Two hominids, both alike in dignity / In fair Israel where we lay our scene…
The relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals has always been a topic of debate and has been shown to be violent and fraught with bloodshed, and yet since their discovery it has been found that the two species did in fact interbreed.
Last year the ancient thighbone of a man found in Siberia provided evidence that the cross-species affair began approximately 50 to 60,000 years ago (when previous estimates had ranged from 37,000 to 86,000 years ago) proven by the fact that the DNA found in the bone contained a similar level of Neanderthal genes as current Eurasians (around 1.5 – 2.1%) and a new discovery in Israel has shed even more light upon this topic.
A skull of a woman discovered in a northern Israeli cave in Western Galilee has been able to show the possible location of the first interspecific relations. The braincase was found amongst several other sets of human and animal remains but was by far the oldest, dating to 55,000 years ago, indicating that humans and Neanderthals were living in the same area around the same time.
This was confirmed by Neanderthal remains that were dated to this period in caves not too far from the cave where the skull was uncovered. The dates matched perfectly to the approximation created last year and this is the first time that an area has been found to be inhabited by both species for an extended period of time, providing the perfect opportunity for the romantic spell of interbreeding to begin.
The extinction of Neanderthals is believed to have occurred 40,000 years ago according to analysis of 40 sites in Western Europe, a date much earlier than previous estimates, and there are several theories about the mechanism behind it, providing vastly different endings to this story.
Humans’ responsibility for the death of their cousins is highly possible despite the relatively brief period of coexistence and it ranges from the merging of human and Neanderthal populations through interbreeding, to violent genocide similar in comparison to those suffered by indigenous people all too recently, to merely being unable to compete against humans in a new era of the earth being dominated by climate change.
The potential endings of this story seem to be the ones that are rife upon our bookshelves; change through love, destruction through hate or simply powerlessness against the unforgiving nature of the world.
Photograph: Adam Foster on flickr