Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Works in progress

I came across an interesting blog from a writer by the name of Kim Norton. It's interesting because she is working on a novel that deals with Neandertals. Now since I am writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece in which Neandertals play a very important part, I am always interested in other people's thoughts about them. I must admit, my thoughts about Neandertals are not quite the same as hers. She seems to think they either communicated in some nonverbal way, or else they could not "compartmentalize" thought "domains". Perhaps she's right. We really don't have any way of knowing for sure. And it seems to me that this way of viewing Neandertal brains and Neandertal thought, comes from the work of Derek Bickerton, who is, I think, a linguist. I believe he is the one who came up with the idea that Neandertals apparently couldn't cross "thought domains". And what I've read of his work, just doesn't seem convincing to me. But again, perhaps he may be right.

On the other hand, this view of Neandertals as somehow fundamentally "different" derives from some old, and mistaken, notions that somehow, Neandertals were "closer to apes" than "we" are. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this notion was dominant in part because Neandertals were the first non-modern human fossils ever to be discovered. Furthermore, the famous Neander Valley fossil, after which they were named, was discovered in 1856, three years before Darwin published his theory of evolution. Therefore, when confronted with remains that seemed to belong to a human, but at the same time, did not look like any human type the researchers were familiar with, they simply did not know what to do. This "ape" view of Neandertals was reinforced some fifty years later, when Marcellin Boule "described" the now famous La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil from SW France. Boule made some pretty egregious mistakes; he either ignored, or did not know, the fact that the poor fellow had a rather bad case of arthritis, and had lost most of his teeth. All I can say, from a more "modern" perspective is, that you too would probably get arthritis if you had to live in a dank, damk cave during a cold and clammy Ice Age. But his fellows apparently thought well enough of him to bury him! The very fact that Neandertals frequently buried their dear departed, has allowed a lot of them to be preserved for posterity. And there is some evidence that they may have practiced some sort of rituals around these burials. In any case, as more was learned, the "brutish" image wore off--- to a certain extent.

Yet still there persists the idea that Neandertals were somehow fundamentally "different". Again, maybe this notion is correct. One difference, aside from the obvious anatomical ones, is that their populations were apparently quite small and scattered. Given the geographical area where they lived, and the time they lived in it, this isn't very surprising. One has only to consider people who live in northern Eurasian regions, and in northern North America. The populations of such groups as the Inuit aren't very large, either. In such severe and often fluctuating climatic conditions, resources may be scattered far and wide. The same was probably true for Neandertals.

But small populations are more severely impacted by such fluctuations than larger ones are, and this probably contributed to their disappearance, just as some small populations of "modern" humans have not survivied, or have strugggled to survive, into modern times. And this has nothing to do with "different" brains or "brutish"(whatever that means)behavior. Anybody so inclined can do the math and they will see how Neandertals --- or anybody else with a small population --- could disappear.

Which brings me back to the issue of language, etc. People who follow the Bickerton(and earlier workers') line of reasoning seem to be assuming that Neandertals were different from us in some fundamental way, because they disappeared. But such archaeological evidence as there is, doesn't seem to bear this out. They were perfectly competent hunters, thank you very much. They seem to have been able to organize the living spaces of their humble caves in some way which is familiar and recognizable to us "moderns", at least those among us who know something about hunter-gatherer traditional lifestyles. And, as I suggested above, there are tantalizing suggestions of rituals that probably brought "meaning" to their lives. Which suggests to me, at least, that their brains functioned pretty much the way ours do, and that they had a perfectly functional language, whatever that might have been.

How did they react to the presence of "moderns", when they arrived in Eurasia? We don't know. There are various ideas about that, which I will not go into at the moment. What "happened" to them? Again, we have no idea, and again, various ideas have been put forth. But their disappearance, in my opinion, was not due to some "inferiority" or "lack". They were "different" --- in some ways. But behaviorally, in the ways that "count"? I'm not so sure.
Anne G


Don said...

Well Anne, we all create our own reality. Yours is different to mine, as is your world view. There is every reason to think that Neanderthals lived in a different reality to our own: especially mine of a scientifically trained and modern male.Indeed there are many reasons deducable from their behaviour that they certainly did not think like us.
I am also interested in Neanderthals and am also writing about them now (nonfiction). You have already made some assumptions about them that I would despute. The first is that illustration. There is every reason to believe that continuous-growing head hair is a species flag that is particular to Homo sapiens. It does not occur in any other primate, and no other mammals that I know of, with the exception of domestic horses. And that's more like a mane complex, and it is used by them as a species flag too.We know this because they will refuse to cover a mare with a shaven mane. Just like men are put off by a women with a shaven head (there is a deep seated subconscious adversion).I suspect Neanderthals were effectively bald. There is some evidence (from the genetics of body lice) that they were "naked-apes" like us with sparse body hair. They also made hide clothing (they have the tools in their artifacts).
Because cold adaptation includes a genetic drift in hominids to white skin (as you see in Europeans) then we would expect Neanderthals to be light skinned, just like my Celtic tan!
Neanderthals were the top carnivours in Europe for a long time, they did not have the range of omnivious feeding we have, nor did they form pair bonds with a division of labour like us. They were politically correct. No difference between the sexes, no great protection of their young; everyone fended for themselves. No sex for meat as humans apparently negotiated.How do we know this? Because Neanderthal fossil bones show breaks and other massive injuries with a very high frequency. And they are the same frequency for men, women and children.
We also know Neanderthals were territorial and opportunistic ambush hunters. While Homo sapiens like us followed the large herds of ungulates through their season migrations and so had a steady food supply from the slow, unwarey, sick and lame animals.
How do we know this? Two kinds of evidence: One, the skeletal anatomy of Neanderthals is adapted to strength and spring. Ours is adapted to long-distance running and walking (like wolves who filled a similar niche.)
Second, human blades were made mostly of high quality fine-grained stone and the human collections are typically from many far-away sites. Neanderthals used whatever stone was at hand and did not travel elsewhere to get it.

There's a lot more, but that'll give you some pointers for further research. Oh, they probably didn't have FOX2 genes needed for speech, because Chimps don't have our modern type, and we seem to have evolved ours only recently (couple of hundred thousand years at most) so there's no reason to think Neanderthals did.(Since we split from a common ancestor more than half a million years ago.)

Hope this helps, Cheers, Don

Kim Norton said...

Dear Anne

Thank you very much for your kind comments about my writing and my blog.

As you said about JK Rowing, what matters is the story. Good writers have the ability to cause us to suspend our disbelief, even if the factual details are not always accurate.

I am way in London town for a few days, but when I get back to Bristol I will write more.

Thank, too, for guiding me through the subtle nuances of American culture!

Best wishes


Anne Gilbert said...


Yours is the common view, that sees differences more prominently than similarities. This view has been more or less "in place" since Neandertals were first discovered. And there are some problems, I think, with some of your assumptions. First of all, since humans started moving out of trees and onto plains(or into "mixed" savanna/forest), they have been losing hair. Or at least, body hair has become finer and finer in humans, probably because, in relatively hot climates, too much heat is retained. Having hair on the head may have been an (early) adaptation to being upright. But this is not known. Furthermore, re Neandertals, given the climate they lived in, they still needed some kind of clothing. And there is abundant evidence for that, in the shape of things like sidescrapers, etc. They still needed fire, for obvious reasons, and there are hearths. You also have to remember that, in most parts of the Neandertal range, plant food wasn't available much of the time, any more than it is available in, say interior Alaska much of the time(and the people there eat a lot of meat, I might add). In places such as Tor Faraj, there seems to be evidence that Neandertals ate the available plant food when they could get it. Apparently in Tor Faraj, dates from date palms were part of their diet, if I remember correctly. Much of the evidence you cite or suggest has been contradicted, or at least contested by some archaeologists; the guy who did the Tor Faraj study is one of them. They were certainly competent hunters; there is also evidence that they were good at just the kind of hunting that --- again --- some people in Interior Alaska practice to this day(only the Interior Alaskans have modern guns and such to practice it with). There is a place called Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, in Germany, whiich, in the "Neandertal era" was practically tundra. There is evidence there of a massive reindeer/caribou kill. It is also near a stream that the reindeer/caribou had to cross in order to get to forested areas for the winter. Which is pretty much the way the caribou hunters of interior Alaska catch their caribou to this day. And, unless you are a fanatic follower of Lewis Bindford's rather silly theories about the men not sharing with the women, I think there probably was a certain amount of reciprocality and division of labor. In conclulsion, you can, as you pointed out at the beginning of your reply, project just about anything you want to on what evidence the Neandertals(and, for that matter, contemporaneous "moderns") left behind for us to figure out. We tend to assume that because they "looked like" us, those "modern" humans who were contemporaneous with Neandertals in Eurasia, "acted like us". There is really no way of knowing this. There is really no way of knowing how either Neandertals or "modernss" actually behaved,but if you read some of the stuff that's been coming out in various journals, as I have, and for a long time, the bulk of the evidence is either contestable, or it tends to show that Neandertals really didn't act all that different from ourselves. And it's also quite likely, despite your talk about the FOX2 gene,--- which is an abberation in "modern" humans, and, as at least one researcher pointed out, probably can't be used as a proxy for the developoment of speech. There's no way of knowing whether or not Neandertals had such a gene, so it's not safe to assume they didn't. Be that as it may, you are entitled to your view of the situation. Just remember, that views such as yours, though more common than the "opposition's", have also been contested in various ways, practically since their discovery.
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...


In my case, I have to be (somewhat) accurate, since these Neandertals are supposed to be operating in medieval England, taking part and influencing some very real events. I think my portrayal of Neandertals is accurate enough; I haven't gone into a lot of detail about this, though they more or less start out at a place which is a known archaeological site, and it has significance to them. On the history part, I'm finding I have to take a lot of notes and (eventually) construct a timeline, just to keep things in order. But you're right about one thing. If the story is strong and the storyteller is good enough, you can enter "their" world, whatever that world is. Whatever you are doing in London, I hope it turns out to be enjoyable, and I will happily keep everybody posted.
Anne G