Monday, November 15, 2010

Growing Up Neanderthal: Another New Look

"Neanderthals Lived Fast, Died Young"
Jennifer Viegas, Archaeology News, Discovery News (November 15, 2010)

"Neanderthals reached full maturity faster than humans do today, suggests a new examination of teeth from 11 Neanderthal and early human fossils. The findings, detailed in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, portray Neanderthals as a live fast and die young species.

"Our characteristically slow development and long childhood therefore appear to be recent and unique to Homo sapiens. These traits may have given our early modern human ancestors an evolutionary advantage over Neanderthals.

" 'I think Neanderthals retain a more primitive developmental condition that seems to be shared with earlier fossil humans,' lead author Tanya Smith told Discovery News. 'We know from other studies of dental and cranial development that australopithecenes (early hominids from Africa) and Homo erectus did not show long or slow developmental periods like our own.'..."

It does seem to make sense: we learn a lot before hitting puberty - and then it seems like a struggle to focus on something other than the opposite sex for years. Decades. Sometimes never.

Another interesting point in the article was the look at our family history. In very broad terms, of course. It's not like we've got genealogical information going back tens of thousands of years.

"...She and her team also discovered that anatomically modern human groups that left Africa some 100,000 years ago experienced an elongation of their childhood, which has been with our species ever since. All other primates have shorter gestation, faster childhood maturation, younger age at first reproduction, and a shorter overall lifespan.

"While delaying reproduction poses a risk that individuals may not live long enough to reproduce, it could facilitate learning, social development and complex cognition. Neanderthals are known to have large brains, as well as large bodies. Without much time for learning, however, those big brains might not have been much of a match for our own impressively large-brained species.

"Smith said some researchers also suggest that slowing down childhood 'may have allowed for conservation of energy, and this may have accompanied decreased mortality rates and/or more favorable environmental conditions.'..."

All of which is somewhat conjectural at this point. The article points out that folks living in different parts of the world mature at different rates. (Not all that different - but measurable.) Why? Well, it's probably in their genes or their environment - or maybe both.

As the last paragraph of the article puts it:

"...Smith and her team, however, hint that forthcoming new studies reveal genetic and brain differences that existed between Neanderthals and members of our species, further heating up the scientific debate."

The Lemming's pretty sure that there won't be an end to this debate for a long, long time. What's interesting is how paleontologists are filling in details here and there.

Then there's the whole 'extended childhood' thing. We do have an oddly long time during which we're the developmental equivalent of kittens or puppies.

The Lemming takes some exception to the implication that "learning" stops when puberty hits: but acknowledge that there's something to it. I kept learning after I reached age 12: and have known others to do the same. There is, presumably, some reason for the existences of high schools and colleges, other than to provide professors with a way to make a living.

In the Lemming's case, having undiagnosed ADHD may have helped. Being constitutionally inclined to ricochet off topics may have helped me to keep learning about physics and girls and algebra and girls and history and - - - you get the idea. (more: "ADHD, an Apostolic Exhortation, Another Document, and V8," A Catholic Citizen in America (November 11, 2010))

That "Archaeology News" article's got a fair amount of detail. Although, as I think I've pointed out before, it's not so much about archeology as paleontology. And there is a difference. Although, when dealing with human cultures that left no written records, but did leave fossils - there's overlap.

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