The Neanderthal Controversy Heats Up
Posted February 1, 1998
So far as we know, Homo sapiens are the only species that invests time and energy in contemplating the question, "Where did we come from?" According to anthropologists,
Homo erectus, probably one of our direct ancestral species, almost certainly evolved in Africa. But did Homo erectus give rise to Neanderthal and modern Homo sapiens
separately, or did Neanderthal evolve into modern Homo sapiens? The case is far from settled.
The emergence of Homo sapiens is still a mystery in human evolution. A recent comparison between nasal areas of Neanderthal skulls and those of ancient humans
and modern humans showed that Neanderthal anatomy differed significantly from the other skulls. Bones jutting from either side of the nasal openings in the Neanderthal skulls have led
some scientists to suggest that these variations are outside the range expected within the species. They conclude that Neanderthal must be considered a separate species, and suggest
that this finding is a "nuclear explosion" in the controversy. Additional evidence to support their hypothesis is that Neanderthals in the Middle East apparently coexisted with Cro-Magnons
and remained distinct over tens of thousands of years. By 30,000 years ago, Neanderthal fossils disappear from the record in Europe, and modern human fossils become abundant. This leads
many paleoanthropologists to believe that our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals.
Other paleoanthropologists continue to disagree. Maintaining the status quo, these scientists consider the Neanderthal to be a race of Homo sapiens. They emphasize
that all races have distinctive morphological features. According to interpretation, the jutting bones of the Neanderthal nose are only one such variation.
"Neanderthal Noses," Discover, March 1997, p.30.
"Early Hominid Fossils from Africa," Scientific America, June 1997, p. 74.