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Neandertals in the Mist

Alan Mann

Neandertals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. Takeru Akazawa, Kenichi Aoki, Ofer Bar-Yosef, eds. 529 pp. Plenum Press, 1998. $79.50.

Scientists have pursued the mystery of modern human origins since the first fossil human remains were recognized in 1856. The precise identity of this specimen, an incomplete skeleton from the Neander Valley in Germany—the original Neandertal—and its relation to living people was quickly the subject of intense debate. Almost 150 years later, the debate about the Neandertals' place in human evolution continues.

Because of the quality and special nature of its fossil and archaeological evidence, Western Asia is a primary focus in this debate. Recent excavations have produced additional archaeological and hominid fossil remains. New dating techniques have produced dates for several large human-fossil collections, such as those from the celebrated Mount Carmel cave sites (northern Israel) and Qafzeh Cave (Galilee), that are significantly older than previously thought. This information has contributed insights about the evolutionary relation of Neandertals to modern human beings and has also revealed a much more complicated context.

This volume resulted from a late-1995 University of Tokyo conference that considered the implications of this new information on previously recovered ancient remains and the theories that have been proposed to explain the evolutionary connection between Neandertals and modern human beings. Sections discuss human-fossil evidence, the archaeological findings, the chronological and faunal information. A final section evaluates Western Asian discoveries in a broad geographical and cultural context.

One of this collection's major strengths is the number and diversity of its authors. Different articles discuss and variously interpret the same data sets, often reaching very different conclusions. These differences highlight both the richness of the archaeological and fossil record from Western Asia and the difficulties in assessing the significance of the data in our interpretation of Neandertal and modern human beings.

For example, Western Asia is one of the few locales outside Europe to have yielded a significant number of Late Pleistocene hominids. This sample has gained importance with the recognition that some of these specimens possess Neandertal-like traits, whereas others exhibit a greater similarity to modern human beings. There is little agreement, however, as to the taxonomic identity of many of these specimens. Few of the Western Asian fossils possess the suite of classic Neandertal features of European fossils. Other fossil samples such as individuals with modern human-like traits from the Skhul Cave in Mount Carmel also show a range of variation in facial and cranial structures, making for troublesome interpretations.

The archaeological evidence reveals similar problems. Both fossil samples that are Neandertal-like and those with more modern human-like traits have been found with Middle Paleolithic Mousterian tools. Efforts to identify features of the tools and other archeological traces that would serve to distinguish the archaeological context associated with each group and to establish differing patterns of environmental exploitation have not been completely supported by recent research. Even attempts to establish a basic framework that might distinguish when Neandertal-like and modern human-like populations inhabited the area remain tentative.

These discussions offer a valuable glimpse at the difficulties of understanding paleoanthropological evidence in a data-rich locale. It seems that as the evidence of the latter stages of human evolution becomes more abundant, its increasingly complex nature defies the application of our current, simplistic theoretical models. I recommend this book as an excellent summary of this emerging reality.—Alan Mann, Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

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