Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Robert Sawyer's essay on Neandertals

I have a lot of respect for Robert Sawyer.  Most of the time.  He is an excellent writer,and I've enjoyed many of the boos I've read that he's authored.  I will continue to follow his output.  And he has written an essay about Neandertals, which is worth reading.Unfortunately, he trots out the same old, same old, regarding what Neandertals did or did not do, though he does put a kind of different "spin" on it.  He claims that Neandertals were somehow smarter for not supposedly emulating the things "we" are supposedly famous for:  burying our dead and having "religion"(he implies, just as in his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, that Neandertals didn't), and he implies that they didn't "go in for" decorations, such as painting themselves with ocher. 

Trouble is, there are a number of known, and agreed-upon, Neandertal burial sites.  Even the (somewhat) controversial Shanidar is thought to be a burial site, though there is disagreement as to whether they "really" buried their dead with flowers(I happen to think that in this case, they probably did).  And there are others.  It is also true that there are some sites that were thought at one time to be Neandertal burial sites, which are now not thought to be, but that is entirely different from saying Neandertals never practiced rituals or buried their beloved relatives. 
It is also untrue that Neandertals "never" decorated themselves.  There is ample evidence of this, at some sites, and even in earlier sites, there is some evidence of ocher use, which may have served both practical and "decorative" purposes. 

Finally, he trots out the whole "extinction by genocide" argument which has been around in one form or another, practically since the time Neandertals were first discovdefred.  A lot of people seem to buy into it, because they have an unnecessarily "dark" view of what "human nature" is. There is "human nature" all right, but those people who seem to hold this view most strongly, also seem not to understand that philosophers and others have been debating exactly what "human nature" is for  at least the last 2,000 years, and have not come to any agreement on this subject. And again, while there is some argument as to whether Neandertals came up with thingvs like decorating themselves, and more "modern" tools by imitating "modern" humans, or whether they came up with these things on their own(the "great minds think alike" version of prehistory, perhaps), there is no doubt that they figured out such complex ideas as social distinctions and probably had rituals and belief systems and myths of their own.  The disadvantage to Neandertals is, these kinds of things don't show up in the archaeological record, except indirectly.  Whereas with "modern" humans, you have a time when somebody started writing down the myths and rituals of the people who were telling the stories, dancing the dances, singing the songs, etc.

Robert Sawyer is, as I said, a fine writer, and this essay was triggered by the fact that Neandertals apparently had tools that were just as efficient as "modern" ones, sometimes more efficient. But even in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, he seems to have ignored or been unaware of these findings. He may have had an excuse for ignoring or not knowing abou these things at the time he wrote these books. But, again in my view, he has no excuse ignoring these findings now. Shame on Robert Sawyer!


Bee said...

Hi, Anne

You've likely already come across the article (I may have traced it from here) and I'm not sure where I read it (will try to find it later), but there is a theory about Neandertals extinction which doesn't require human intervention at all. Both humans and Neandertals were at one time reduced to very small numbers - this is certainly thought to be true of humans, that there were less than a thousand at one point.

Humans had a lifespan and reproductive advantage. Neandertal slightly shorter lifespans meant that a Neandertal woman on average rarely had sufficient time to bear and raise more than one or two children in her lifetime, when all the usual factors for average fertility and child mortality are considered. If, say, half the population is not able to reproduce itself, as in, for every adult male and female, only half are replacing themselves, attrition leads to extinctions. It may be they were incapable of having enough children to offset that point at which they were a very small population, while humans were able to to breed more prolifically.


Anne Gilbert said...

Bee:anyWell, I've seen articles that purport to make this claim. It's true enough that the "average" Neandertal had fairly short lifetimes, but if you look at the "average" lifespan of people living in, say Western Europe around 1300 or so, that wasn't any longer than that of Neandertals.  For that matter, neither was the "average" lifespan of most people in the American colonies at the time of the American Revolution, if it comes to that.  And we're talking "modern" humans here.  "Modern" humans in Paleolithic times had a slight reproductive advantage all right; usually organisms that are somewhat adapted to harsher climates, have fewer offspring.  If there is something that ameliorates conditions so that there is a better food supply, even these creatures may have more offspring.  Until recently, that has been one of the salient features of the polar bears around  Churchill, Manitoba.  Until climate changes there and elsewhere interfered with thier food supplies, it was not unusual for some mother bears to have tree cubs in Churchill, Manitoba, a situation which is highly unusual in other parts of "polar bear country" and even more unusual now, I suppose.  In any case, I suspect Neandertals had something of the same pattern, whereas "moderns" already had a larger population because they had more reliable food supplies. IOW, I think population size differences are the key here, not any particular other "advantage"; many of these seem more apparent than real to me.
Anne G