A Neanderthal Christmas

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis

I spent Stressmas alone, delightfully free of the travel-and-consume imperative that grips my fellow lunatics in the West. Most memorably, i walked the Victoria streets for a couple of hours listening to two fascinating podcasts, courtesy of CBC Radio‘s Ideas program, called Homo (sapiens) neanderthalenis. From which I gleaned the following:

There have been perhaps 20 different species of human over the 400 million or so years since our ancestors learned to walk upright, but none has captured the imagination like the Neanderthals — the textbook ‘cave man.’ They ranged over much of Eurasia (from Portugal to Israel, Germany to the Mediterranean). The oldest find to date is perhaps 350,000 years old, though most specimens are less than 120,000. The fascinating thing about them is that they disappeared rather abruptly, some 25-30,000 years ago — precisely the time that modern man was moving into Eurasia from our African homelands.

The Neanderthals were built more like wrestlers than early modern humans (who were more like track athletes), so they would have had the advantage in a direct confrontation. The evidence suggests both that they led hard lives, and that they lived in some form of social structure: Many of the skeletons we’ve found show evidence of injury, some quite severe. But it’s healed injury, like breaks, or chronic conditions like arthritis, which argues that they lived in groups and supported each other. In later eras they ritually buried their dead.

At least one study claims their brain was about 30% larger than our own (1.8 versus our 1.4 litres). Yet what they used that big brain for is a puzzle. For decades since the first remains were unearthed in 1856 in the Neander Valley in Germany, they were considered simple scavengers, incapable of symbolic thought or reason. But lately people have been asking, if they were so simple-minded, then how did they survive for so long? The Neanderthal era spanned some big climate shifts, and still they were around for longer than we ourselves have been a distinct species.

The record isn’t completely clear, but it seems that Neanderthal culture didn’t involve any significant art. But when the African humans arrived in Europe, there was an explosion of art – music, notation, painting, engraving, carving, body decoration … all things we think of as special to humans, all lacking in the Neanderthal record. Evidence suggests that modern humans were using pigments and symbolic objects in Africa at least 100,000 years ago, possibly earlier, and that this has clearly been crucial in the evolution of homo sapiens sapiens. (Imagine that, Stephen Harper: art, crucial to our evolution. Or can you even imagine evolution?) The idea is that the symbolic nature of art ultimately led to our development of complex language, which really set us on the path to dominance.

If not art or language, then, what did homo neanderthalis use that big brain for? Ian Tattesall, Curator of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, thinks the Neanderthal world view is the most intriguing question. He believes they were not capable of symbolic cognition the way modern humans are (i.e. combining and recombining symbols in their brain to answer hypothetical questions such as ‘what if…?’). As to what they were capable of, who knows? “The problem,” he says, “is we’re really unable to imagine forms of consciousness other than our own.”

* * *

Which is where i start a-wondering. Many new-age thinkers maintain we are entering an age of pivotal human evolution, usually called an evolution of consciousness (whatever that means). To me, the Neanderthal mystery casts an interesting light on this question. Maybe all that time ago, with their giant brains, they already were what we are struggling to become as we loosen our grip on the egoic mind — the clever, deconstructing, manipulating, voice-in-the-head symbolic mind that drives us crazy even as it makes us overwhelmingly effective in mastering our environment. There they were, calmly living at one with the cosmos; then we showed up, naked and jabbering, and in an instant (anthropologically speaking) the Neanderthals were no more. But that’s just me talkin’.

* * *

Interestingly, Darwin’s seminal treatise on evolution, The Origin of Species (full text here) was published in 1859, just three years after the first Neanderthal bones were found.

With the advent of new technology, information on the Neanderthal is proliferating. Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is using pieces from some of the 450-600 individuals  found to date in the ambitious Neanderthal Genome Project. They’re trying to pin down an estimated 3 billion base pairs (representing 20-25,000 distinct genes), 50 to 60 at a time, to see whether humans and Neanderthals have a common ancestor, as some researchers believe, and whether the two species interbred (which would mean that some of us, genetically speaking, are at least partially Neanderthal; I say test the bureaucrats first).

Author: Greg Blee

Poster to my own gregblee.ca blog, and others.

2 thoughts on “A Neanderthal Christmas”

  1. You might be interested in checking out Bryan Sykes’ “The Seven Daughters of Eve”. He’s an Oxford geneticist who has done some research into the genetic connection between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons (our ancestors, as it turns out).
    First off ~ according to him,anyway ~ Neanderthals were in existence for at least 15,000 yrs. after the first Cro-Magnons reached Europe: maybe not exactly an “abrupt” disappearance, then (depending on what you consider “abrupt”).
    Sykes is an expert, particularly, in tracing evolutionary and genealogical genetics via mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter. He notes that palaeontologists believe that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons last shared a common ancestor more than 250,000 years ago. Following his system, that would translate to a difference of more than 25 mutations’ difference between the mitochondrial DNA of Neanderthals and modern Europeans. It turns out that there are 27 such mutations. His conclusion is that these were separate populations which shared a distant common ancestor ~ so distant that modern Europeans would be considered to be descendants of Cro-Magnons, but not of Neanderthals.
    He also says that there are no clear signs of inter-breeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, but that it’s not conclusively known whether or not this occured.
    From what I’ve read of Sykes’ work, it’ll be a lot more difficult to pin down the answers to this sort of question using nuclear DNA, due to recombination effects.

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