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8 February 2005 PR 05/10

Loughborough University researcher helps BBC answer one of the biggest questions in human evolution

Were Neanderthals brainless brutes or sophisticated rivals to our own species?

The BBC 2 programme Horizon assembled a team of experts to answer one of the biggest questions in human evolution, including Loughborough University’s Dr George Havenith.

Through archaeology, experiment, and anatomical investigation the programme, which is due to be screened at 9pm on 10 February, will look at the Neanderthal in a new way to build up the most detailed picture of our ancient cousin ever seen and perhaps to suggest why they are no longer around today.

Neanderthals lived in Europe from about 200,000 years ago. They were tough and highly adapted to freezing conditions, but about 30,000 years ago they disappeared. It’s always been thought that modern humans, moving into Europe from Africa somehow wiped them out - but the truth may be rather different. For tens of thousands of years it seems, it could have been the sophisticated Neanderthals that held the upper hand, before new technology, horrible environmental conditions, and sheer luck allowed modern humans to survive and consign the Neanderthals to history.

In the Horizon programme Professor Leslie Aiello of University College London visits a number of scientists to discuss these issues. She came to Loughborough to meet Dr George Havenith of the Department of Human Sciences to discuss the influence of body form on cold tolerance.

The film crew record Dr Havenith preparing the volunteers for the ice bath.

Dr Havenith said: “One of the major challenges to the Neanderthals was exposure to extreme cold in the glacial periods. It has been suggested that their body form, being short and muscular with short extremities, would provide a high level of cold adaptation. For the programme, we tested this principle in two volunteers with different body build: short and muscular versus longer with less pronounced muscularity.

“The volunteers were cooled in a water bath, during which their responses were monitored. Results confirmed that the shorter muscular person indeed cools less in their body core, while the taller person cools down much faster and cannot stand the cold as long. Interestingly the skin temperature of the taller person is higher, so from the outside viewed with a thermal imaging camera this looks warmer. However this is in fact caused by their lower insulation thickness allowing heat to come to the surface easier. The effect of individual characteristics like gender, body size and fitness level on thermal responses in humans has been one of our research areas for a while, so this query fitted well with our research interests.”

Volunteers Gary Jones and Will Green, researchers at Loughborough University, had to endure the cold water for a substantial time for the experiment. Talking about the experiment Will Green said: “It was interesting to see how these programs are produced. The downside of course was that it felt very, very cold.”

Gary Jones added: “It was interesting to get a feel for what it would have been like to live in the conditions at the time of the Neanderthal - they must have been very tough!”

Ends

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Notes to editors

  1. A photograph of the filming taking place at Loughborough University is available upon request to the Public Relations Office.

  2. Loughborough has an established reputation for excellence in teaching and research, strong links with industry, and unrivalled sporting achievement. Assessments of teaching quality by the Quality Assurance Agency place Loughborough in the top flight of UK universities, and industry highlights Loughborough in its top five for graduate recruitment. Around 45% of the University’s income is for research. The University has been awarded four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes: for its collaboration with aerospace and automotive companies such as BAE Systems, Ford and Rolls Royce; for its work in developing countries; for pioneering research in optical engineering; and for its world-leading role in sports research, education and development.

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