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Neanderthal Females Kicked Ass 14 November 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Gender.
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neanderthal.jpgApparently, a pair of anthropologists at University of Arizona are arguing that Neanderthal women were hunters alongside the males. The evidence is pretty sketchy, but I like the image. In any case, we know that even in our line, Homo sapiens females were far more involved in the day-to-day survival of their (relatively) egalitarian bands pre-history. The anthropologists say the archeological evidence still shows a gender division of labor, but that they think it’s clear that women were also hunters.

Now I’m fine with that idea of las chicas neanderthalas hunting mastodon. What raised an eyebrow, however, was the Boston Globe’s lead into the story, which was that this practice might be what led to the species’ extinction. The demographic issue is obvious: hunting is dangerous, and losing fertile females would be catastrophic to a species’ survival. The problem here is that the species lasted for nearly 150,000 years. A practice so detrimental to the population as losing fertile females to a random tusk here or a stomping furry foot there would have led to a much quicker demise of the population (which coexisted for thousands of years with Homo sapiens in Europe).

In order for that to have been a major factor in Homo sapiens neanderthalis extinction, it would’ve had to have been a recent behavioral innovation. Otherwise, it would’ve led to demographic collapse much earlier. To have lasted 150,000 years with that behavior would have to mean that Neanderthal females kicked some serious ass with a spear.

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Comments

1. wry catcher - 16 November 2007

Mmm, good post. 🙂

2. Todd - 16 November 2007

Do I detect a hint of sarcasm? Lol

3. Rosalind Franklin - 21 November 2007

Oooof. My first reaction is to roll my eyes at that article, but upon further consideration I think it deserves worse than an eye roll for giving much more credence to the hypothesis than it deserves and for general inaccuracies and exaggerations that pepper the story.

I have no problem with the idea that female Neanderthals were hunters, but it is rather unlikely that it contributed to their demise, especially as some of the earliest (pre)Neanderthal remains discovered date to ~400,000 years ago (sorry to correct you on your own blog, but at least it supports your basic argument).

Interestingly, Neanderthals went extinct in the same time that other types of megafauna, including mammoth, cave lion, and cave bear were facing extinction in Europe. It seems much more likely that the same factors that contributed to mass megafaunal extinction also were responsible for the demise of the Neanderthal. Most commonly, a combination of human invasion of Europe and climate change are invoked as explanations.

I also have a problem with the way that they portray Neanderthal genetics. There is new evidence suggesting that Neanderthals may have red-ish hair and pale skin, but no geneticist would take those results and determine that Neanderthals had “flaming red hair.”

I could go on, but I’ll end by expressing my frustration with they way science is communicated to the public through news sources. While some science reporting is quite good, frequently results are sensationalized and misrepresented, which in the end is a disservice to the public and the scientific community.

Ok, off my soapbox. Sorry for barfing on your comment section.

4. Sister Mary Lisa - 23 November 2007

Can I just say I love when Ros gets on her soapbox? 🙂

Nice post, Todd.

5. Todd - 23 November 2007

I wish my brain weren’t such a dilettante. I want to go back to grad school and study human evolution now. *sigh* I’m soooo tired of sociology; just like I was soooo tired of cultural studies 10 years ago.

And yeah, Ros rocks, and I”m glad she agreed with me even though I got the years of european occupation wrong of Neanderthals.

6. Arizona Awakening - 27 November 2007

Makes one think are getting back to equality as genders? In some societies yes but others NO, it’s really sad if you think about like that. Great post.

7. polynesian69 - 16 September 2009

Your blog is well written and you’re cute. 😉


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