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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 01:05 GMT
Handy clues to ascent of Man
3D images of fossil hands
Images: Wes Niewoehner and Israel Dept of Antiquities (left) and Eric Trinkaus (right)
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

The precision grip of early modern humans may have helped them manipulate tools and eventually triumph over Neanderthals, new research suggests.

3D reconstructions based on fossil remains indicate that early modern humans had hands that were better suited to using sophisticated tools compared with Neanderthals.

US anthropologists believe this may have sparked technological advances and social changes, such as cave painting and making ornaments, enabling our ancestors to outwit their "clumsy cousins".

"This does not tell us specifically why Neanderthals died out," Wesley Niewoehner, from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, told BBC News Online.

"They were successful for over 100,000 years. However, it is possible that modern human behavioural patterns were in some way superior to the Neanderthal behavioural patterns - especially in their use of more efficient and complex stone tools."

Skeletal remains

Neanderthals and early modern humans co-existed in the coastal woodlands and inland steppes of what is now Iraq, Israel and Syria about 100,000 years ago.

The secrets of how these ancient hunter-gatherers lived and died come from archaeological and skeletal remains, including the earliest examples of modern humans, from caves at Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel.

Stone tools and animal bones suggest that both groups had similar habits, although something must have given early modern humans the edge over Neanderthals, who later died out.

Clues gleaned from skeletal remains now show that Neanderthals and early modern humans had very different hands.

"My research indicates the Skhul/Qafzeh [early modern human] hand remains are more similar to the hands of 40,000 to 20,000-year-old humans than to the hands of Neanderthals," said Dr Niewoehner.

Joint diseases

"Therefore, I argue that regardless of the fact that both the Skhul/Qafzeh and Neanderthal samples are associated with the same ['Mousterian'] type of stone tools, they must have been using them in distinctly different ways."

The evidence suggests that not only were early modern humans better suited to using sophisticated tools, they were perhaps less vulnerable to joint diseases such as osteoarthritis.

This would have given them a distinct survival advantage. It could also have heralded social changes, such as painting works of art and making ornaments.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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