TU’s Miriam Belmaker, professor of Anthropology, studies rodents to better understand Neanderthals in her Zooarchaeology and Paleoecology lab. By studying the diet of rodents that lived around the same time as the Neanderthals, Belmaker hopes to understand what caused the Neanderthal’s extinction.
One of the main questions surrounding Neanderthal extinction, according to Belmaker, is whether “Neanderthals became extinct before [humans arrived], because of some kind of climatic change, or did modern humans contribute, by being violent with the Neanderthals, or taking over their resources?”
She approaches this question from a climatic view because if no climate change occurred, then the two group did most likely interact, a possibility that’s exciting to many.
“It’s much harder to try to prove they had interactions with humans,” Belmaker says. Some have argued that modern humans may have succeeded, in an evolutionary sense, because of their use of long-distance projectiles. Neanderthals did not use long-distance projectiles, like archery or spears, which made combat or food acquisition more likely to be deadly.
Rodents have proven good indicators of climate. By looking at the rodent’s teeth, Belmaker can identify what type of diet they had based on the markings on their teeth. If climate change occurs, and the change is not too sudden, a rodent species will change their diet to try to adapt. A species might move from grass to hay, for example, as the environment gets colder and drier. Each species varies on how susceptible it is to climate changes, but by looking at several rodent species, Belmaker can determine if any climate change occurred.
To study the teeth, Belmaker uses a white light confocal microscope, which produces a three-dimensional cloud of points. From this, a map of the troughs and valleys of the tooth can be produced, which can be used to identify the diet of the rodent. While others in the field also use rodents to study paleoclimate, her approach is unique.
Belmaker gets the teeth from the various excavations she participates in. She has several collections from sites in Georgia, the former USSR country, as well as Israel, and plans to go to Kazakhstan this summer.
Her research in Israel hasn’t demonstrated a “very strong climate change that would lead to the extinction of the Neanderthals.” Either the species died before the climate changed for other reasons, or “humans helped them along a little bit,” Belmaker believes.
Currently, Belmaker is studying rodents teeth from Europe, specifically the country of Georgia. She does believe there will be a difference from her results in Israel. “We think that in different areas of the world Neanderthals may have been subjected to different kinds of problems,” Belmaker says. In places farther north, like Georgia, climate changes are generally more severe, while in equatorial places like Israel, there’s not as much variation in climate.
Her research does translate to modern proelems as well. “Right now, we’re on the verge of the biggest extinction we have because of climate change. We have to understand how we, our relatives, responded to different climate changes in order to be better prepared and help our environment,” she said. While the climate was getting colder during the Neanderthals’ time, the climate warming, as it is today, is still an example of drastic change in the environment.
For those interested in her work, Belmaker welcomes students in her lab to work with the teeth.