Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Neandercannibals or Neandervictims? Or both? Or neither?

A story has been going around, the last few days, on various news media about Neandertals. It has turned up on several venues, all of which I have at least checked, and this story is pretty typical.


Now I don't doubt that humans of various kinds have practiced forms of "cannibalism".  There have been many reports of this, often, however, from what can only be described as hostile sources. Or, if  the sources do understand the practice, somebody even farther outside, and not a direct observer, misunderstands and sensationalizes the practice. For example,the unfortunate Fore people of Papua New Guinea used to practice a type of "cannibalism", which unfortunately for them, resulted in an infection similar to "mad cow disease", at least until governments stopped the practice. But enough is known about it so that it's obvious it was part of funeral rituals.  Some  Amazonian tribal groups are known to have eaten their enemies, either to absorb their valor or to show how much they despised them. And then, of course, there is "survival cannibalism" of the "Donner Party" type, where starving stranded people sometimes ate their dead to survive.


To get back to Neandertals, there have been reports that the Croatian site Krapina was also the site of some sort of Neandertal "cannibal feast", since the fossil remains were often incomplete and some of them appeared to have cutmarks on them, or smashed in such a way as to get to the bone marrow. Others, more recently(unfortunately, I can't track down the article at this point), have suggested that what look like cutmarks may actually be the result of hyenas or the like, digging up Neandertal remains. There is also the French site of Moula-Guercy, which also seems to be the site of some Neandertal "cannibal feast".


This raises some interesting questions. News media that pick up on these stories, tend to sensationalize them for various reasons, especially, in my opinion,when it comes to Neandertals. This is not surprising, since Neandertals have routinely been treated as a "despised group" of humans, albeit a prehistoric "despised group" that are not here to speak up for themselves(as I am quite sure they would, were they around today).  "Despised groups" are often portrayed as groups that routinely engage in "despised practices" that "we" can feel "superior" about.  If the Gentle Reader doesn't believe this, try investigating almost any media story about, say Muslims, and you'll quickly see what I mean.


The problem with any "prehistoric cannibalism" story,regardless of who or what it involves, is that "we" weren't there! Thus, at Moula-Guercy, for example, we have no way of knowing whether they (a) loved Aunt Sue and Grandpa Joe so much that when they died, they ate them, (b)whether it was some "enemy" Neandertal group, or (c)whether they had an ethic of somebody being hopelessly ill or whatever and they were starving anyway, so it was "eat me so the tribe can continue". The evidence would probably be much the same, regardless of the cause. And that's what the media don't generally "get".


The story I linked to above, also seemed to suggest that, in this case "modern" humans ended up eating some hapless Neandertal at a French cave.  The story, along with some others pretty much in the same vein,that I've read, suggests that "modern" humans did in the last Neandertals by eating them! Well,well!  This certainly fits in with some people's notions about "modern" humans somehow being "naturally" violent-- actually, a modern variation of a rather distorted "take" on the Christian idea of "original sin" -- but all theological notions or distortions thereof aside, human nature, whatever that is, happens to be a lot of things, not just one thing, and there's no reason to believe that when "moderns" and Neandertals encountered one another, the encounters took a variety of forms, from violent to friendly to possible gene exchange. We can't know, because we weren't there.


Finally, to conclude, the latest John Hawks blog entry has some interesting observations about this story, plus a link to one of the first news reports about this find. His conclusion is especially interesting, because until now, at least, there have been few or no diagnostic human fossil remains associated with the earliest "Aurignacian" period.  This period has been assumed to be the work of "modern" humans, but it's more likely that "Aurignacian tool types" are a stylistic artifact. Whatever the case may be, the "cannibalized jaw" appears to be Neandertal or has "Neandertal-like" characteristics, which may mean,according to Hawks, that "modern" humans were very physically variable then -- or -- according to this latest post -- that we might be seeing a diagnostic fossil associated with the Aurignacian period.  Remember, that this is the period the famous Chauvet Cave paintings. Hawks suggests that the jaw might be an actual Neandertal. If this is the case, that will really make science headlines, and doubtless cause considerable uproar for a long, long time. Neandertals are "controversial" because they are a "despised group", and this is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.

Anne G

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