Science: Upgrading Neanderthal Man

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Almost from the moment his bones were first discovered in Germany's Neander Valley a century ago, his name has been synonymous with brutishness: a squat, shambling creature who wooed his women with a club and sometimes ate his fellow men when he was hungry. Scientists have long doubted this harsh popular image of Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthal man. Now, as the evidence accumulates, Neanderthal man is rapidly being rehabilitated into a more attractive ancestor of modern man.

From remains found in Europe, archaeologists have already concluded that Neanderthals were skilled hunters and toolmakers, held formal burial rites that indicated a belief in an afterlife, and even practiced a primitive form of Social Security for their aged and infirm. More recently, paleontological examination of skeletons has suggested that Neanderthal man's stooped appearance may have been the result of disease rather than low evolutionary status. According to this theory, he was plagued by a dietary deficiency of vitamin D. This deficiency was aggravated by the diminished sunlight of the ice age, and eventually caused rickets. Now, the most detailed and sympathetic picture yet of Neanderthal man comes from extensive diggings by an American-led expedition in a mountain cave near the village of Shanidar in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In an article in the current Smithsonian magazine, and in a forthcoming book, Shanidar: The First Flower People (Knopf; $8.95), the expedition's chief archaeologist, Dr. Ralph S. Solecki, reports that at least one of the nine Neanderthal skeletons uncovered in the Shanidar cave was buried with flowers. Another skeleton was that of a man about 40 (equivalent to an age of 80 by modern life-spans) who had been born with a withered right arm. The limb had apparently been amputated above the elbow by a Neanderthal "surgeon." The man's age and physical condition indicated to the scientists that he had been unable to fend for himself. They surmised that his fellows kept him alive until he met his death in an accidental rockfall inside the cave, a common peril for these communal hunters who lived from 100,000 to 40,000 years ago. Comments Anthropologist Carleton S. Coon: "On the grounds of behavior alone, the Shanidar folk merit the title of Homo sapiens."

Chimp or Philosopher. Neanderthals conducted other elaborate rites besides funerals. Clues to one of these were uncovered in Lebanon last summer when an expedition led by Solecki, who is a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, found the dismembered skeleton of a small deer in a cave overlooking the Mediterranean. The 50,000-year-old bones had apparently been arranged in an orderly way and sprinkled with red ocher, a substance used for symbolic purposes by Neanderthal man. Reporting on the discovery last week, Solecki said: "These men were trying to ensure a successful hunt by the ceremonial treatment of one of the animals." In other words, Neanderthal man resorted to a form of hunter's magic.

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