Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Robert Sawyer's "Neandertal problem"

In addition to having a "publishing problem", Robert Sawyer has, IMO a "Neandertal problem" as well.  Again, it's not because he exactly negatively portrays Neandertals in his books Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids.  His Neandertal characters are very engaging, and he writes very well of them.  Still, he has a problem.


Maybe I should call it a "religion problem", because it became very obvious, when I was reading Hominids, that he honestly believes "religion" is bad.  So he wrote his Neandertals in such a way that they were very, very "rational" , and never developed spiritual beliefs.  Which prompted person of the cloth to write him and ask if "Is it a copout that Neandertals never had religion?"   Sawyer gave a very "rational" answer, which reflects his beliefs, far more than it reflects any beliefs about the unknown, Neandertals might or might not have had.  And that shows very strongly in his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy as well. 


For example, in the very first book, Hominids, Sawyer goes to great pains to deny that Neandertals ever buried their dead.  To do this, he apparently has read the now-discredited theories of Robert Gargett, who claimed, in effect, that Neandertal burials weren't "really" burials.  Gargett did a useful service in pointing out that, in some cases, what looked like Neandertal burial sites, may have been the result of something else.  Gargett was especially hard on the Shanidar "flower burial", which he claimed, in essence, was "just accidental", as was the evidence of flower pollen.  Some people still believe this about the flower pollen, however it is odd that five of the six pollens found at the Shanidar site are used as traditional herbal medicinals to this day, and also that these flowers bloom in the spring, whereas the excavation of Shanidar Cave took place in August. 


Furthermore, if you know how to look evidence for deliberate Neandertal burial is reasonably easy to determine.  Most, if not all, Neandertals that are known to have been buried, are buried in a "flexed" position.  People who just "drop dead", or even fall in a faint, never, as far as I know, fall or drop dead in a "flexed" position.  The Kebara burial, for instance, is shown buried flexed, minus the skull, but whoever buried Mr. Kebara, thoughtfully left his jaw and his hyoid bone(the bone that attaches your tongue to the rest of your throat so you can talk), for future humans to ponder.


Then there's the famous(or infamous) La Chapelle Aux Saintes fossil.  The excavators(two brothers who also happened to be Catholic priests), took a photograph of the fossil.  Click the link and look closely at the fossil and see how it lies.  All of these practices suggest deliberate burial, which suggests some kind of rituals were involved.  If rituals were involved, this practice also suggests, at least intuitively, some kind of spiritual beliefs.  We have no idea what these spiritual beliefs, if any, might have been, but rituals of this kind do, at least, suggest some form of symbolism or symbolic thinking.  And I don't care who they are, nobody is completely rational when they lose some important or well-loved member of their family or band, or tribe, or whatever. 


So the real question here isn't whether it's a "copout" to create Neandertals who never "had religion".  The real question here is, how much of our own beliefs or nonbeliefs  about Neandertals(or anybody else, for that matter), are we simply "imposing" on poor Neandertals, who aren't here to defend themselves?  Of course, one can argue that the same could be said of people who claim they had a "religion", and they would be right.  We have no way of actually knowing, absent a time machine.  But there is enough archaeological evidence, which, for his own purposes, Sawyer seems to have conveniently ignored, to suggest that they did have some sort of ritual or spiritual beliefs -- about something.  We just don't know what.


Finally, we should keep in mind that all of us have "spiritual beliefs" of one kind or another.  Heck, even many atheists have "spiritual beliefs".  They just don't rest on believing that a deity exists.  So, my final question to Mr. Sawyer and other "rationalists" of this type is, why can't we accept the idea that Neandertals had them, too?

Anne G


terryt said...

"Heck, even many atheists have 'spiritual beliefs'".

I consider myself atheist (though slightly Rastafarian) but I'm surprised at the number of times 'coincidence' has played a very unusual part in my life. I won't bore you with any examples, but it's been enough to convince me that some sort of 'force' exists. I'm far from convinced that such a force has anything in common with the god of the Old Testament though. Hence not completely Rastafarian.

Kirstin said...

Um, are you new to books? First of all, it's fiction, not an anthropology textbook.

Second, it's consistent and well-supported within the text.

Third, you're letting your bias and your beliefs skew your answer. It's obvious that you want to believe that Neanderthals about the "unknown." (And notice that? I used quotation marks to denote that you had actually said that. You used them to try to cast doubt on his argument. But the former and not the latter use of them is why they're called quotation marks.)

I get it. Your spiritual beliefs make you want to believe that absolutely everything out there will support Neanderthal burial and therefore a universality of spiritual beliefs. But just as their is a diversity of belief

It's very interesting to me that you use phrases like "And I don't care who they are, nobody is completely rational when they lose some important or well-loved member of their family or band, or tribe, or whatever." You've just thrown away any support you've tried to build up that yours was the rational argument. The rational position cares about all evidence, examines it, and draws a conclusion that is reasonable to that evidence.

And your argument just gets downright nasty in parts. "Sawyer seems to have conveniently ignored . . ." and other characterizations are just plain rude. Argue the facts and we can have a great discussion. Cast aspersions and you will have insulted everyone who wanted to talk with you on this subject.

Anne Gilbert said...


I'm sorry, but you are the one who is being "just plain nasty" in the two comments you have made her. I actually enjoyed the Neanderthal Parallax series, and, believe it or not, I have a lot of respect for Sawyer as a writer? So why this kind of defensive-sounding commentary. My problem with the series is(and I have read a*lot* of the academic literature concerning Neandertals that is out there; take my word for it), was that regardless of how "well supported within the text" his premise was, it is not well-supported within the appropriate literature! And yes, a rational argument does, in fact "care about all the evidence", but some evidence is less well-supported than others. Finally, since you seem to be accusing me of being rude and nasty, ask yourself this what is "rational" about archaeologists who take the exact same fossils and the exact same artifacts, and end up coming to exactly opposite conclusions about it? I don't believe this is terribly "rational", but I have read arguments on both sides about things like this. And finally, claiming or implying that, under the circumstances, one conclusion is more "reasonable to the evidence" than another, isn't very rational, unless there is overwhelming support for "your" conclusion. The fact is, that it's known that Neandertals at times and in places, did, indeed bury their dead, and it is possible to suggest some sort of rituals or spiritual beliefs from this. If you don't believe me, get yourself to some library(preferably one with a lot of academic literature, and start reading. I'm sorry you don't like my conclusions, but they actually are based on the available archaeological literature, some of which Mr. Sawyer apparently just hasn't read or is not aware of.

Joansz said...

What I've read about Neanderthals would not fill a small book shelf, but I have to agree with your logic, Anne. I think it's logical to assume that early sentient people would develop something that could be construed as spiritual or religious to explain the unexplainable. After all, their body of empirical evidence would have been rather limited, and I think it probable that they observed outcomes that they thought their behavior caused. This happens today and people tend to forget to account for coincidence, so a small behavior becomes a rite--such as the baseball player who has to wear the same pair of sock each game, the lucky penny, etc. One would think we'd know better, but how could such ancients with their limited empirical data have known better?