You are a cave-man: A UCD anthropologist has some unconventional ideas on Neanderthals

Some 400,000 years ago, the earliest ancestors of man as we know him migrated out of Africa and into the land that would later become the snootiest place on earth: Western Europe. But that area was not so fancy then; in fact, it was rugged and cruel, and an ice age came that isolated that group of people from the rest of what was just developing as humanity, creating a new branch on the genetic tree that we now know as Neanderthals. Conventional wisdom holds that the Neanderthal branch fizzled out around 30,000 years ago -- but UC-Denver anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore is bucking that wisdom, arguing for the likelihood that we as a species did not kill off our genetic relatives, but rather got it on with them. Bow-chicka-bow.

"What I show is that neanderthals were able to innovate just as well as we were able to innovate as a species," Riel-Salvatore explains, "so that's a contrast with the popular image of the cave-man who drags around a club, or drags around a woman by the hair. I'm kind of challenging that stereotype."

Specifically, Riel-Salvatore studies the way Neanderthals made and used tools -- a distinctly homo sapiens type of behavior -- and the conclusion his research has led him to is that, when circumstances came up that required the species to adapt its tools, it was able to do so as well as its its human counterparts. But here's where it gets juicy: "We have genetic studies that show that neanderthals contributed some genetic material to our gene pool, so it's probable that neanderthals and humans met face-to-face about 35-40,000 years ago. They're not that different from who we are.

"What my research suggests -- because before, people would argue that neanderthals behaved a lot different than humans, which would make them less attractive as mates -- but if we can prove that their behavior was actually very similar, then it's likely that we would have perceived them as, well, as us."

And you know what that means: "We did what humans do, and made love."

Sweet, filthy cave-man love.

Salvatore-Riel will discuss his research tonight at Café2, a consortium of nerds who geek out on science, starting at 6:30 p.m. at Brooklyn's Deli next to the Pepsi Center. There's no charge to attend. Can't make it tonight? You can also catch him at a Neanderthal workshop on the Auraria Campus on December 11.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte