University of Tübingen scientists: ancestors of modern man were more advanced in their development than previously thought

Tooth of a Neanderthal from the excavation site at Payre. © Marie-Hélène Moncel

Tooth of a Neanderthal from the excavation site at Payre. © Marie-Hélène Moncel

Prehistoric humans actively adapted their survival strategies

TÜBINGEN, 01-Dec-2016 — /EuropaWire/ — Scientists from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen discovered that Neanderthals modified their survival strategies even without external influences, such as environmental or climate changes. Using a new method, the team was able to show by means of carbonate isotopy in fossilized teeth that 250,000 years ago, the ancestors of modern man were more advanced in their development than previously thought. The new results are expected to aid in understanding the development of modern humans. The study was recently published in the scientific journal “Quaternary Science Reviews.”

If the climate becomes cooler or warmer, species are forced to adapt their survival strategies – this also holds true for our ancestors, the extinct Neanderthals. “We have now discovered that the Neanderthals were able to advance in their development even in the absence of external influences. Thus, they were more similar to modern humans than we had previously assumed,” explains Professor Dr. Hervé Bocherens of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen.

To this end, an international team around the biogeologist from Tübingen used a new method to examine fossils from the excavation site at Payre in southeastern France. “We examined carbonate from the teeth of several Neanderthal children. The results show that 250,000 years ago, our ancestors already developed different survival strategies – even when the environmental and climatic conditions remained constant.” Carbonate is an essential mineral component of the hard tissue in bones and teeth. Among other things, the isotope composition in the carbonate reflects an organism’s drinking and feeding habits.

In order to gain insights into the environment these young Neanderthals inhabited, Bocherens and his colleagues also examined the isotope composition in the carbonate from herbivorous and carnivorous large mammals. “The carbon and oxygen isotopes of the horses, red deer, rhinoceroses, wolves and hyenas that lived during this time period were stable. We can therefore assume that no changes in the environmental conditions occurred during that time.”

In contrast, the Neanderthal fossils reveal that one group primarily hunted rhinos and horses in the valley, while the other group specialized in hunting red deer on the high plateau. “Around the same time, our ancestors in Schöningen used wooden spears to hunt horses. We can thus recognize three different methods that were used 250,000 years ago to tap into the environmental resources and utilize them. At that time, hominids had reached a point that clearly led to the behavior of modern humans,” adds Bocherens.

The method developed by Bocherens and his colleagues of examining carbonate from fossil tooth enamel harbors a great potential. Based on the collagen in bones, it had only been possible to date to gather information on fossils that are younger than 100,000 years. After this time, bones only very rarely contain any usable collagen. However, in the tooth enamel, carbonate and the information contained therein is preserved significantly longer. “I am very curious to see what other insights this method will reveal regarding older hominid fossils,” offers Bocherens in preview.

Contact

Prof. Dr. Hervé Bocherens
Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeo-environment (HEP)
Eberhard Karls University Tübingen
Phone 07071- 29-76988
herve.bocherens[at]uni-tuebingen.de

Judith Jördens
Press Office
Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Phone 069- 7542 1434
pressestelle[at]senckenberg.de

Publication:

Hervé Bocherens, Marta Díaz-Zorita Bonilla, Camille Daujeard, Paul Fernandes, Jean-Paul Raynal, Marie-Hélène Moncel, Direct isotopic evidence for subsistence variability in Middle Pleistocene Neanderthals (Payre, southeastern France), Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 154, 15 December 2016, Pages 226-236, ISSN 0277-3791, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2016.11.004.

To study and understand nature with its unlimited diversity of living creatures and to preserve and manage it in a sustainable fashion as the basis of life for future generations – that has been the goal of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) for almost 200 years. This integrative “geobiodiversity research” and the dissemination of research and science are among Senckenberg’s primary tasks. Three nature museums in Frankfurt, Görlitz and Dresden display the diversity of life and the earth’s development over millions of years. The Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung is a member of the Leibniz Association. The Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt is supported by the City of Frankfurt am Main as well as numerous other partners. Additional information can be found at www.senckenberg.de.

The University of Tübingen
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SOURCE: University of Tübingen

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen
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