Last night we watched the first part of Prehistoric Autopsy which was all about the Neanderthals. This is a three part series presented by Alice Roberts & George McGavin plus a whole team of experts – the format is that they have a “lab” set up with various different experts & they demonstrate some of the research that’s been or is being done about three different human/ancestral species and use this knowledge to build a life-size replica of the species in question. It suffers a little from “staged conversations” syndrome & an almost complete lack of on-screen chemistry between the two primary presenters but other than those two niggles it was a fascinating programme.
So they started by giving us context for Neanderthals – not that long ago by palaeontological standards we weren’t the only human species on the planet. If you go back to ~70,000 years ago there were 4 species as well as Homo sapiens: Homo floresiensis (who died out about 12,000 years ago, which is about the same time as the Chinese were starting to make pottery), Denisova hominin (who I’d never heard of before, wikipedia tells me this is a branch from Neanderthals), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals, died out around 30,000 years ago), Homo erectus (died out around 70,000 years ago). Neanderthals moved out of Africa & lived in Europe, then Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and independently moved into Europe later on.
They then talked us through lots of different evidence for what the Neanderthals looked like & how they lived, whilst at the same time showing us the building of the replica (based on an actual individual skeleton). Lots of fascinating things, quite a lot of stuff I didn’t know before, so I shan’t try & list everything that made me think “ooh, neat” 🙂 I knew that there’d been work that showed we (northern Europeans) are more related to Neanderthals than you might think, but I hadn’t realised that they’d actually sequenced the whole Neanderthal genome. And the data they showed for relatedness was quite impressive – looking at 500 people of West African descent & you see under 2% relatedness to Neanderthals (with a nice normal distribution) and then looking at 500 people of Northern European descent and you see 2-4% relatedness to Neanderthals (again, nice normal distribution that doesn’t overlap the West African one). Looks pretty clear there was interbreeding going on in Europe 30,000 years ago.
Neanderthals also had more culture than one might’ve thought – there’s a painted shell with a hole that looks like where you’d put one if you were making a pendant, that was found in association with Neanderthal remains. There’s also a cave-painting that has had some of the paint dated to ~15,000 years before the first signs of Homo sapiens. They spent some time considering if Neanderthals could talk, too – but that was a little less convincing. They also looked at how Neanderthals hunted, and how they made clothes. You can tell from tools found that they must’ve scraped hides to make them pliable for making clothes, and you can also tell this from the arm bones of the skeleton. You could also tell from the wear on the teeth that they worked the hides with their teeth too.
Oh, and thinking of teeth – one of the really neat bits was that there’s a group that have examined Neanderthal teeth from a skeleton of a young girl, using a synchrotron. The images generated allow them to see and count the growth lines in the teeth – at a resolution of 1 per day. That means they could count up how long the girl had lived since her teeth came in, and instead of the 6 years estimated from the state of the bones it turns out she’d lived for about 3 years. So Neanderthals matured at a much quicker rate than us, and they speculated in the programme that this might be part of why we still exist and are thriving & the Neanderthals aren’t. That we have more time to learn while we grow up, and this makes us more adaptable & gives us an edge in competition.
I could ramble on for longer, but I shall stop there. I’m looking forward to the other two programmes when we get to them & I’d definitely recommend watching this one if you have the chance (and are interested in that sort of thing).
The other programme of the evening was the seventh episode of Wartime Farm – covering 1944. We had carrier pigeon training (because they were extensively used during the war in particular to relay messages during the D-Day landing), POWs being used as farm labour (the expert on this segment was a German chap whose Grandad had been one of those POWs which was a neat touch), the troops gathering pre-D-Day, basket making, flax harvesting. Oh and some terrible German bread – bread was never rationed here, but it was in Germany. And in desperation there were recipes for wartime black bread that were appalling – the one they demonstrated was silage, grass clippings, sawdust, fermented rye (better hope for no ergot!) and honey. It looked a bit like black bread once it had been cooked, and they ate it and said it didn’t taste too bad – but pretty much it was the sort of thing you’d eat if you were reduced to eating grass, this was at least a palatable way to do it.