Kate Wong on Neandertal twilight

Kate Wong’s cover story in the current Scientific American, “The Mysterious Downfall of the Neandertals”, is also available online. It’s a great pleasure to be able to link to it. Here’s a random paragraph I liked:

More evidence blurring the line between Neandertal and modern human behavior has come from the site of Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany. There paleoanthropologist Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College was able to compare artifacts made by Neandertals who inhabited the cave between 36,000 and 40,000 years ago with artifacts from modern humans who resided there between 33,000 and 36,000 years ago under similar climate and environmental conditions. In a presentation given this past April to the Paleoanthropology Society in Chicago, Hardy reported that his analysis of the wear patterns on the tools and the residues from substances with which the tools came into contact revealed that although the modern humans created a larger variety of tools than did the Neandertals, the groups engaged in mostly the same activities at Hohle Fels.

It’s amazing to read through Wong’s story and realize the vast number of hypotheses there are about Neandertal behavior, energetics and life history. Many of them boil down to the same old story, Neandertal equals stupid, but not all. Much of the science is actually new – finding new ways to get information out of old fossils. The most obvious example is genetic sequencing, but there are many others – from CT scans of the insides of Neandertal teeth to Hardy’s analysis of residues on stone tools.

Oh, am I the only one who saw the print title, “Twilight of the Neandertals” and thought of teenage Neandertal vampires? Just asking…