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“OF ALL OUR human relatives,” John Lancaster wrote in the London Review of Books, December 17, 2020, “the closest in both time and genetics, the most compelling, and the best at making news are the Neanderthals.” This, despite our mental image of them being “lonely, hiding, remote cavemen: hunched figures, similar to us but stronger and stupider, huddling against the cold in an icebound Western Europe, waiting to become extinct.”
Like many an article in the LRB, John Lancaster’s “Twenty Types of Humans” is replete with tidbits. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are thoughts correcting the Neanderthals’ bad rap, rethinking their place among our antecedents, and even celebrating the scientific integrity of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel’s 1980 novel.
Dusseldorf, 1856. Discovery of the first Neanderthal bones was in a quarry near Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1856. Lancaster said the remains were “clearly similar to, but not quite the same as, Homo sapiens. That feeling of similar-but-not-quite is present all through the history of our engagement with the Neanderthals: when we look at them we are looking at a distorted reflection in a mirror.”
Clarifying the Image. Lancaster’s article reviews Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art. Ms. Wragg Sykes comes well qualified to tell this tale: Her Ph.D. thesis is on the last Neanderthals living in Britain. She contributes frequently to Scientific American and Guardian blogs and is also co-founder of the Trowelblazers project highlighting women archaeologists, palaeontologists, and geologists.
Lancaster cites Wragg Sykes’ clarifying the Neanderthal image: “The hunching – ‘knuckle-dragging’ would be the cliché – comes from the incorrect assembly of an early skeleton. Neanderthal man stood as upright as we do. As for the cold, which has dominated imagery of Neanderthals for a long time, Wragg Sykes sets out the evidence about chronology and climate to complicate that picture. People don’t realise just how long the Neanderthals were around.”
The Dominant Human Species. Neanderthals “were the dominant human species from 350,000 years ago to until 40,000 years ago.” During this extended timespan, the Earth had extreme climate changes, including tropical and Ice Age. To put our human existence in perspective, H. sapiens has survived only the past 40,000 years.
Lancaster noted, “One of the periods of Neanderthal dominance was during the Eemian, a late stage of MIS 5 around 123 ka [Marine Isotope Stage 5, 123 thousand years ago]. This ‘sun-drenched’ period was the ‘warmest and lushest’ experienced by Neanderthals; in fact it was the warmest planet humans have ever known.”
As Lancaster said, it was “…as far as one can imagine from the stereotyped image of shivering cavemen hiding in caves and occasionally emerging to whack mammoths on the head.”
Tomorrow in Part 2, we continue with John Lancaster’s and Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ rethinking of the Neanderthals. A 20th-century author, Jean M. Auel, comes out looking good as well.
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021