Neanderthals may have been doomed to extinction because they didn't make fur parkas or tailor their clothing to fit the frigid climate, says a new study from an expert at Simon Fraser University.
Prof. Mark Collard, a paleoanthropologist and director of the Vancouver-area school's human evolutionary studies program, said the study started with a question he had been mulling for 16 years about why evidence of wolverines was found in early human sites and not where Neanderthals lived.
He and some graduate students pored over a database of numerous archeological sites that dated back 60,000 years at the University of Cambridge. He said they were looking for big patterns, similar to crime-scene investigations.
"You're building up explanations from lots of little bits of evidence."
Because the bones of so many more animals — such as rabbits, foxes, wolves and wolverines — were found at the ancient sites where humans lived, the study suggests that early humans likely skinned animals to create cold weather clothing including parkas, especially because the fur on those animals doesn't freeze as easily.
"We found quite a few modern human sites with wolverines and no Neanderthal sites," Collard said in an interview.
Pelts not suited for leather
It's unlikely early humans ate the wolverines and their pelts weren't suited for leather, so their fur was probably used as ruffs around their faces, says the study, published earlier this month in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
Bone needles were also found at the human sites along with evidence that they regularly tanned hides, leading to the conclusion early humans used specialized cold-weather clothing, the report says.
In contrast, the nature of the clothing used by Neanderthals is debated.
"It may come down, in part at least, to the differences in historical, cultural trajectories. Neanderthals didn't have a tradition of making clothing of this type, and didn't adopt the technology when they encountered it in modern humans," Collard said.
While there are theories about what Neanderthals wore — including nothing at all — Collard believes that they used cape-like clothing.
"These findings are most consistent with the hypothesis that Neanderthals employed only cape-like clothing while early modern humans used specialized cold-weather clothing," says the study.
The Neanderthals disappeared about 5,000 years after modern humans arrived, Collard said.
He said the fitted clothing with fur worn by early humans may have made the difference, for example, in being able to stay out an extra hour a day to hunt.
"It might seem fairly small, but that could significantly enhance early modern humans' ability to bring down a deer, and that means a difference in terms of calories," he said. "Evolution is typically a lot of small differences leading to big differences longer term."
Collard said the contrast in clothing likely wasn't the only thing that forced the Neanderthals into extinction.
The study notes that they may not have been able to create fire, and only used it when it came naturally, such as by lightning. Previous studies show Neanderthals also didn't build structures to live in.
"We think we've identified an interesting and important new line of evidence that nobody had looked at before," Collard said. "That's giving us some confidence that we're looking at a reasonable possibility as to the difference between Neanderthals and modern humans."