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Dental Discovery Indicates Travel Among Neanderthals

on February 16, 2008

They may not have traveled in minivans and RVs, but a tooth found in Greece suggests Neanderthals roamed the earth more than was once thought, according to research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The tooth, allegedly 40,000 years old, belonged to the only Neanderthal remains discovered in Greece. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology analyzed the enamel for ratios of strontium isotopes. Strontium, a metal, occurs naturally in food and water, but exact levels fluctuate from area to area. By examining the enamel, the scientists determined that this particular individual grew up at least 12.5 miles from where the remains were found.

The scientists determined that this particular individual grew up at least 12.5 miles from where the remains were found.

Some scientists, such as paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati of the Max Planck Institute, hailed conclusions from the find: “Our findings prove that their mobility was significant and that their settlement networks were broader and more organized than we believed.” Harvati added that such mobility would increase the contact between so-called “modern man” and Neanderthals.

On the other hand, Neanderthal expert and museum director Clive Finlayson expressed skepticism over the significance of the find, sarcastically downplaying the find, “I would have been surprised if Neanderthals didn't move at least 20 kilometers [12.5 miles] in their lifetime, or even in a year. . . . We’re talking about humans, not trees.”

Our knowledge of early historic travel and transportation is limited, of course, and 12.5 miles over unpaved terrain—especially if by foot—is obviously a “longer” distance, in a sense, than it sounds now. Whether this distance was the edge of this human’s territory or half of a normal day’s journey, this research reminds us that Neanderthals were not cave-bound proto-humans, but rather—in every respect—displayed the same abilities, intellectually and physically, as (we would say “other”) modern humans. The evidence suggests that ancient man, Neanderthal and non-Neanderthal, were separable only by superficial differences, just as skin color or stature identifies us today—both being descendants of the original man and woman, and thus also bearing the sin of the original man and woman.

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