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Fashion victims: were Neanderthals undone by lack of jackets?

SFU study: 40,000 years ago, humans had an advantage over Neanderthals: they were making cold weather clothing while Neanderthals likely relied on fur cloaks

The March 20, 2009 file photo shows the prehistoric Neanderthal man "N", left, as he is visited for the first time by another reconstruction of a homo neanderthalensis called "Wilma", right, at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

The March 20, 2009 file photo shows the prehistoric Neanderthal man "N", left, as he is visited for the first time by another reconstruction of a homo neanderthalensis called "Wilma", right, at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany.

Did Neanderthals die out because their human competitors were better fashion designers?

A recent study of a database of animal bones found at several sites across Europe shows that Neanderthals probably weren’t making close-fitting winter clothing like parkas, and it could be a significant factor in the species’ decline.

“Twenty years ago there was a big debate around whether early humans evolved from Neanderthals or whether they were people who migrated to Europe from Africa,” said Mark Collard, an archaeology professor at Simon Fraser University who led the study.

“There is a consensus now that there was a wave of migration of humans out of Africa, through the Middle East and into Europe.”

Archaeologists are now trying to figure out which differences between humans and Neanderthals led to one species thriving and the other becoming extinct.

The bones Collard and his team analyzed were between 40,000 and 25,000 years old, a period leading up to the last ice age when the climate would have been changing to be colder and drier. The researchers found that there were many more animal bones from wolverines, rabbits and foxes in the human sites compared to Neanderthal sites.

While some of the animals may have been used for food only, the composition of animal bones makes Collard fairly confident that the analysis shows that humans were making winter clothing while Neanderthals were not. For instance, it’s known that people living in the Arctic commonly used wolverine pelts to make the ruff of a parka: the combination of long and short hairs make it less likely the fur will become frozen around the wearer’s face.

The research gives credence to a previous hypothesis that while humans were making specialized winter clothing, Neanderthals only wore fur cloaks. Being able to make parkas would have given humans an edge over Neanderthals in being able to hunt for longer periods and in colder weather, Collard said.

It shouldn’t be assumed that Neanderthals weren’t making winter clothing because they were less intelligent than humans, Collard said. It could have been a cultural difference: there are examples of human populations who live in harsh climates without making or wearing much protective clothing.

“We don’t need to think about (humans) wiping out Neanderthals by violence,” Collard said. “It would have been enough for them to basically hunt the animals that Neanderthals were relying on, to do so a bit more effectively — and that’s where the clothing comes in.”

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