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Neandertals revised

As the flagship journal of the National Academy of Sciences USA, PNAS publishes several special features each year highlighting topics that are expected to engage the interest of the journal’s broad readership. Archaeologist Wil Roebroeks was invited by the Editors of PNAS to contribute a paper on the Neandertals, for a special issue on Human Origins. That topic is always of great interest and PNAS Special Features are immediately accessible around the world.

Roebroeks teamed up with his Leiden colleague, Marie Soressi, and their Perspective has published today in the Early Edition of PNAS. The paper builds on a recent comparative study (Villa and Roebroeks PLoS ONE 2014) of the archaeological record of Neandertals in Eurasia and their modern human contemporaries in Africa. The new paper also takes in the genetic data now available, clearly demonstrating admixture between modern humans and a variety of archaic hominins. The archaeological data presented by Roebroeks and Soressi falsify inferences to the effect that, compared with their near-modern contemporaries in Africa, Neandertals were outliers in terms of behavioral complexity. It is only around 40,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years after anatomically modern humans first left Africa and thousands of years after documented interbreeding between modern humans, Neandertals and Denisovans, that we see major changes in the archeological record, from western Eurasia to Southeast Asia, e.g., the emergence of representational imagery and the modern human colonization of arctic areas and of greater Australia (Sahul).

While focusing on the archaeological record, the paper also suggests that the genetic evidence for biological compatibility between Neandertals and modern humans is having an impact on the interpretation of the archeological record: those data create accommodation space for the view that the purported behavioral gap between these two groups in the hominin metapopulation was narrower than most palaeoanthropologists would have acknowledged thus far.

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