Sunday, November 18, 2007

Stone Age feminism? - The Boston Globe

Stone Age feminism? - The Boston Globe

Almost as provocatively, a husband-wife anthropological team has raised the possibility that female derring-do may have contributed to Neanderthals' demise.

The University of Arizona's Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner, use archeological evidence to argue that Neanderthal females - unlike Homo sapien women of the Upper Paleolithic period - joined men in hunts at a time when stabbing giant beasts with a sharpish stone affixed to a stick represented the cutting edge of technology.

That's courageous, but probably bad practice for a population that never numbered much more than 10,000 individuals. The loss of a few males to a flailing hoof or slashing antler is no big deal, in the long run. But losing females of child-bearing age could bring doom to a hard-pressed species.

"All elements of [Neanderthal] society appear to have been involved in the main subsistence pursuit" of hunting large animals, Kuhn said. "There's not much evidence of classic female roles.

"Putting the reproductive core of the population - pregnant women, mothers of infants, children themselves - at such danger could have put Neanderthals as a whole at serious demographic disadvantage," he said.

Not only would women suffer casualties, Kuhn said, their full participation in the hunt would mean they were not harvesting wild grains and other foods that could sustain their roving bands when game was scarce.

What finished off the Neanderthals is still bitterly disputed by paleoanthropologists and others in the field.

On one side are those who think Neanderthals were "culturally" overwhelmed by modern humans who just happened to possess better tools and weapons - throwing spears, for example, not jabbing spears - or adopted customs more appropriate for the Ice Age. From early days, human women appear to have sewed hide clothing, tended fires, and gathered vegetables rather than risking their lives on the hunt.

On the other side are those who believe modern humans were inherently superior, possessing "cognitive advantages" - read: more smarts - that made their ascent and Neanderthal decline inevitable. Cavefolk simply couldn't compete effectively with the more clever new kids on the block.

"Neanderthals were smart, sophisticated. They mastered fire. They made tools. But modern humans had selectively advantageous [genetic] traits that gave them an edge," said Richard G. Klein, a Stanford University paleoanthropologist. "Even tiny advantages in cognition, communication skills, and memory would have had huge downstream effects over time."

There are other plausible explanations for the Neanderthal extinction. Warming at the end of the Ice Age surely wasn't easy for robust people built for the cold. Or an epidemic could have so depopulated Neanderthal bands that the survivors couldn't replenish the species. A more sinister idea is that early humans wiped them out in a prehistoric genocide.

"On the other hand, humans and Neanderthals coexisted for thousands of years, so I think talk about genocide says more about how modern humans think," said Paabo. "What finally happened could be really boring. Maybe Neanderthals ran out of reindeer to hunt. So they dwindled and died. Species can disappear without us killing them."

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