Congratulations on navigating your way through the first days and weeks at our school.
Sometimes the school buildings seem to me like an old city that grew organically, without any architectural planning and forethought. That’s why they sometimes strike me as a friendly set of rabbit burrows, with little holes and passages leading to unexpected nooks and crannies. If you are well on your way to discovering where everything is, then you should feel proud of your accomplishment. I’m still hoping one day to discover a Room of Requirement…
This blog is for my history students in Year 7 and 8. If you cycle through the posts that I’ve written since 2009, when I started the blog, you will see the kind of work I have set my students over the years.
The first task, below, is one of my favourites, because it deals with a group of people, of hominids, of extinct human beings, who have often been denigrated; yet they represent one of the abiding enigmas of historical enquiry. Over the many years since I began teaching history (I’m becoming an artefact myself), the knowledge about Neanderthals has changed. For instance, most scientists now believe, thanks to the revolution in our understanding of the human genome, that some of our genes do indeed come from Neanderthals. Even 20 years ago, that was still uncertain.
I wish you the very best for your studies at our school and look forward to hearing and reading your comments, which I am sure will be witty, quirky, insightful and enlightening.
A Mystery from History
Here’s a mystery from history for you to contemplate. How come the Neanderthals died out or became extinct? They had already survived the most life-threatening conditions you could possibly imagine. They were strong and well adapted to the cold. Their brains were larger than any other hominid’s, before them or since. That includes us!
There are many questions that surround the Neanderthals’ existence and their premature departure from this earth. For instance, scientists have been trying for many years to determine whether modern humans could have interbred with Neanderthals. The Max Planck Institute in Germany found evidence of Neanderthal genes in our genome in 2010. Only recently, however, another group of scientists have cast doubt on the theory that Neanderthals could have interbred with Homo sapiens. You can read information on these topics by clicking on the links below.
It seems to me that the Neanderthals were tantalisingly similar to us, yet mysteriously different as well:
♦They didn’t farm, but then neither did we at that time in our past. No one farmed until 10,000 years ago. By then the Neanderthals had been gone for over 20,000 years.
♦They didn’t create rock art (at least to the best of our knowledge).
♦Yet they buried their dead and looked after their old and infirm. There is evidence to show that they were already burying their dead 120,000 years ago.
♦You might even assume that they should have been more likely to survive than we were. For instance, they were better adapted than Homo sapiens to a frozen world. They survived thousands of years of Ice Age. Their bones were far stronger than ours. Our bones are finer, more fragile, much more breakable. They would have won a wrestling contest with us easily.
So why did they, around 35000 to 30000 years ago, become extinct?
Here’s your chance to plumb the depths of this mystery and go back to the time before Homo sapiens were the only human beings on the planet. Have a look at each link below to view some fascinating speculations about Neanderthals:
- Their brains were 20% bigger than ours, they were better adapted to the cold and they could probably talk. So why did they die out? Look at this site (BBC Science and Nature), which tackles this question.
- Why did the Neanderthals die out? – The Guardian
- Neanderthals might have had more difficulty with childbirth. Look at this site (National Geographic) to find out the details of this discovery.
- From the Max Planck Institute in Germany: Modern humans have Neanderthal genes, suggesting that we must have interbred with Neanderthals
- Latest news: doubt cast on the interbreeding theory
- Scientists identify Neanderthal genes in modern human DNA
- Not enough genetic variation in an already endangered species?
Of course, many of these ideas are theory or speculation rather than fact.
After you have read and discussed these sites, write a comment about the Neanderthals. It must be written in correct English. What do you find interesting about them? What information have you gleaned from your reading? What are the factors that might have made the Neanderthals vulnerable to extinction?
In case you lose your “Possibility Words” handout: A Mystery of History – Neanderthals