Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dissing Neandertals still goes on, despite new discoveries

Gentle Readers:

I came acorss this post Via a review in Salon, of Brian Fagan's book Cro-Magnon. I must say that Dr. Fagan is a well-respected archaeologist and a good writer who has written many books very good books on various aspects of archaeology. I should also mention that I meant to blog this post several days ago, but have not, for various reasons(partly to do with the now-seasonable weather after a very crappy month of May. In any case, the reviewer seems to think the book is already out of date. And I tend to agree with him.

First, the term "Cro-Magnon". It is popularly used as a standin for early "modern" humans living in Eurasia, who are scientifically named Homo(sapiens)sapiens. But scientists prefer "early moern human" or "Early modern European" to "Cro-Magnon", simply because the latter term is much more inclusive. Furthermore there are no apparent "modern" human fossils found coterminous with the later Neandertals(Homo(sapiens)neanderthalensis. Though the Chauvet Cave painings are generally considered to be the work of "modern" humans, there have been no fossils found, that would prove this, one way or another, at least not in most parts of the world where Neandertals and "moderns" apparently coexisted. There are still big arguments about this, with some workers even thinking Chauvet Cave was decorated by Neandertas, but this can't be proven either. Be that as it may, it appears that Dr. Fagan feels that Neandertals were, somehow, just not smart enough to compete(whatever that might mean in the context) with "modern" humans. Why? Because, in his view, "modern" humans had cave art and Neandertals didn't.Wow! He also thinks they were totally separate"species" that died out, perhaps because "modern" humans "preyed" on them. The only trouble with that idea(aside from the fact that Fagan has had this notion for a rather long time, though in other works, he did't dwell on it), is that at the Max Planck Institute, in Leipzig, Gerrmany, Svante Pääbo and his team have been extracting Neandertal genomes for years.

They started first with mitochondrial DNA, which in Neandertals, appeared to be quite different from "modern" humen mtDNA. This led Pääbp amd his team to conclued, in 1997, that, yeah, Neandertals were definitely quite different from outselves. But wait! The moment Pääbo and his team announced this, studies came out from other geneticists suggesting that it wasn't quite that simple. Among other things, modern chimpanzee subspecies, have greater differences in their mtDNA than did Neandertals.

Then there were the archaeological studies over the years between 1997 and 2010, that suggested very strongly that Neandertal behavior seems to have been very similar to ours in a number of areas, given that they mostly occupied different areas, and had different materials and potential food available to them. In a place calld Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, some 60,000 years ago, they were catching reindeer/caribou in a similar fashion(but without guns and snowmobiles or other transportation devices), in very much the same basic way that certain Alaska natives do in Central Alaska: they essentially herded them, or "met" them as they were crossing a stream(just as modern caribou do in Alaska) in order to get to forests to live through the winter(and breed). Fall is mating season among Rangifer tarandus, and it is also the time they migrate from open tundra to forests with deep, protected snow to keep wolves and other predators away. They are also at their best at that season, and provide a lot of food. Neandertals must surely have noticed their migratory habits and took advantage of this to plan their hunts, just like tradtional "modern" humans do.

Then there's a cave in Jordan called Tor Faraj, where Neandertals lived, patterned their living space in that humble cave, built fires near their sleeping areas to keep them warm at night, and so onIthey seem to have done that in various caves in Spain, too). Also, some 60,000 years ago or so, they were using birch pitch to make glue so they could better haft their tools(including "thrusting" spears which they mostly apparently used. Other workers discovered that, later on, Neandertals were associated with the so-called "Chatelperronian" style of tool making(and symbolic objects like necklaces or pendants. Some of these imply that Neandertals understood symbolism just as well as "modern" humans did. This strikes me as being very sophisticated indeed. And the archaeologist Francisco d'Errico claims that they came up with this "Chatelperronian" style independent of any "modern" humams. Others pooh-poohed him, claiming that the Neandertals "only imitated" what they saw on "moderns". This is one of the stupider conclusions I've seen, because aside from imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it takes anunderstanding of symbols and like characteristics, to be able to imitate anything. But then, people used to think that the native people of Australia were stupid, too, yet they knew to used some materials from the invading Europeans, for their own use on weapons, which strikes me, at least, as extremely smart.

Finally, in 2010, João Zilhão, found a stash of shells of some deep sea mussel in a cave in Spain. It was a Neandertal cave, and the shells had been decorated with a mixture of red hematite, ochre, and some slightly sparkly substance. The shells, in other words, were painted a kind of peachy orange, and strung through natural holes, for some probable symbolic purpose. Remnants of some shells seem to have been used as mixing cups for this purpose. Some West African people used to do things like this. Maybe they still do.

But that wasn't all. By 2010, Svante Pääbo and his team started in on sequencing the nuclear Neandertal genome. It is not yet compliete, but the results were a complete surprise: People who ended up in regions other than sub-Saharan Africa have some 1-4% "Neandertal" genes! Sub-Saharan Africans don't, but that hasn't stopped them from contributing to the gene pools of the rest of the world, one way or another, including, of course, the fact that they seem to have given us the modern "morph", which is the glue that holds all the world's populations together, IMO. We can no longer deny our kinship with Neandertals, a misunderstood prehistoric group, if there every was one. In fact, they are what I like to call a "despised group"; nobody in their right mind, supposedly, would claim kinship with them. One paleoanthropologist(whose psssible identity I won't reveal here, in order to protect the guilty), thinks Neandertals were so ugly and stupid he actually said he was glad he was different from them! But even "despised groups" are now asking for their human rights, and if Neandertals were still around, I am sure they would be, too. Unfortunately, they are a prehistoric despised group, which is not around any more, at least not as a distinct type, so they can't. That is one of the reasons, aside from the fact that they are strong presences in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, I write about them a lot. My aim is to make them respectable.

Having said all of this, it is quite apparent that Brian Fagan has no interest whatever and checking to see if his theories are correct. He doesn't appear to care if Neandertals are respectable or not. But many people do.The views presented in Cro-Magnon now seem wildly out of date, according to the reviewer, and I tend to agree with him. Whether or not Neandertals are Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or just Homo neanderthalensis, it is increasingly obvious that they seem to have thought like us, made the same kinds of decisions(given the respective contexts) as us, and generally behaved in ways quite similar to ourselves, mich as wolves and coyotes have similar habits(coyotes even form packs, where undisturbed) --and they have been known to mate! Three-qaurters of all "wolves" around the Great Lakes area have "coyote" gene sequences, and there are "coyotes" in New England and southeastern Canada, that have "wolf" genes. What does that make them? I don't know, but I have come to the conclusion that the genus Homo, starting at least with Homo erectus, were all capable of interbreeding, as this very same reviewer seems to be suggesting.

So Brian Fagan might want to consider two possible courses of action(or maybe both of them at the same time). First, he might want to try to open his mind a bit and get over his(and a lot of other people's) fixation on the (mostly anatomical IMO differences between Neandertals and ourselves, and he might also want to consider not involving himself in a subfield about which he very obviously knows almost nothing, except "recieved wisdom" that will, most likely, turn out to be quite mistaken.
Annne G


terryt said...

"Be that as it may, it appears that Dr. Fagan feels that Neandertals were, somehow, just not smart enough to compete(whatever that might mean in the context) with 'modern' humans. Why? Because, in his view, 'modern' humans had cave art and Neandertals didn't.Wow!"

I have long suspected that one main reason many scientists like to regard modern and Neanderthal humans as separate species is that they regard themselves as being special. They're academics and so emphasise 'intelligence' as the defining characteristic (it used to be the large brain, until it was consistently pointed out that Neanderthal brains are bigger on average than that of moderns).

"I have come to the conclusion that the genus Homo, starting at least with Homo erectus, were all capable of interbreeding, as this very same reviewer seems to be suggesting".

I've come to that conclusion too. In nfact I strongly suspect that Australopithecus diverged into several subspecies within Africa and out evolution was helped along by the interbreeding of many of these subspecies as technology improved and the various subspecies were able to move beyond their individual regions of origin.

The only problem remaining is why humans and chimps parted company in the first place. Perhaps a geographic separation unable to be crossed when they eventually met up again is the answer.

Anne Gilbert said...


I wondered, quite early on in my background research for what I'm writing, whether or not there might have been an unconscious or half-conscious "racial" element to all of this. The way some paleoanthropologists and prehistoric archaeologists(still) speak of Neandertals is very reminiscent of similar comments about the abilities or supposed inabilities of Native Americans and people of African descent. Which is ironic, in a way, since at least some of these paleoanthropologists and prehistoric archaelogists actually grew up in Africa, in "late" colonial times and shortly thereafter. You'd think they would understand the connection between such thinking and the stuff that is still being spewed out about Neandertals.
Anne G

terryt said...

"I wondered, quite early on in my background research for what I'm writing, whether or not there might have been an unconscious or half-conscious 'racial' element to all of this".

You're probably quite correct there.