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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Born after your parents’ death: how technology is changing fertility rights

The case of the Chinese baby Tiantian is not an isolated one. 

The news that a Chinese baby has been born four years after his parents died in a car crash has caused a media storm. The parents, Shen Jie and Liu Xi, had been trying to get pregnant, via in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Five days before their fertilised egg was meant to be implanted, they died in a car crash.

The couple left behind four frozen embryos. Their own parents, on both sides of the family, would go on to spend three years in China’s courts arguing that they should have rights to the embryos. They eventually won that battle. Surrogacy is illegal in China, so they transported the embryo to Laos, and found a surrogate there instead. 

The baby, called Tiantian, is now 100 days old. The grandparents have since had to take DNA and blood tests to ensure their grandson gained Chinese citizenship. 

While most headlines have focused on the spooky notion that dead people have had children, this concept itself is not so weird. Dead people, after all, have children all the time. Women in the UK who donate eggs hand over control of the future conception of a child to someone else. Moreover, the UK’s laws on IVF allow for the potential, if permission is explicitly obtained, for people to have babies after they have died.

The unusual aspect of Tiantian’s case is the fact the grandparents were able to claim rights to their embryos of their children. A similar case had been playing out in the UK in the last few years. 

The case of Mr and Mrs M. vs the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) concluded in 2017. In the case, Mr and Mrs M requested that the HFEA give them the rights to their daughter’s frozen eggs. Their daughter had died five years earlier from bowel cancer, at the age of 28. 

In the UK, when one freezes their eggs (unfertilised or fertilised), the HFEA requires that the woman or in the case of fertilised eggs, both partners, decide beforehand what should happen to the eggs in the case of mental capacity or death. 

However, for some reason, the forms were not filled out properly. While the daughter said her eggs should continue to be stored postmortem, she did not specify what should happen to them. Her family claimed that the woman wanted her parents to raise any potential offspring. But there are no inheritance rights for embryos in the UK. 

After two years of arguing back and forth, the case led to the courts overturning the HFEA’s decision, with the HFEA accepting there were “unique and exceptional circumstances". Mr and Mrs M were able to take their daughter’s unfertilised eggs to America, for one to be fertilised by a sperm donor. 

Speaking at the time to the BBC, the couple’s solicitor Natalie Gamble said that the case rested on the “most fundamental legal principles on assisted reproduction – that the person who has given eggs or sperm should decide what happens to them”. Mr and Mrs M remain anonymous, and whether they succeeded in their quest for a grandchild is unknown. 

The difficulty in this topic is what happens when there isn’t written consent. Though these cases are few and far between, the rapidly improving technology and a lack of clear guidelines in storing eggs (worldwide) will only lead to more complications in both preserving the wishes of parents and ensuring rights aren't trampled on.