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JOHN LANCASTER’S ARTICLE, “Twenty Types of Humans,” London Review of Books, December 17, 2020, got me thinking about the status of Homo neanderthalensis. In particular, perhaps they weren’t knuckle-dragging stocky prehistoric protohumans.
Today in Part 2, we learn more about Neanderthals, from Lancaster’s review of Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.
Always in Caves? Neanderthals evidently didn’t build condos. But Lancaster noted that discovering their traces in caves is “a side effect of humanity’s planetary domination: the only places where traces of the deep past remain are places we haven’t built over or crushed underfoot. There could be Neanderthal remains all around where I’m writing this, but I live in London and those traces, if they ever existed, are long and permanently lost.”
Neanderthal Hunting. Lancaster said, “Eurasian fauna included beavers, boars, monkeys, straight-tusked elephants, hippopotami, badgers and turtles. (According to Wragg Sykes, in ‘a bizarre ecological twist’, the turtles were hunted by the badgers.) All of these species were hunted by Neanderthals, with the sensible exception of the hippopotamus, then as now an incredibly dangerous animal, which is currently responsible for at least five hundred deaths a year in Africa.”
Why did Neanderthals disappear? Or did they? Neanderthals disappeared from archaeological records “with shocking abruptness,” Lancaster noted, “around 40 ka.” Wragg Sykes discusses three possible reasons for these once ubiquitous Neanderthals becoming less obvious.
The first “and most lurid” possibility is a genocidal war between them and H. sapiens. Wragg Sykes believes this is a mistaken idea, a cultural artifact of our own times.
The second possibility noted by Lancaster “is that we did not defeat the Neanderthals, but simply outcompeted them. The climate was getting colder fast at 40 ka, and (contrary to the stereotype) the Neanderthals did not love the cold.”
“They were shorter than us, heavy-set and strong,” Lancaster reasoned, “and they had extraordinarily high energy requirements: some seven thousand calories a day. For a band of 25, that’s a reindeer a day, every day, all year round.”
The Third Possibility: Jean M. Auel Got It Right. Lancaster wrote, “The third theory is that we didn’t fight them or outcompete them, but interbred with them. In her six-book Earth’s Children series, novelist Jean M. Auel populated her prehistoric world correctly with co-existing Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon H. sapiens.
Not without controversy when published in 1980, The Clan of the Cave Bear’s main character, a Cro-Magnon named Ayla, is rescued by a Clan medicine woman of the species H. neanderthalensis. Ayla matures and has an interspecies child.
“To general amazement,” Lancaster noted, “in 2010 it turned out that this theory is at least partly correct. Neanderthal DNA was sequenced and compared with H. sapiens DNA…. Although no individual has more than 2.6 per cent Neanderthal DNA, a large part of the Neanderthal genome still exists: most sources give a figure of 20 per cent….”
“In other words,” Lancaster wrote, “the Neanderthals are still here; we are at least partly them, in the very synapses that fire as I write these words and you read them. It is an amazing thought.”
Especially when we recall the previous image of a knuckle-dragging guy, stronger but stupider than us. My assessment is some may have been, and some weren’t. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays, 2021