Neanderthals on the Move

In a recently published study, Greek researchers have suggested that Neanderthal people may have been more mobile than once thought. This brings up a number of questions.

Who were these people? Where did they live? How long did they last? Why was it so surprising to find evidence that they may have moved a mere 12 miles over the course of an entire lifetime?

Neanderthal remains have been found in West and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and even Siberia.  Currently, we do not know of any Neanderthal remains in Australia, the Americas or Africa.

Here’s what we do know. Neanderthal people were named after the Neander river valley in Germany, where their fossilized remains were first discovered and studied in 1856. As more Neanderthal fossils were found and studied, it became clear that Neanderthal people and modern humans co-existed for thousands of years.

Neanderthal people were around as long ago as 250,000 years ago and survived until about 28,000 years ago. They may have even survived through 24,000 years ago.  However, scientists still differ as to when Neanderthal extinction occurred.

By comparison, modern humans – people like you and me – left Africa around 125,000 years ago, and were present in the Levant  90,000 years ago, as evidenced in finds from the Jebel Qafzeh cave in Israel.

Most scientists believe that the Neanderthal population in Europe was small and stable for a very long time. Things started to change with the arrival of modern humans, whose numbers continued to increase slowly as they migrated out of Africa and into other continents, including Europe. Evidence from the same region indicates that our ancestors and Neanderthals both lived in the same region for quite a while.

Questions have arisen regarding the nature of this coexistence. Was it friendly? Did they have offspring together? Did our ancestors wipe out the Neanderthal people, did they starve them to death by being more efficient hunters, or were Neanderthalers genetically swamped?

We’ll examine this topic further in the next post. Until then – what do you think? What would it be like to come face to face with a Neanderthal? Could you coexist with them peacefully? 

10,000 BC: The Story Behind the Date

Hollywood has been known to produce a movie or two on prehistoric and historic themes. On March 7, another title will be added to that list: 10,000 BC. The trailer promises all kinds of spectacular imagery: a satellite view of planet Earth as all the city lights go out; warriors fighting amongst themselves as well as against mammoths; there is even a frightening scene in which a human and a saber tooth cat come face-to-face (literally).

I know that this is escapism at its best. I will probably go see this film too; I might even give it two opposable thumbs up. However, how about we travel back to the real 10,000 B.C. and see for ourselves what really went on at that time?

By 10,000 B.C., humans had made it to the Americas. There is plenty debate about when exactly modern humans made it to the New World. The people traditionally believed to be walking around here 12,000 years ago are called the “Clovis people”. Our current understanding of who got here first has changed, but that is a topic for a future blog.

The Clovis people were hunters and gatherers, and they left behind a good number of archaeological sites throughout North America. By this time, mammoths and mastodons are becoming extinct. Some scientists point an accusing finger at human hunters, others blame that event on a meteorite.

In the Old World, the New Stone Age, or Neolithic, had begun. With it, we see the beginnings of animal domestication. With animal and plant domestication, our ancestors began agriculture. This was a major shift away from the traditional hunting-and-gathering way of life. This change laid the foundation for sedentary lifestyles, as the practice of living in one spot is called.

Architecture starts, first, very humbly. However, these very first dwellings and food storage areas eventually culminate in the “mile-high” sky scrapers of the 21st century.

By 10,000 B.C., the earliest pottery is produced in Japan. On mainland Asia, developments are not far behind: stable agricultural communities dot the countryside in what is now China.  Further West, in what is now Israel and Lebanon, the Natufian people are experimenting with plants as well, setting the stage for agriculture in this part of the world. In Europe, people to move further north as the last Ice Age comes to an end. 

So what does 10,000 B.C. really represent? Rampaging herds of mammoths? A myriad of busy workers building pyramids? A threatening tête-à-tête between a human and a saber tooth cat?


10,000 B.C. is a date that roughly marks the earliest known transition from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and animal domestication. Villages, towns and cities soon followed. Writing eventually came about as well, as a means of keeping track of wealth. Schools were not far behind.

Now that’s progress.

Timkat, an Ethiopian Epiphany celebration

The first week of January marks the time Ethiopians celebrate Timkat, or Epiphany, one of the most important holidays on the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar. While this holiday is celebrated nationwide, the main event takes place at a huge open-air venue in the capital, Addis Ababa.

In 2005, a delegation from the Houston Museum of Natural Science had the privilege of participating in the celebrations. Ethiopia’s Patriarch, His Holiness Abune Paulos, presided over this very colorful event, during which he blessed the assembled masses as well as the tabots, or copies of the Ark of the Covenant, that were brought before him.

After a series of prayers, the Patriarch, accompanied by representatives of other Orthodox churches, dipped processional crosses in a large pool of water. Immediately after, this water is used to bless the gathered masses; the logistics involved are interesting and stand in stark contrast to the pomp and circumstance used in the proceedings up until then. Since the pool is located inside a fenced-off area, the Patriarch simply used a garden hose dipped into the pool to spray the blessed water onto as many people as possible. (See photo at left.)

After a brief pause of mediation and musical performances, the patriarch then proceeded to bless the priests who had gathered carrying their church’s tabots. By the time this takes place, the priests, dressed in very colorful outfits, have been patiently waiting for hours while supporting the tabot on top of their head. Once this blessing has occurred, the ceremony winds down and the thousands of faithful disperse.

Timkat is celebrated by Christians throughout the country. Places like Aksum, the seat of Ethiopia’s Christian community and Lalibela, home to the famous rock-hewn churches, are also bustling with pilgrims during Timkat. The continuation of these century-old celebrations is yet another example of what Ethiopians call “living history.”

The Ark of the Covenant and Aksum

A focus of longstanding attention by Christians, a topic of Hollywood movies as well as countless books, TV programs, internet blogs and a chapel in Aksum: all of these have one thing in common: the Ark of the Covenant.

It is still a strongly held belief that King Menelik I: , son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the Ark from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. The Ark allegedly spent the next 600 years on the island of Tana Cherqos in Lake Tana. Eventually it was moved to Aksum, where it is said to reside in a small chapel, near Maryam Seyon, the main cathedral for all Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

A priest acts as caretaker. The closest the faithful get to seeing the Ark is in the ceremonies during which their church’s tabot – drawer or box said to contain copies of the Ten Commandments – is brought out. However, even then, it is difficult to discern any details, as these tabots are usually wrapped in richly embroidered cloth. Even the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church does not get to see the Ark in Aksum. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for very few people indeed.