Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Murder and mayhem at Shanidar Cave?

Several days ago, a story came out on several venues, that suggested a Neandertal inhabitant of Shanidar Cave, living some 45,000 years ago, was injured by a projectile weapon wielded by a "modern" human.  The story was on many venues; this particular one is a typical example.  The author of the paper that generated all these news stories, Steven Churchill, seems to have come up with the idea that the kind of wound sustained by Mr.. Shanidar(there is evidence of an injury to one of his rib bones), could only have been made by some sort of projectile weapon, such as a thrown spear, or what is sometimes referred to as an "atlatl".  Now examples of atlatl's are known only in association with "modern" humans.  The only problem is, that these weapons are found in periods long after there were any Neandertals, anywhere. 


The John Hawks weblog has a few things to say about this, and much of what Dr. Hawks says on this issue, makes a lot of sense.  For one thing, there is no evidence of any "modern" humans in the vicinity of Shanidar Cave, in northern Iraq, anywhere near the time Shanidar 3 and his fellow Neandertals occupied it.  It's certainly true that there is no evidence that Neandertals had projectile weapons or tools such as atlatls.  Supposedly, they "only" had "thrusting spears", which could "only" be used at close range on prey.  However. . . . .


Several years ago, at a place called Schöningen, Germany, several long, javelin-like implements were found.  They were made of wood, about seven feet long, and hardened and sharpened at one end.  They look to me not unlike much, much later medieval lances, which are meant to be thrown.  But these "lances" or whatever they are, are around 400,000 years old!  Those who study them, agree that they were apparently throwing weapons.


You might object that Neandertals lost the technology.  Maybe.  But, on the other hand, these 400,000 year old "spears", or whatever they are, were luckily preserved.  Very few prehistoric items made from wood have survived, and then only under very unusual circumstances.  So the question remains:  is it possible that Neandertals had more items in their inventory than "thrusting spears"?    We have no way of knowing, of course, but it certainly is a possibility.  It's perfectly possible, too, that they simply lost this technology at some point, because they didn't need it, but I would think that in a situation where you are likely "foraging" every day, for whatever you can find to eat in the landscape, anything that helped you bring it home to your humble cave or rockshelter, would have been kept, or at least modified.  Of course, it is possible that "thrusting spears" are modified "javelins".  I don't know.


What I find troubling is, that Steven Churchill seems to assume that Neandertals didn't have certain kinds of technologies.  Except that they could be awfully ingenious with what they did have.  They could make hafting glue out of birch pitch, which requires heating the birch pitch(or pitch of other trees, or tar, as in a find in Syria), to a certain temperature, and keeping that temperature constant -- no mean feat when you don't even have a fireplace to do it in. But that is exactly what they apparently did.


Even more troubling about this, is something else  which I've pointed out on a number of different venues.  There seems to be another assumption, which is very attractive to a number of people, that somehow "modern" humans are "naturally violent and aggressive".  This viewpoint is interesting, and there certainly appears to be a "human nature", just as you might say there is a "wolf nature", for example.  But people have been trying to figure out exactly what "human nature" si for at least the last5 2,000 years, and have not yet figured it out.  "Human nature" is a lot of things, some nice, unselfish, saintly, altruistic, etc., others, not so nice, sometimes aggressive and violent.  In other words, "human nature" covers a range of traits, both "positive" and "negative".  They all have their "uses".  Unfortunately, the idea that "humans are naturally aggressive and violent" is simply a variation on a a very distorted reading of the idea of original sin.  Some early western Christians decided that humans were "naturally bad".  Traditionally, this has centered around  sexuality, but in modern times, "sexuality" is no longer considered particularly "sinful".  However, starting around the midi-1960's, "aggression" and "violence" have tended to be treated this way.  Part of this, at least in the US, stemmed from a horrified reaction to what was happening in Vietnam at the time, among other things.  Yet this idea became quite widespread, and it seems to have attracted the attention of some otherwise sensible types who, in my opinion should have known better.  In other words, this notion has gained widespread, and, I think, rather uncritical acceptance.  And when I've pointed this out, someone always comes up with something like this:  "You think humans aren't naturally aggressive and violent?  Just look at Rwanda, Darfur or "--put your favorite hotspot here. 


The trouble with this is, the people who come up with these examples are never talking about what anthropologists call "forager" societies.  And both Neandertals and early "moderns" were definitely in this category(hint:  such societies used to be called "hunter-gatherers").  Neandertals appear to have been a very small population indeed.  The earliest "moderns" had populations that probably weren't much larger, at least until well after Neandertals disappeared.  These kinds of small societies don't have the means, nor can they afford, the kind of violence and "aggression" most people think of, when they insist that "human nature is naturally aggressive".  This doesn't mean that aggressive behavior never occurs in such societies, but rather, that it is a lot more rare, and is channeled differently than in, say, some ghetto where drive by shootings occur all the time.


So it is possible that whatever caused Shanidar 3's injury, was not caused by some "modern" human at all.  It might have, for all we know, been two Neandertal tribes or clans or families arguing over some bit of prime woolly mammoth hunting grounds or the like.  We have no way of knowing this, absent a time machine, but it's a possibility that never seems to have occurred to Dr. Churchill.  It also never seems to have occurred to anybody that it's possible that Neandertals had projectile weapons we don't know about.  The Gentle Reader should bear in mind  that we really don't know all that much Neandertal cultures, or those of the earliest "moderns", for that matter. It is true that much is being learned every day, that wasn't known previously, but even so, there is still much we don't know, and, I think, much to be discovered.  What is being discovered, suggests that Neandertals were perfectly smart, and perfectly capable, and in almost all, if not all, ways, comparable to "modern" humans.  And if someone discovers  Schöningen-tyep  "javelins" in some Neandertal cave, then Dr. Steven Churchill will have to go back to his archaeological drawing board.

Anne G

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