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.

Collage by New Statesman
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

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

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