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Julien Riel-Salvatore at Café Sci2

So Easy a Caveman Could Do It:
Neanderthals innovated independent of modern humans

Monday 6 December 2010, 6:30 PM, at Brooklyn's


About the topic

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Julien Riel-Salvatore is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver. He was born in Montréal, Canada, earning his BA (first class honors) from McGill University there before attending Arizona State University where he received his PhD in 2007. Following this, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for two years at McGill University, where he also lectured in the Department of Anthropology. In 2009, he moved to his current position at UC Denver, from where he continues his research on Neanderthals and the Paleolithic archaeology of Italy.

His research focuses on Neanderthals and the earliest Homo sapiens settlement of Europe. He has conducted fieldwork in Spain, South Africa, Ethiopia and the US Southwest, but since 2003 his research has taken place mostly in Italy, a country whose distinctive geography makes it a unique archaeological laboratory to study larger processes, such as the disappearance of Neanderthals. His research showing that Neanderthals were able to innovate independently of Homo sapiens influence has recently been featured in the New York Times, the BBC and the Washington Post, in addition to being published in scientific journals including the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Current Anthropology and American Antiquity. Since 2008, with several Italian colleagues, he has also been directing a large-scale international collaborative excavation project at the Caverna delle Arene Candide in northern Italy, where prehistoric art and early modern human levels have recently been identified. Every year, this ongoing project provides students and volunteers with the opportunity to experience archaeological research first-hand.

He also blogs about his research and current news in archaeology and paleoanthropology at A Very Remote Period Indeed, part of his ongoing efforts to make research on human origins understandable and appealing to as wide an audience as possible.

Julien lives in Denver with his wife Alejandra and their newborn son, Mateo.

About the topic

For decades scientists believed Neanderthals developed modern tools and ornaments solely through contact with Homo sapiens, but new research by anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore, PhD, challenge a half-century of conventional wisdom maintaining that Neanderthals were thick-skulled, primitive cavemen overrun and outcompeted by more advanced modern humans arriving in Europe from Africa.

“Basically, I am rehabilitating Neanderthals,” said Riel-Salvatore. “They were far more resourceful than we have given them credit for.”

His research, published in December’s Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, was based on seven years of studying Neanderthal sites throughout Italy, with special focus on the vanished Uluzzian culture.

About 42,000 years ago, the Aurignacian culture, attributed to modern Homo sapiens, appeared in northern Italy while central Italy continued to be occupied by Neanderthals of the Mousterian culture which had been around for at least 100,000 years. At this time a new culture arose in the south, one also thought to be created by Neanderthals. They were the Uluzzian and they were very different.

Riel-Salvatore identified projectile points, ochre, bone tools, ornaments and possible evidence of fishing and small game hunting at Uluzzian archeological sites throughout southern Italy. Such innovations are not traditionally associated with Neanderthals, strongly suggesting that they evolved independently, possibly due to dramatic changes in climate. More importantly, they emerged in an area geographically separated from modern humans.

“My conclusion is that if the Uluzzian is a Neanderthal culture it suggests that contacts with modern humans are not necessary to explain the origin of this new behavior. This stands in contrast to the ideas of the past 50 years that Neanderthals had to be acculturated to humans to come up with this technology,” he said. “When we show Neanderthals could innovate on their own it casts them in a new light. It `humanizes’ them if you will.”
Thousands of years ago, southern Italy experienced a shift in climate, becoming increasingly open and arid, said Riel-Salvatore. Neanderthals living there faced a stark choice of adapting or dying out. The evidence suggests they began using darts or arrows to hunt smaller game to supplement the increasingly scarce larger mammals they traditionally hunted.

“The fact that Neanderthals could adapt to new conditions and innovate shows they are culturally similar to us,” he said. “Biologically they are also similar. I believe they were a subspecies of human but not a different species.”

The powerfully built Neanderthals were first discovered in Germany’s Neander Valley in 1856. Exactly who they were, how they lived and why they vanished remains unclear.

Research shows they contributed between 1 and 4 percent of their genetic material to the people of Asia and Europe. Riel-Salvatore rejects the theory that they were exterminated by modern humans. Homo sapiens might simply have existed in larger groups and had slightly higher birthrates, he said.

“It is likely that Neanderthals were absorbed by modern humans,” he said. “My research suggests that they were a different kind of human, but humans nonetheless. We are more brothers than distant cousins.”


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