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That’s Mr. Neanderthal to You

One hundred years ago, a paleontologist from Zagreb University visited a cave on the outskirts of the Croatian village of Krapina, where he found bits of animal bones, a chipped stone tool and a single human molar. Excavations at the Krapina cave would eventually turn up much greater treasures: 874 fossilized Neanderthal human remains.
    Dr. Alan Mann and Dr. Janet Monge Gr’80, two physical anthropologists at Penn, recently had the first opportunity to study x-rays of this extensive bone collection. And they found evidence that would surprise many scientists who have dismissed Neanderthals as sickly, dumb brutes on the brink of extinction when modern humans ambled over to Europe from Africa. By and large, Mann says, "These guys were really healthy."
    Although Mann and Monge have used their scholarly expertise on a number of occasions to assist in the legal defense of modern-day humans (see main story), their primary focus is on Neanderthals, a group of early hominids who occupied Europe between 130,000 and 30,000 years ago, and according to Mann’s engagingly pithy commentary, "had bad press.
    "Neanderthals looked different from living humans, it’s true," he says. "But their brains were as big as modern humans’, sometimes bigger. They buried their dead. They used fire. They may have been superintelligent people. We don’t know. We play them down and look at them as subhuman."
    Mann and Monge recently worked with a Penn professor of radiology, Dr. Morrie Kricun GM’79, to examine radiographic images of more than 75 Neanderthals from the Krapina collection. They determined from the bone density that most of these individuals were quite robust. (Their findings are published in The Krapina Hominids: A Radiographic Atlas of the Skeletal Collection, and were presented at an international conference this summer on the centennial of the Krapina cave’s discovery.) "We were able to document one of the earliest benign bone tumors every found; one individual may have had a surgical amputation of his hand; and several individuals had examples of osteoarthritis–which may have made them a little stiff in the morning," Mann says.
    The two anthropologists have also done extensive work on the histology, or microscopic anatomy, of Neanderthal teeth, finding clues about human evolution in the patterns within hardy tooth enamel. When he introduces classes to dental anthropology–ordinarily not the sexiest of topics–Mann sets out bowls of apples and caramels for his students to crunch and chew on. This, he explains, helps them appreciate what important structures teeth are–while simultaneously preventing them from falling asleep.
    For Monge, the excitement of her field lies in its "string of never-ending questions … the fact that when you test the hypotheses, you don’t actually come to a truth in the end. You just say that this or that hypothesis was not supported, and then you can go on and generate more hypotheses."
    Her study of human fossils, for example, has even yielded evidence of domestic violence in antiquity. Monge has found indications of spousal abuse from the prevalence of female skulls with healed cheekbone fractures discovered in two Iron Age burial sites of north-central Iran (part of the University Museum’s collection). "People were getting smacked around," Mann says. What this suggests is that "male aggression toward females is not something that just appeared in our own society, but has a very unfortunate history."
    The big question that both anthropologists would like to answer one day centers on the ultimate relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans. "I really feel that part of our ancestry contains Neanderthals," Mann says. "That these brutish peoples are in our backgrounds. To deny that is to give us a kind of pristine origin, which in some ways [is] not in keeping with what biology and evolution are all about."

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