Neanderthals were omnivores. Photo: Erich Ferdinand / Flickr
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Further evidence emerges suggesting Neanderthals weren't so different to us

The extinction of any species makes for headline news, but none more so than the Neanderthals. The death of our hominid relatives tens of thousands of years ago instils a particularly morbid fear that we're about to share their fate. 

Homo Neanderthalensis has never fared well in the media. For decades our archaic cousin has been portrayed as a club-wielding caveman, investing all his energy on spearing the next mammoth and avoiding the T-rexes trampling overhead - yet new research is constantly telling us just how wrong the stereotype, and how similar they were to us.

A study published in journal PLoS ONE this week has discovered that Neanderthals were not, as often believed, purely carnivores - our ancestral cousins made sure to get their greens. After sifting through what might well be the oldest human poo in the world, anthropologists from MIT and the University of La Liguna found remains of both meat and vegetable matter, a discovery which may have consequences for the multitude of Neanderthal extinction theories floating around.

The research team has “obtained the first direct evidence of animal and plant intake by Neanderthals,” according to lead author Ainara Sistiaga:

Taken together, these data suggest that the Neanderthals from El Salt consumed both meat and vegetables, in agreement with recent hypotheses based on indirect evidence."

We’ve seen circumstantial evidence for Neanderthal vegetable consumption before (like plant matter lodged in teeth) but nothing as conclusive as this. It may not seem like science's biggest discovery, but we now know that early human poo was high in greens.

This runs counter to our preconceptions of them as raging carnivores on a Luis Suarez-scale, but shouldn't come as a big surprise. Neanderthals are more like siblings than cousins.  They used advanced tools, probably had a sophisticated grasp of language, wore make-up and even buried their dead with rituals. It's hard to argue they were primitive. Their DNA differed to ours by a miniscule 0.1 per cent, though in fairness that’s not actually too shocking: we’re genetically fifty per cent the same as a banana.

Still, these tantalising similarities help explain why the media gets so worked up every time a new discovery about our prehistoric relatives’ demise is made. Their extinction – which coincided with lower temperatures and the rise of ‘anatomically modern homosapiens’ in the Late Pleistocene – has been furiously explained away by dozens of unproven hypotheses. They had bad, meat-heavy diets. They were invaded by unfriendly foreigners. Climate change got them.

Funnily enough, all of these doomsday theories bear a striking resemblance to issues that humans are worrying about today. And whilst some are definitely plausible explanations, others – like this one blaming feminism for it – are a little more far-fetched. The problem is we simply don’t know enough about Neanderthals. We’ve found so few remnants of them and they lived so long ago that it’s hard to pin down a precise reason. Broadly speaking, the most likely options have been whittled down to either competition with us or climate change – but the specifics are much more complicated.

Let's look at the climate change hypothesis. Not long before we invaded their territories, during periods of fluctuating temperatures, Neanderthal population levels suffered a devastating blowAccording to Professor Love Dalén, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History:

The fact that Neanderthals in Western Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered long before they came into contact with modern humans came as a complete surprise to us. This indicates that the Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought."

But paleoanthropologists believe it wasn’t necessarily the cold that killed them. Neanderthals were just as adapted to icy climates as we are, if not more so: their stocky bodies and short limbs, clothed in fur hides and leather, should have dealt with the temperature drop. Instead, scientists suggest it was the knock-on effect climate change had on food that sealed their fate. As temperatures dropped, the lush forests of Europe degraded into sparse plains and steppes. Large herbivores like mammoths and bison were forced to flee south.

In these new environments, the Neanderthals soon found their previous hunting methods to be ineffective. Clubbing and stabbing works well when ambushing solitary prey in a forest, but doesn’t really hold up when chasing herds in an open desert. Their hunting tools worked best at close range and there's no evidence to suggest Neanderthals developed projectile weapons or traps.

Speaking to National Geographic News, Cambridge geologist Tjeerd van Andel hypothesised this inflexibility in their hunting patterns led to their extinction.

This is what made it impossible for the Neanderthals to survive. With less food, they became more susceptible to illness, reproduced more slowly, starvation became more of a factor, and the population died out very, very slowly."

But these researchers were assuming Neanderthals were dependent on meat for their sustenance, which we now know is false. The discovery of veg in the fecal fossils shows that Neanderthals were not the carnivorous beasts we used to think they were. Climate change may well have hampered their development, but the precise mechanisms will have to be rethought.

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Should Facebook face the heat for the Cleveland shooting video?

On Easter Sunday, a man now dubbed the “Facebook killer” shot and killed a grandfather before uploading footage of the murder to the social network. 

A murder suspect has committed suicide after he shot dead a grandfather seemingly at random last Sunday. Steve Stephens (pictured above), 37, was being hunted by police after he was suspected of killing Robert Godwin, 74, in Cleveland, Ohio.

The story has made international headlines not because of the murder in itself – in America, there are 12,000 gun homicides a year – but because a video of the shooting was uploaded to Facebook by the suspected killer, along with, moments later, a live-streamed confession.

After it emerged that Facebook took two hours to remove the footage of the shooting, the social network has come under fire and has promised to “do better” to make the site a “safe environment”. The site has launched a review of how it deals with violent content.

It’s hard to poke holes in Facebook’s official response – written by Justin Osofsky, its vice president of global operations – which at once acknowledges how difficult it would have been to do more, whilst simultaneously promising to do more anyway. In a timeline of events, Osofsky notes that the shooting video was not reported to Facebook until one hour and 45 minutes after it had been uploaded. A further 23 minutes after this, the suspect’s profile was disabled and the videos were no longer visible.

Despite this, the site has been condemned by many, with Reuters calling its response “bungled” and the two-hour response time prompting multiple headlines. Yet solutions are not as readily offered. Currently, the social network largely relies on its users to report offensive content, which is reviewed and removed by a team of humans – at present, artificial intelligence only generates around a third of reports that reach this team. The network is constantly working on implementing new algorithms and artificially intelligent solutions that can uphold its community standards, but at present there is simply no existing AI that can comb through Facebook’s one billion active users to immediately identify and remove a video of a murder.

The only solution, then, would be for Facebook to watch every second of every video – 100 million hours of which are watched every day on the site – before it goes live, a task daunting not only for its team, but for anyone concerned about global censorship. Of course Facebook should act as quickly as possible to remove harmful content (and of course Facebook shouldn’t call murder videos “content” in the first place) but does the site really deserve this much blame for the Cleveland killer?

To remove the blame from Facebook is not to deny that it is incredibly psychologically damaging to watch an auto-playing video of a murder. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that the act, as well as the name “Facebook killer” itself, could arguably inspire copycats. But we have to acknowledge the limits on what technology can do. Even if Facebook removed the video in three seconds, it is apparent that for thousands of users, the first impulse is to download and re-upload upsetting content rather than report it. This is evident in the fact that the victim’s grandson, Ryan, took to a different social network – Twitter – to ask people to stop sharing the video. It took nearly two hours for anyone to report the video to Facebook - it took seconds for people to download a copy for themselves and share it on.  

When we ignore these realities and beg Facebook to act, we embolden the moral crusade of surveillance. The UK government has a pattern of using tragedy to justify invasions into our privacy and security, most recently when home secretary Amber Rudd suggested that Whatsapp should remove its encryption after it emerged the Westminster attacker used the service. We cannot at once bemoan Facebook’s power in the world and simultaneously beg it to take total control. When you ask Facebook to review all of the content of all of its billions of users, you are asking for a God.

This is particularly undesirable in light of the good that shocking Facebook videos can do – however gruesome. Invaluable evidence is often provided in these clips, be they filmed by criminals themselves or their victims. When Philando Castile’s girlfriend Facebook live-streamed the aftermath of his shooting by a police officer during a traffic stop, it shed international light on police brutality in America and aided the charging of the officer in question. This clip would never have been seen if Facebook had total control of the videos uploaded to its site.  

We need to stop blaming Facebook for things it can’t yet change, when we should focus on things it can. In 2016, the site was criticised for: allowing racial discrimination via its targeted advertising; invading privacy with its facial-scanning; banning breast cancer-awareness videos; avoiding billions of dollars in tax; and tracking non-users activity across the web. Facebook should be under scrutiny for its repeated violations of its users’ privacy, not for hosting violent content – a criticism that will just give the site an excuse to violate people's privacy even further.

No one blames cars for the recent spate of vehicular terrorist attacks in Europe, and no one should blame Facebook for the Cleveland killer. Ultimately, we should accept that the social network is just a vehicle. The one to blame is the person driving.

If you have accidentally viewed upsetting and/or violent footage on social media that has affected you, call the Samaritans helpline on  116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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