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Researchers using topographical data to break new ground

Researchers in TU’s anthropology department are using topographical data to break new ground in what we know about the world of Neanderthals, the now-extinct ancestral hominins.

Research led by Professor Donald Henry focuses on the Neanderthals’ short-legged physiology and how surrounding terrain affected their range for hunting and gathering food.

While anthropologists typically look at “biotic setting,” including the animals hunted, the plants eaten or the overall climate, this study uniquely emphasizes the terrain. It examines topography throughout the Levant, a geographic region including most of modern-day Turkey, most of Lebanon, Syria and portions of Iraq, Israel, Jordan and the Egyptian Sinai.

Henry and his colleagues predict that the team’s terrain-based data will provide a clearer picture of the Neanderthals’ range for hunting and gathering and, ultimately, their viability.

Traditionally, researchers have assumed that short-legged Neanderthals could not move about the landscape as efficiently as modern, long-legged humans. Recently, paleoanthropological research of Neanderthal morphology suggests that their shorter legs may have provided them with greater efficiency in steep mountain terrain. However, this finding has not been evaluated against archaeological field evidence.

“Terrain hasn’t been a big issue looking at Neanderthal adaptation. Some scholars have touched upon it, but no one has done an exhaustive, in-depth study of looking at the impact of terrain delimiting Neanderthal range,” Henry said.

Since topography has changed over the centuries, the team is using archeological materials that are on or near the surface to provide spot checks on what the terrain would have looked like 70,000 years ago, Henry said.

“Artifacts kind of map the surface for you,” he said. “With Neanderthals, we have two sources of information on where they were living: One is the sites with fossils, and then we have proxies in terms of sites that don’t have fossils but have the artifacts that are associated with the fossils in other sites.”

TU’s collections of artifacts have been essential to the team’s progress, Henry said. “We have extensive artifacts from excavations in Jordan that are useful when we’re studying Neanderthals,” he said. “The nifty thing is that we have literally thousands of these artifacts that we can use from the site. We have an unusually large, diverse collection. It really enables us to do things like what we’re doing.”