Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Setback for Neandertal Smarts?

Neandertals are looking sharp these days. Many researchers now credit our evolutionary cousins, once regarded as brutish and dumb, with "modern behavior," such as making sophisticated tools and fashioning jewelry, a sign of symbolic expression. But new radiocarbon dating at a site in France could mar this flattering view. The study concludes that the archaeological layers at the site are so mixed up that ornaments and tools once attributed to Neandertals could actually be the work of modern humans, who lived in the same cave at a later date.

One prominent researcher even argues that this celebrated site, the Grotte du Renne (literally "reindeer cave") at Arcy-sur-Cure in central France, should now be eliminated from scientific consideration. "This key site should be disqualified from the debate over [Neandertal] symbolism," says Randall White, an archaeologist at New York University. But João Zilhão, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom who has often tussled with White and other researchers over the evidence from the Grotte du Renne, says that the new study "prove[s] the exact opposite of what [its] authors claim."

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