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Study Suggests Neandertal Lifestyle Necessitated Skilled Foraging

Before you attempt to insult someone by calling him a Neandertal, consider this: these extinct hominids may have been a lot more like us than is commonly portrayed. Indeed, in recent years, a growing body of evidence has emerged in support of a savvier Neandertal. Research results described in this month's issue of the Journal of Human Evolution may add weight to that view. The new findings suggest that in terms of procuring food, these archaic Europeans would have held their own among modern hunter-gatherers.

Analyses of Neandertal skeletons suggest that they were highly active compared with modern humans, which would imply that they had high energy requirements. Yet some scholars have posited that anatomically modern humans were able to replace Neandertals in part because of the latter group's limited foraging efficiency. To address these conflicting assertions, William R. Leonard and Mark V. Sorensen of Northwestern University first decided to determine Neandertal energy requirements, using fossil-based body weight estimates and inferred activity levels, and foraging levels among living nonhuman primates and human hunter-gatherers to guide their estimates. Next they estimated the foraging efficiencies necessary to meet those Neandertal energy requirements and compared them with those observed among living human foragers. An active Neandertal lifestyle, the authors determined, "would have necessitated foraging return rates comparable to modern hunter-gatherers."

"The persistence of Neandertal populations for tens of thousands of years in environs comparable to modern arctic and subarctic ecosystems suggests that they possessed an effective foraging regime that was able to sustain elevated metabolic requirements," Leonard and Sorensen write. Thus, if the Neandertals were replaced by anatomically modern humans (as opposed to mixing with them or evolving into them) it wasn't because they were inferior foragers. Rather, the authors suggest, cultural modifications such as improved clothing and shelter may have given moderns the evolutionary edge by reducing the metabolic costs of daily survival, which could have allowed them to allocate more energy to reproduction.

The article "Who Were the Neandertals?" by Kate Wong (Scientific American, April 2000) is available for purchase at the Scientific American Archive.
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