Friday, January 13, 2017

Neanderthals Were People, Too

Who was Neanderthal Man? King felt obligated to describe him. But with no established techniques for interpreting archaeological material like the skull, he fell back on racism and phrenology. He focused on the peculiarities of the Neanderthal’s skull, including the “enormously projecting brow.” No living humans had skeletal features remotely like these, but King was under the impression that the skulls of contemporary African and Australian aboriginals resembled the Neanderthals’ more than “ordinary” white-people skulls. So extrapolating from his low opinion of what he called these “savage” races, he explained that the Neanderthal’s skull alone was proof of its moral “darkness” and stupidity. “The thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute,” he wrote. Other scientists piled on. So did the popular press. We knew almost nothing about Neanderthals, but already we assumed they were ogres and losers.

The genesis of this idea, the historian Paige Madison notes, largely comes down to flukes of “timing and luck.” While King was working, another British scientist, George Busk, had the same suspicions about the Neander skull. He had received a comparable one, too, from the tiny British territory of Gibraltar. The Gibraltar skull was dug up long before the Neander Valley specimen surfaced, but local hobbyists simply labeled it “human skull” and forgot about it for the next 16 years. Its brow ridge wasn’t as prominent as the Neander skull’s, and its features were less imposing; it was a woman’s skull, it turns out. Busk dashed off a quick report but stopped short of naming the new creature. He hoped to study additional fossils and learn more. Privately, he considered calling it Homo calpicus, or Gibraltar Man.

So, what if Busk — “a conscientious naturalist too cautious to make premature claims,” as Madison describes him — had beaten King to publication? Consider how different our first impressions of a Gibraltar Woman might have been from those of Neanderthal Man: what feelings of sympathy, or even kinship, this other skull might have stirred.


I’ll start with a confession, an embarrassing but relevant one, because I would come to see our history with Neanderthals as continually distorted by an unfortunate human tendency to believe in ideas that are, in reality, incorrect — and then to leverage that conviction into a feeling of superiority over other people. And in retrospect, I realize I demonstrated that same tendency myself at the beginning of this project. Because I don’t want to come off as self-righteous, or as pointing fingers, here goes:

Before traveling to Gibraltar last summer, I had no idea what Gibraltar was. Or rather, I was sure I knew what Gibraltar was, but I was wrong. I thought it was just that famous Rock — an unpopulated hunk of free-floating geology, which, if I’m being honest, I recognized mostly from the Prudential logo: that limestone protuberance at the mouth of the Mediterranean, that elephantine white molar jutting into the sky. True, I was traveling to Gibraltar on short notice; when I cold-called the director of the Gibraltar Museum, Clive Finlayson, he told me the museum happened to be starting its annual excavation of a Neanderthal cave there the following week and invited me to join. Still, even a couple of days before I left, when a friend told me she faintly remembered spending an afternoon in Gibraltar once as a teenager, I gently mansplained to her that I was pretty sure she was mistaken: Gibraltar, I told her, wasn’t somewhere you could just go. In my mind, I had privileged access.

But Neanderthals weren’t the slow-witted louts we’ve imagined them to be — not just a bunch of Neanderthals. As a review of findings published last year put it, they were actually “very similar” to their contemporary Homo sapiens in Africa, in terms of “standard markers of modern cognitive and behavioral capacities.” We’ve always classified Neanderthals, technically, as human — part of the genus Homo. But it turns out they also did the stuff that, you know, makes us human.

Neanderthals buried their dead. They made jewelry and specialized tools. They made ocher and other pigments, perhaps to paint their faces or bodies — evidence of a “symbolically mediated worldview,” as archaeologists call it. Their tracheal anatomy suggests that they were capable of language and probably had high-pitched, raspy voices, like Julia Child. They manufactured glue from birch bark, which required heating the bark to at least 644 degrees Fahrenheit — a feat scientists find difficult to duplicate without a ceramic container. In Gibraltar, there’s evidence that Neanderthals extracted the feathers of certain birds — only dark feathers — possibly for aesthetic or ceremonial purposes. And while Neanderthals were once presumed to be crude scavengers, we now know they exploited the different terrains on which they lived. They took down dangerous game, including an extinct species of rhinoceros. Some ate seals and other marine mammals. Some ate shellfish. Some ate chamomile. (They had regional cuisines.) They used toothpicks.

Wearing feathers, eating seals — maybe none of this sounds particularly impressive. But it’s what our human ancestors were capable of back then too, and scientists have always considered such behavioral flexibility and complexity as signs of our specialness. When it came to Neanderthals, though, many researchers literally couldn’t see the evidence sitting in front of them. A lot of the new thinking about Neanderthals comes from revisiting material in museum collections, excavated decades ago, and re-examining it with new technology or simply with open minds. The real surprise of these discoveries may not be the competence of Neanderthals but how obnoxiously low our expectations for them have been — the bias with which too many scientists approached that other Us. One archaeologist called these researchers “modern human supremacists.”

For millenniums, some scientists believe, before modern humans poured in from Africa, the climate in Europe was exceptionally unstable. The landscape kept flipping between temperate forest and cold, treeless steppe. The fauna that Neanderthals subsisted on kept migrating away, faster than they could. Though Neanderthals survived this turbulence, they were never able to build up their numbers. (Across all of Eurasia, at any point in history, says John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “there probably weren’t enough of them to fill an N.F.L. stadium.”) With the demographics so skewed, Stringer went on, even the slightest modern human advantage would be amplified tremendously: a single innovation, something like sewing needles, might protect just enough babies from the elements to lower the infant mortality rate and allow modern humans to conclusively overtake the Neanderthals. And yet Stringer is careful not to conflate innovation with superior intelligence. Innovation, too, can be a function of population size. “We live in an age where information, where good ideas, spread like wildfire, and we build on them,” Stringer told me. “But it wasn’t like that 50,000 years ago.” The more members your species has, the more likely one member will stumble on a useful new technology — and that, once stumbled upon, the innovation will spread; you need sufficient human tinder for those sparks of culture to catch.

“There was nothing inevitable about modern human success,” Stringer says. “It was luck.” We didn’t defeat the Neanderthals; we just swamped them. Trinkaus compares it to how European wildcats are currently disappearing, absorbed into much larger populations of house cats gone feral. It wasn’t a flattering analogy — we are the house cats — but that was Trinkaus’s point: “I think a lot of this is basically banal,” he says.

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