WU professor connects humans to their Neanderthal ancestors

| Staff Reporter

In a world in which people pride themselves on the virtues of being human, physical anthropology professor Erik Trinkaus aims to unite modern man with the Neanderthal—society’s depiction of the village idiot.

Through ongoing research, Trinkaus hopes to connect man to his evolutionary ancestors and strip Neanderthals of their stereotype as primitive and ignorant beings.

Trinkaus was part of an international team that reexamined the 40,000-year-old Kent’s Cavern fossil in England, the earliest known sign of the modern man in Europe. His findings and theories on the subject were featured in The New York Times, The Scientist and Scientific Computing earlier this month.

His work has already gotten anthropologists to accept that as modern humans spread across Europe, Neanderthals were absorbed into their ranks.

His research chimes in on a century-long debate regarding the transition between Neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe.

“On the surface, this is just a paper more thoroughly diagnosing this scrappy little piece of jaw as a human rather than a Neanderthal,” Trinkaus said. “In fact, it is part of the puzzle of this much bigger picture, and the ultimate question here is not ‘What did this fossil look like and how old is it?’ but…‘How much [more] superior are we than archaic forms of humans? How special are we as modern humans compared to late archaic humans?’”

But it is difficult for the Kent’s Cavern fossil to answer these questions because archaeologists cannot be sure of exactly how old it is—their dating methods have a margin of error of about two millennia.

Due to this uncertainty, archeologists cannot be completely sure of how its age compares with that of another ancient fossil—one of a jaw with three teeth, found in Romania’s Pestera cu Oase (the Cave with Bones), which also dates back to around 40,000 years ago.

Trinkaus said his British colleagues believe the Kent’s Cavern fossil to be the older of the two and that the spread of Neanderthal innovations was caused by their imitation of modern humans.

Trinkaus believes that Neanderthals were smart enough to advance with these innovations on their own.

“I personally would be proud to have a Neanderthal amongst my ancestors,” Trinkaus said. “They were tough; they lived under incredibly difficult circumstances.”

Neanderthals often survived with severe arthritis and other crippling ailments, such as blindness and missing limbs.

Trinkaus noted that he has received numerous responses to his findings, some praising him for his discoveries that stand to ground humans in their evolutionary history.

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