Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Romancing Neanderthals

I am about to head off to France for the summer to work on a book concerning Neanderthals and an international group of paleoarchaeologists who specialize in Neanderthals and early modern humans. For the Pilgrim's Way Cafe it is the ultimate pilgrimage to our roots. It also has me meditating upon our romance and popular imagination when it comes to these interesting human cousins.

The mass appeal of Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear has shown that a lot of people are fascinated by this romantic tale of a young Upper Paleolithic woman, Ayla, and her adoption by a clan of Neanderthals. Auel’s book has also revealed that modern people, in some small or great way, romanticize Neanderthals and in a way that we don’t romanticize ourselves.

There is a constant pendulum swing of theories about the Neanderthals, who they were, and why they went extinct around 30,000 years ago, mostly, they say, thanks to us. These theories are engaging in part because the factual evidence, though growing, is still so scant that we want to fill in the spaces with a good human story. And it is a human story.

Not so long ago, based on the reading of the evidence, Neanderthals, already unquestionably established as skilled toolmakers, were also afforded art making, fire making, burial rites, and language. Recently, based on new evidence, some archaeologists find that Neanderthals used fire but it looks like they didn’t make it, that ritual burials may not have been the norm, and that what language and symbolic thought they had were restricted both physically and also culturally, meaning, maybe they had the burgeoning skills but did not trust that way of working in the world. This is in contrast to us moderns who took symbolic thought and ran with it. (But, this does suggest that Neanderthals had culture, which is a very human trait indeed.)

This assertion puts forth that our trust in the ability of symbolic thought and its cultivation over many generations led to new and more complex ways of living in our environment and gave us a survival edge, especially when food sources were scarcer. This adaptive difference became more apparent as we migrated into areas in Asia and Europe where Neanderthals lived; our ways may have competed with theirs in the same environment and maybe contributed to their extinction some 30,000 years ago.

But we did mingle. Recent DNA analyses of Neanderthal bone samples proved definitively that we interbred and that between 1-4 percent of DNA from modern humans from Asia and Europe is shared with Neanderthals. Which comes back to Auel’s evocative and poignant portrait of Ayla’s life among the Neanderthals, who even if more limited linguistically and symbolically, were no less feeling and sensitive.

Most recently, a new theory is circulating. Based on analyses of Neanderthal eye sockets and crania, it suggests that Neanderthals relied more on sight than we do; it suggests that while Neanderthals were dedicating a good chunk of their brain-power to visual skills, it came at the cost of developing other parts of the brain, such as the frontal lobe.

It is an intriguing idea. But is it too simple? We know that Neanderthal brains were larger than ours and even when we factor that larger portions were dedicated to sight and to managing a larger body build and musculature, we can’t deny that they looked a lot like us and that any theory about their brain would seem closer to the mark if it afforded a more complex analysis of cerebral functioning—even if different—that we grant ourselves when analyzing our own brains.

But I think here is the root of why so many of us romanticize Neanderthals: They are so very like us and many of us carry a bit of them within, and yet, they made different choices and were so different, too. As we look around our complicated world, complicated because of our exceedingly capable ability to manipulate our environment and communicate it to each other both face-to-face and to future generations, I think many of us actually long for a simpler life when we gathered around a fire as meat roasted and someone shared a story, whether through complex vocabulary or grunts and gestures. I think this especially as I look around and see so many people bending their visual and cognitive skills to little handheld devices while missing a stop sign or sidewalk curb.

Neanderthals, who lived from around 350,000 to 30,000 years ago, had a good long run of some 320,000 years. Anatomically modern humans have been around only for around 160,000 years. It is eminently clear that our choices made with our run-with-it-symbolically-oriented brains may very well determine if we will manage to live as long as Neanderthals did, an eye opening thought just in time to see the curb.