November 26, 2018
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This is an abridged version of the original story published in the Alumni Bulletin. Read the full article here.
Bruce Hardy knows his way around a prehistoric stone scraper as well as a state-of-the-art digital microscope — and both are key tools in his research on humanity’s mysterious, often maligned cousins, the Neanderthals.
The Kenyon professor of anthropology is one of perhaps a hundred researchers worldwide who, working with scant evidence from archaeological sites mainly in Europe, try to deduce how the Neanderthals lived and why they vanished around 35,000 years ago, when modern humans appeared on the continent. Hardy himself has emerged as a leading expert in the painstaking technique of analyzing microscopic residues on stone tools.
It’s highly significant work. Based on residue analysis along with the wear patterns on tools, he and his collaborators have shown that Neanderthals — long considered slow-witted hunters who couldn’t do much more than bring down big game — were, in fact, skilled, adaptable foragers who likely had the ability to capture fish, birds and rabbits, who ate plants as well as meat, who worked with wood, and who may well have known how to make string, opening the possibility that they had snares, nets and traps.
For Hardy, the questions surrounding Neanderthals have provided not only an endlessly fascinating research agenda but also a field for passionate advocacy. The persistent image of Neanderthals as clumsy “losers” in the evolutionary game, he feels, offers a widely relevant lesson in one of the nastier aspects of human nature.
“Neanderthals are kind of the ultimate other,” Hardy said. In his view, too many scientists have ignored, distorted or simply failed to look for evidence that would undercut their assumption of modern humans’ superiority. It’s the kind of close-mindedness, he contends, that “plays out over and over again in prejudice and discrimination” through human history. Caricatures of Neanderthals, for example, unnervingly resemble the stereotypes of African Americans that justified slavery and lasted well into the 20th century.
The Neanderthals were shorter and stockier than modern humans, with large eye sockets, big noses and larger craniums: Their brains were just as large as ours, often larger. They share more than 99.5 percent of their DNA with modern humans. And while some scientists consider them a distinct species — Homo neanderthalensis — others point to evidence of interbreeding, with fertile offspring, making them a subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
Hardy devotes most of his research to residue analysis. In this area, “Bruce is a leading figure,” wrote his Kenyon anthropology colleague Edward Schortman, “and the results he has produced are truly astounding.”
Few people have expertise in residue analysis because, as Hardy said, “you have to know the microscopic anatomy of a whole bunch of different plants and animals, roots and tubers; you’ve got to know how to identify hair and feathers and fish scales.” He studied for a summer in Australia under Thomas Loy, a pioneer in the field (who died in 2005), and then continued to experiment and learn on his own.
Part of the learning process is play of a sort: You use facsimile stone tools as a Neanderthal might, see what the residues look like and compare them to what appears on tools from actual prehistoric sites. Hardy has worked with Kenyon student researchers to “build up a larger comparative collection of modern material that I can then look for archaeologically,” he said.
This past summer, Clay Whiteheart ’18 worked with Hardy as a summer science scholar, investigating the possibility that Neanderthals could have made more complex clothing by “sewing” with perishable materials like thorns. The research goes to a vital issue: Sewn clothing, as opposed to draped fur, is considered essential for thermal regulation and thus survival, so if the Neanderthals couldn’t sew clothing (because they didn’t make bone needles), how did they survive for 200,000 years?
How indeed? And why did they become extinct? Theories on the group’s disappearance abound. Maybe modern humans occupied the same niche and outcompeted them, or introduced diseases that the Neanderthals couldn’t handle. Maybe climate change killed them off.
Dissatisfied with single-cause explanations, Hardy surmises that multiple factors played a role. “You can have something relatively benign, like a slight difference in fertility over time. Modern humans are having more kids and you get demographic swamping; one out-populates the other.”
But the shared DNA and evidence for interbreeding suggests something else. “At some level, we’re not really talking about an extinction,” Hardy said. “We’re talking about an assimilation, where part of the Neanderthal genome is brought into the modern human.”
The ultimate other may not be so different after all.Read the Original Post