Neanderthals. And then below that we get into the Tayacian.

HAROLD DIBBLE: The Tayacian is really the most important industry for this cave. And because it occurs below the Mousterian, is therefore older than the Mousterian. And it's in this layer then, that she found these human skull fragments that, that look relatively modern.

NARRATOR: A modern looking skull older than Neanderthals was the holy grail of French archaeology.

When Marcellin Boule expelled Neanderthals from the human family back in 1908, he predicted that the true lineage leading to modern man would reach back deep in time, bypassing Neanderthals altogether.

ERIK TRINKAUS: They really wanted to see what was special about modern humans as having a tremendous antiquity. And you couldn't have a great antiquity to the specialness of modern humans and still have the Neanderthals part of our ancestry. They had to be divergent, they had to be different, they had to be not us.

NARRATOR: The new director of the Institute of Human Paleontology was Henri Vallois, and to his eyes the skullcap from Fontéchevade was just what Boule had predicted.

It was older than Neanderthals and yet lightly built and lacking browridges, so it looked more modern, like a true human ancestor should.

Germaine was encouraged to keep digging, and flesh out the home life of the earliest Frenchman with archaeological evidence.

HAROLD DIBBLE: Germaine had a very nice, neat interpretation, that is, of people coming in here and living here and doing everything you would expect at an occupation site. The site is full of flint, for example, that's coming right out of the limestone. So she had them coming in, getting flint here, working it, making it into tools and so forth. She had hearths throughout the site where, of course, you'd interpret those as places where people were eating or cooking things. She had the animal bones which represented their prey and so forth. She had the hominids themselves. So you've got everything you need really to have an, an interpretation of a nice living occupation.

SHANNON MCPHERRON: It was a nice neat picture -

HAROLD DIBBLE: Right.

SHANNON MCPHERRON: - in the 1950s. It all looked good.

NARRATOR: But as the years passed, nothing like the Fontéchevade skull was ever found again. Some scholars grew suspicious.

One of them was Erik Trinkaus, a young graduate student in the 1970's.

ERIK TRINKAUS: As I started looking at it closely, I became extremely dubious as to any particularly modern features that were present on it. It had been described as lacking a brow ridge. Well, it completely lacks a brow ridge. That portion was broken off. The impression I increasingly got was that what we have here is just simply a good Neanderthal ancestor, an archaic human, and that any modern features here were purely in the eye of the beholder.

NARRATOR: So much for the fossil.

But what about the detailed archaeological picture of the Tayacian culture?

Dibble and McPherron decided to re-examine the site.

With the help of a digital mapping system like the one in use here at a different site, they set about analyzing how the archaeological deposit was formed in the first place.

SHANNON MCPHERRON: One of the more important lines of evidence for us is the exact location of every object we find. And by that I mean every splinter of bone, every flake, every stone tool. Now, there's a lot of them, and the measurements have to be taken precisely, so the way we do that is with a laser theodolite.

NARRATOR: The laser system records the position of each object before it's removed from the ground.

Over five years, excavating a previously untouched portion of the Fontéchevade site, they collected data on thousands of stone objects and animal bones.

Then came the analysis, back at the University of Pennsylvania.

First, the Tayacian stone tools. Germaine recognized that they were primitive, but that was to be expected, she thought, since they were even older than Neanderthals.

HAROLD DIBBLE: The question is whether these are manmade tools at all. When we look at a manmade tool we see certain features like a sharpened edge, a regular modification of an edge, and so forth, and these pieces just don't have any of that. What they really look like are naturally broken rocks.

NARRATOR: The animal bones were a problem, too. They showed no signs of butchering by humans, but appear to have been the work of hyenas or lions.

But the real clincher was the computer mapping of the artifacts that were found in the cave.

HAROLD DIBBLE: What we're looking at here is a plan view of the artifacts as they were lying in the ground. Now it looks kind of like a jumble here in terms of their orientations. But when we analyze this statistically what we find are that a lot of them are either oriented parallel to the cave or perpendicular.

NARRATOR: In fact, more than half the objects are oriented this way.

HAROLD DIBBLE: Now this is not the kind of thing you'd see if people were living here and dropping artifacts randomly on the surface. Rather what this strongly suggests is that water was washing these artifacts into the site.

SHANNON MCPHERRON: Because if you're an object in a stream you either turn sideways and roll with the flow, or you turn perpendicular to the flow and let it slip past you. And that's what we seem to have here.

NARRATOR: At the back of the cave they found the source of the water: a narrow passage to the ground above that worked like a drain, washing in debris from the outside.

So it appears that Fontéchevade was an elaborate illusion and not a human habitation site at all.

What made it look real to the archaeologists was an overwhelming desire to see the past in a certain way.

The urge to distance ourselves from Neanderthals or to pull them closer to us is a surprisingly powerful force.

Archaeologists Jean Philippe Rigaud and Jan Simek are well aware of the problem.

JAN SIMEK: I think that we're as guilty of it today, of that kind of preconceived approach to our data, as anybody has been in the history of archaeology or anthropology. It's almost inevitable that our own views of the world will be brought to bear.

NARRATOR: Simek and Rigaud have been excavating a site called Grotte XVI - Cave 16 - in southwestern France since the early 1980's.

One of their most interesting discoveries is evidence of Neanderthal fireplaces with hints of some unexpectedly sophisticated behavior.

JAN SIMEK: Neanderthal fire use has been something that's sort of been debated in archeology for a very long period of time. I don't think anybody's questioned that they made fires, that they knew how to use fires for heat and light, maybe even cooking their food, but we have some reason to believe that they were doing a little bit more.

These fireplaces are so well preserved that in some levels we can actually still see the remains of the material being burnt. That white and pink level that you see back there- that's actually pure ash, the organic remains of the fire. The black layer is carbon, and in those carbon layers there's actually remnants of the material they burned. We know, for example, that they burned several different kinds of wood: juniper, pine, among others.

They also burned significant numbers of grasses, and grasses is kind of peculiar to us because they had to bring it in from outside the cave, dry it, and then use it to start their fires. There's enough in there that suggests that maybe they were using the grass for maybe a little bit more, perhaps generating smoke to drive off mosquitoes, to prepare the site for habitation.

Another characteristic of this level is we find lots and lots of fish bones. And it may be that that smoke was part of a process of preserving the fish for use later.

NARRATOR: The idea of Neanderthals using smoke to preserve fish is bound to be controversial.

Many scientists believe Neanderthals lacked the mental capacity to plan ahead, or even to imagine the future.

But what we see often depends on whether we're looking for similarities or differences between Neanderthals and us.

JAN SIMEK: Some anthropologists seek the differences. They look for the cultural and biological differences that go together, that will allow them to say that this is a different species or that this is a different race than we are today.

On the other hand, we're creatures of the '60s, when we were trying very hard to overcome the antiquated view of human variability, and we bring that into play in our work. To a certain extent my desire to see Neanderthals as similar is at least partially based in my view to see everybody as similar, and that's the way that I grew up. I'm not sure that any of us can divorce ourselves from our own political-social views of how the world works.

NARRATOR: How scientists interpret the past often comes down to how they make sense of variation - differences in anatomy, or the way people behaved, or the tools that they made.

They organize the evidence and look for patterns. But as many have discovered, patterns can be misleading.

HAROLD DIBBLE: Whenever you've got a lot of variability, whether it's in stone tools, fossils, whatever, you've got to figure out some way of dealing with it. And how we do that is with classifications. We devise typologies. So dealing with these pencils here, I'll put together a typology. I'll take pencils that look alike. That's the basis of types.

I'll take these guys over here. We can take these pencils, put them in a group over here, they all look alike. There's a whole process involved in this. You've got to be skilled to be able to do this right.

And I've got some in the middle, look at that, some nice, sort of medium sized pencils. We can quibble a little bit. Maybe that guy goes over there. There are some issues, I suppose. But now we set up the situation that a lot of people get themselves into, and that is, why do we have these different types? Of course they forget that they created them in the first place.

And instead we start thinking of them as real things, real different species, different artifact types, this kind of problem. And what we really could be looking at is just simply a continuum of variation among them like that.

NARRATOR: For decades archaeologists have searched for meaning in the types of tools found at different Neanderthal sites.

Dibble thinks a lot of time has been lost arguing about meaning that isn't really there.

HAROLD DIBBLE: A Neanderthal comes along and says, I want a scraper, so he rummages through the stuff... picks up a nice flake, retouches the side of it, got a nice scraper edge going there. We could interpret that as a scraper. We can talk about the scraper people who came there. Or we could talk about people who use scrapers for scraping hides, or scraping whatever, scraping wood. But the trouble is a day later, a year later, a century later, somebody else can come up there and say well, this edge is getting dull. Sure we can reach down and pick up another piece and start from scratch. Or we could just take that very same piece and say, OK, I want a scraper, I'll retouch the other side. We retouch the other side. We've got a scraper now here. We've got a scraper here. We've changed the type! We've got now what's called a convex, because of this edge, straight double scraper, in the typology. And we'll argue about whether that means different people, different functions, were they scraping two hides at once? What are they doing?

And that can continue and continue. We can retouch it more. We could, we can basically transform this single flake into every single one of the types that are recognized in the Middle Paleolithic. Now that, to me, complicates things. Because we're arguing about the meaning of those types and failing to take into account the fact that it can be as simple as, how much time were they spending reusing their tools?

NARRATOR: This insight made Dibble take a fresh look at Neanderthal tools.

His colleague, geologist Alain Turq, tracks down the sources of raw material used for tools found at different Neanderthal sites.

The material of choice is flint, a type of rock that can be fractured to produce a razor sharp edge.

Comparing Turq's data with his own, Dibble made an interesting discovery.

It appears that Neanderthals rarely traveled more than a few miles to collect flint.

When a lot of raw material is available near a particular site, there's little evidence of resharpening.

But when the source is farther away, tools are recycled down to nothing.

Modern humans traveled long distances to get premium flint - a fact often cited as evidence of their superior minds, shaping the world to their own ends.

HAROLD DIBBLE: You don't see that in Neanderthals. But to make use of your local resources seems to me to be very smart. I think wandering 100 kilometers out of your way to get a flint that works a little bit better than what you've got locally, I would wonder how smart that is. If you're trying to get by on what you've got, and you're willing to get by on what you've got, and it represents a stable adaptation, why would you do anything different?

NARRATOR: Perhaps we've been missing the point with Neanderthals, judging them by our standards of what it means to be human, instead of trying to understand them on their own terms as people who accepted the world as they found it.

HAROLD DIBBLE: They may be different from us but that doesn't make them inferior to us. They could have a different kind of adaptation. All of anthropology today, in fact, is concerned with human diversity and how people adapt.

Why don't we try focusing in on what a different kind of adaptation could have been? That to me is interesting. To me it's very interesting, the idea that you could have a human adaptation that's extinct, that isn't seen today. That's fascinating. And to try to reconstruct it. Fascinating. We really have to understand our evidence, we really have to try to reason it out. Because we don't know what it is yet.

NARRATOR: This will never be an exact science.

No matter how many clues are uncovered, there will always be different ways to interpret them.

But investigators still hope to learn the truth about Neanderthals.

ERIK TRINKAUS: Yes, there's objective reality ultimately down there. But the problem is digging through our preconceptions to get at that objective reality to figure out what happened. And I think we're getting there, but we're not there yet.

NARRATOR: What we do know is that Neanderthals did not survive.

And as with every other issue surrounding them, that means different things to different people.

IAN TATTERSALL: I think the writing was on the wall as soon as modern humans appeared. Homo sapiens has a genius for eliminating species from the environment around it. And this is, of course, one of our hallmarks.

ERIK TRINKAUS: What I suspect happened is that those early modern humans were much more numerous than the Neanderthals were. And so as they absorbed Neanderthals into their populations the Neanderthals were, in a sense, swamped out, their descendents, their genes were, in a sense, swamped out. So we see very little evidence of the Neanderthals in those subsequent populations.

MILFORD WOLPOFF: All populations become extinct. They either die out or they merge with other populations they might encounter. There were many Neanderthal populations, and I'm sure some of them merged and some of them died out just like everybody else.

HAROLD DIBBLE: I would say 200,000 years of stable adaptation is pretty good. We certainly haven't been around that long yet. And I think there's a lot of people who don't think we will be around.

NARRATOR If Neanderthals had survived, what would they be like today? With another 30,000 years of cultural evolution, how would we perceive them, and how would they perceive us?

We can only wonder.

On NOVA's Website, compare two famous ancient skulls from every angle and see if you can find the key differences between the Neanderthal and the Cro-Magnon, on PBS.org, or America Online Keyword, PBS.

To order this show or any other NOVA program, for $19.95, plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

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PRODUCTION CREDITS

Neanderthals on Trial

Narrated by
Joe Morton

Written, Produced and Directed by
Mark J. Davis

Co-produced by
Mark J. Davis
Nathan Hendrie

Editor
Nathan Hendrie

Director of Photography
Brian Dowley

Music
Tom Phillips

Field Producer
Kate Churchill

Neanderthal Reconstructions
Atelier Daynes, Paris

Additional Neanderthal Model
Karen Harvey

Animation
Schwartz/Giunta Production Co.
Jed Schwartz
Jason Simmons
Ryan Gillespie
Larry Giunta

Sound Recordists
Ron Garson
John Gooch
Günther Tuppinger
Jean-Cristophe Caron

Translation Voice-over
Chlöe Leamon

Assistant Camera/Dolly Grip
Françoise Noyon
Matthieu Bastid
Benoit Féréol
Michael Kaufmann
Jim Ball
Dan Cook
Alisa Colley

Additional Camera
Chris Hooke

Online Editor
Ed Ham

Colorist
Mark Kueper

Research
Marie Soressi
Erina White

Archival Material & Illustration
Musée de l'Homme
Centre National de Préhistoire
American Museum of Natural History
Neanderthal Museum
Ralph Solecki
Gunma Museum of Natural History
Jay Matternes
Illustrated London News
Jiri Hochman

Special Thanks
Janet Monge
Jakov Radovcic
Maria Teschler
Vienna Museum of Natural History
Croatian Natural History Museum
U. Penn. Museum of Archaeology
Institut de Paléontologie Humaine
University of Utah

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Audio Mix
Richard Bock

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Publicity
Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton
Katie Kemple

Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Unit Managers
Sarah Goldman
Jessica Maher
Sharon Winsett

Paralegal
Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Business Manager
Laurie Cahalane

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editors
David Eells
Rebecca Nieto

Supervising Producer
Lisa D'Angelo

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by MDTV Productions, Inc. for WGBH/Boston.

© 2001 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

 

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