A recent discovery in Gibraltar adds to the growing body of evidence which portrays our Neanderthal cousins as smart, thoughtful people capable of abstract thought and an appreciation for art. Though the graffito found in a cave overlooking the Mediterranean may not look like much – perhaps like a grid for a game of noughts and crosses – the 39,000 year old engraving suggests that these prehistoric people engaged in abstract artwork – something akin to a Stone Age Jackson Pollock. Since this is a very significant discovery, I thought it would provide a welcome footnote to my novel Ancestor (given the almost guaranteed nature of further discoveries, I’ll probably be tempted to release a 2nd edition – with updated info – at a later stage). For now, I’ve decided to revisit the current ‘rehabilitation’ of Neanderthal Man – if not in popular literature, then at least in scientific circles – as portrayed via a character from my book.
Later, sitting on his porch with a well-deserved tumbler of brandy, Professor Brophy recalled his Neanderthal lecture with nostalgia. Simpler days. When everything still made sense. He slowly mouthed the words of the prepared text. After countless presentations, they were ingrained into his memory:
“Today we inhabit a world where Homo sapiens is unquestionably the most intelligent – if only by reasoning ability – creature on Earth. Even recent scientific evidence of a remarkably similar genetic makeup, fails to hide the obvious chasm between man and beast (at this point, Brophy would normally show a slide captioned ’Over 95% DNA Shared’, offering a graphic side-by-side comparison of humans and chimpanzees, juxtaposed with a photo of a chimp drinking its own urine ‘from source’).
“But this supremacy hasn’t always been undisputed. In a period that stretched from about 250,000 BC until 25,000 years ago – before their kind mysteriously vanished – a related group of humans lived in Europe and parts of western and central Asia (on the projector, he’d cue a map of Asia, Europe and northern Africa, with known Neanderthal ranges identified in red – an area curiously overlapping the Roman Empire outside Africa, as Brophy once observed).
“These were people specially adapted to the glacial conditions of the Northern Hemisphere at the time. They had squat, muscular frames that were efficient at conserving body heat; gigantic, broad noses with multiple sinus cavities that warmed the cold air they breathed and deep, wide rib cages that helped insulate vital organs against freezing temperatures (here, Brophy normally flashed stock images of snow and ice covered landscapes, with humanoid inhabitants conspicuous by their absence – no point in revealing the creature to audiences prematurely, Brophy figured).
“Although the little we know about them has been gleaned mostly from fossils, the mere mention of their name evokes a larger-than-life image in most people’s minds.
“At the beginning of the twentieth century, their bones were thought to represent a primitive and barbaric race. Although it wasn’t supported by any scientific data, the zeitgeist was encapsulated by the alternative naming proposal for the species, Homo stupidus. Marcellin Boule’s 1911 reconstruction of a Homo neanderthalensis skeleton, purposely but erroneously crafted with a stooped stance, further reflected his contemporaries’ belief in modern man’s superiority (new slides showed artists’ sketches from the time. They depicted Neanderthals as hairy, hunched brutes – more ape than man). Unchallenged, Boule’s flawed artwork became the enduring image of man’s ancient cousin and, in subsequent decades, as the term ‘Neanderthal’ gradually morphed into a slur, this false stereotype was ingrained into pop culture.
“The latter is best illustrated by the 1986 movie The Clan of the Cave Bear, based on the novel of the same name by Jean M. Auel, where blond and blue-eyed Daryl Hannah plays the role of an inventive Cro-Magnon – as our modern human ancestors in Europe are sometimes called – adopted by a Neanderthal tribe comprising darker-hued dimwits who are incapable of complex speech and reliant on sign language. Of course, this also revealed certain Western racial prejudices (at this point, the professor would normally show a short clip from the movie, involving badly made-up actors grunting and hand-signalling their way through cringe-worthy sub-titled dialogue).
“Recent DNA studies, however, established that many Neanderthals were pale skinned with fair hair and light coloured eyes, while modern Europeans didn’t develop similar pigmentation until several thousand years later. Which, based on appearances, would make Daryl Hannah the more likely Neanderthal (Brophy normally allowed for a few seconds of laughter here, unless the audience consisted of school children too young to remember the striking actress).
“But that’s only on a superficial level.
“More importantly, new finds and a re-examination of old fossils have revealed that Neanderthals walked as upright as you and me. In fact, studies show their lower legs, which were short relative to their upper legs, allowed for exceedingly efficient movement over mountainous terrain, whilst also providing a thermoregulatory advantage in cold climates.
“The discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone matching that of modern humans, as well as the FOXP2 gene in their DNA – associated with language – also suggest they were fully capable of sophisticated speech (the slide that followed – a photo of a finger-sized, horseshoe-shaped bone – normally held more fascination for Brophy than his audience).
“Most humbling of all, though, extensive measurements revealed an average brain size for Neanderthals significantly bigger than modern man’s. Although cranial volume isn’t always an exact indicator of intelligence, the difference is impressive enough to suggest Neanderthals might have been smarter – if only on an individual basis – than our ancestors.
“For a while, though, notwithstanding this increased respect, any bolder declarations were hindered by a lack of corroborating archaeological evidence. As sceptics loved to point out, ‘clever is as clever does’. But, gradually over the last decade, as discoveries of sophisticated bone and stone tools mounted, and as evidence of a complex cultural life – including intricate decorative art – unfolded, this cynicism faded (cue slides of stone and bone tools, artists’ representations of limbs and torsos covered in decorative red ochre and black manganese paint, as well pigment-stained, perforated mollusc shells and pierced animal teeth strung together as beaded necklaces and bracelets).
“It all came to a head in the spring of 2012, with the discovery of cave art in southern Spain that shocked the scientific community to its core. Dated at 42,000 years, roughly 10,000 years older than any previous known samples, the depiction of seals was attributed to Neanderthals, making them the world’s first cave paint artists (an accompanying slide showed six detailed cave drawings of the sea creature, oddly resembling the DNA double helix).
“Of course, it never rains, but pours. Just a few months later, another amazing revelation proved the final nail in the coffin of the Neanderthals’ undeserved brutish reputation. Using a revolutionary new dating technique, a multi-university study concluded that several prehistoric cave paintings in northern Spain, previously attributed to Cro-Magnons, were in all probability produced by Neanderthals (slides with more cave paintings followed, showing handprints stencilled in red ink, a hazy red disk, and random red spots).
“Almost overnight, the supposed bedrock of modern man’s superiority, namely symbolic thinking and artistic expression, was in serious doubt. Decades-old theories had to be revisited.
“Given all this astounding new evidence and the fact that, according to DNA analysis, Neanderthals were a distinct genetic group not assimilated into modern human populations, scientists are left with one burning question above all others. Why are we here today and they’re not?
“The replacement of an established species by the arrival of a new one was nothing strange. It’s a scenario that’s been played out on countless evolutionary stages around the world. What was curious about the replacement in Europe, though, was the biological makeup of the invader.
“Usually an established species is replaced when a change in climate makes the environment more suitable for newcomers. Mammals, for example, survived the lower temperatures – caused by an asteroid impact – that wiped out the dinosaurs. But Neanderthals and modern humans followed a very different script (a short, noisy clip from ‘Jurassic Park’ – showing the famous scene where a T-Rex chases a jeep – normally followed; intended to reclaim restless audience members and prepare them for what Brophy viewed as the exciting denouement).
“Our ancestors were adapted to the tropical environment of Africa. They had tall, slender bodies to maximise heat loss through radiation and sweat; dark skin to protect against the sun’s ultraviolet rays and broad, flat noses to absorb the humid tropical air. Physically, they were much weaker than the powerful Neanderthals (now, finally, Brophy revealed recent artists’ renderings of Neanderthals that incorporated the latest scientific evidence. He was especially fond of the Natural History Museum in London’s 3-D model showing a strange and alien face – unlike the conservative approach others followed).
“And yet this seemingly inferior human from the tropics defeated a stronger and smarter human that was specifically adapted to the cold.
“During the height of the last Ice Age.”