Rants and Raves

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Am I a Neanderthal?

Wonderful news! My pet crackpot theory may be viable after all.

Some time ago in my post "Can you think?" http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/can-you-think.html I posed this question:

"How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?"

Once after posing this question, someone asked me, "So what was a conclusion that really disturbed you?"

"Neanderthals" I said.

"Huh? What's disturbing about Neanderthals? They've all been dead for about 24 thousand years."

Exactly. They're dead, all of them.

If you scroll down to "Racism, some questions" you'll see that I mentioned a position on race held by some Anthropologists; that the only subdivision of humanity with characteristics different enough to be called a "race", were the Neanderthals.* These people classify them as Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis, and contend that after the end of the last Ice Age, they rebred into the main human line and the most extreme characteristics largely disappeared.

The counter theory is that Neanderthals were a separate species that became extinct and contributed little or nothing to the modern human gene pool. This theory classifies them as Homo Neanderthalensis.

The weight of evidence has see-sawed back and forth on this one. The early image of Neanderthals as shuffling primitives was revised when it was determined that they really didn't look all that different from us. (Apparently the first complete skeleton discovered was that of an individual with ricketts and arthritis, and taken as typical.)

The problem is (as my Osteology professor put it) that bone is very plastic and reshapes in response to environmental conditions. This makes it a very poor repository of genetic information. (In the American southwest, archeologists were puzzled for years that the Basketmaker culture showed a strong continuity of material culture after skull shapes changed abruptly. Some were playing with theories of an invading people who wiped out the locals, and took over their material culture whole, until somebody finally noticed that around this time they had changed cradleboards from a soft to hard design - thus changing the skull shapes of their children.)

Almost nothing is known about soft tissue characteristics of Neanderthals, only differences in bone structure: shin bones more round in cross section than modern humans, no real chin to speak of, heavy brow ridges and a pronounced sloping forehead. That and a brain case on average 300-500 CCs larger than the modern average - and everybody is still wondering what the heck that might mean.

Nothing is known about skin, hair or eye color, though popular depictions in the past have tended to show them as dark, compared to the lighter Cro-magnon of many popular depictions.

It is a popular sport in some circles to find evidence of unconscious racism everywhere, but this looks like the real thing. Neanderthals lived in Europe, Anatolia and the Middle East during the last Ice Age. White skin is a cold climate adaptation. It is far more likely that the Neanderthals were light-pigmented and the early Cro-magnons darker.

That was the genesis of my pet theory. I thought Neanderthals might be us - I mean white Europeans. If they rebred into the main human line, perhaps the surviving characteristics in modern populations might be white skin and light-colored eyes. (That and some of the heavy skull bones you see in Germans and Scandinavians.)**

Then along came fossil DNA analysis, and the conclusion was that they were indeed a separate species who died out.

This is profoundly disturbing. Neanderthals made tools and interred their dead with grave goods, there was even something that looks a lot like a bone flute discovered in one site.

Let that possibility sink in for a moment. An intelligent species, who modified their environment and cared for their dead like us died out and left nothing behind but bones and tools, and the knowledge that a people who lived, loved, and wondered about the universe are gone forever. What does that mean about us? Could we wind up on the list of extinct species someday? Except that unless there is a successor species, there won't be any lists kept.

Opponents of this theory countered that there have been skeletons found that appear to be transitional types, or hybrids. Swedish paleontologist Bjorn Kurten advanced a theory that would explain this. According to his theory, Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred - but muled out and produced sterile offspring. (He popularized this in a novel, Dance of the Tiger http://www.amazon.com/Dance-Tiger-Novel-Ice-Age/dp/0520202775/sr=8-1/qid=1172767738/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-2995162-4924614?ie=UTF8&s=books and a sequel.)

However, now the evidence has swung the other way and the question declared resolved - again. Neanderthal were human and the variation in DNA is attributed to the claim that we are a species with an unusually narrow range of genetic differences.

So we're off the hook then? Intelligent species don't commonly become extinct after all?

Maybe not. One reason advanced for why we have such a narrow genetic range as a species is that at one time the whole ancestral human population declined to as few as 10,000 individuals, perhaps due to a super-volcano disaster. (Which by the way, was not due to the industrial West destroying the ecology.)

Any way you look at it and whatever we may discover about the history of the human species, we are reminded that a planet that can support life in all the rich diversity we find on earth - is a catastrophe planet.

Neanderthal early on became a metaphor for "A crude, boorish, or slow-witted person" (American Heritage Dictionary online) or an aggressive, violent person. Once on a libertarian website I read a comment wherein someone stated, "Do not aggress against others, and you will not be aggressed against." (What an incredibly tortured construction!) I had to comment to the effect, "With respect, what planet are you living on? Unprovoked aggression is one of the constants of human history." To which the individual replied, "Neanderthal! Think like a Neanderthal and go the way of the Neanderthals."

This was wonderfully ironic, because there is nothing in the archelolgical record that suggests that Neanderthals were more aggresive and warlike than their successors. If anything, it is more likely that they lacked the degree of social organization that permitted war-making capabilities and thus were not able to resist their food sources being encroached upon by the new neighbors. (There is no evidence that they were wiped out by violence, but some speculation that they were simply out-competed by a people more efficient at exploiting the food resources.)

* OK, I don't think I can get into too much trouble for this. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that this is semantic hair splitting. Consider two extremes: species such as cheetahs or Everglades cougars, which have so little genetic variation that it's members are virtually clones, and species such as the dog tribe in which the variation is bewildering. (All breeds of domestic dogs, wolves and coyotes are members of the same species by the primary definition - they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.) From this perspective, "race" is a phenomenon that occurs very weakly in humanity, very strongly in the canine species.

** One Michael Bradley has a theory he advanced in his book, The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man's Racism, Sexism and Aggression.

He claims that white people are uniquely racist, sexist and aggressive due to what he calls their "Neanderthal-Caucasoid" ancestry. On reading this my first impulse was to list all of the white nations that have historically displayed high levels of aggression, racism and sexism: the white Mongols, the white Zulus, the white Japanese, the white Sioux Indians...

My second was to say, "Inherently more agressive? Then get the #$%& out of the way wimp!"


  • At 4:08 PM, Blogger LordSomber said…

    Interesting. I have my own theories, but they are not quite as thought out as yours...


  • At 3:56 PM, Blogger Mark said…

    I recall one hypothesis why the Cro-Magnon drove the Neanderthals to extinction. Believe I came across it in a Stephen Pinker book.

    Analysis of the jawbones or throats of Neanderthals versus modern (Cro-Magnon) humans suggested, somehow, that the Neanderthal larynx was more similar to that of a chimpanzee or gorilla than of a human. That is, a Neanderthal couldn't make as complex, information-dense sounds as we can. They very probably could understand much more sophisticated sounds, but they couldn't make them.

    As a consequence, Neanderthal language would have been markedly less efficient and expressive. They would require more time to make less informative statements.

    Because of this, the hypothesis goes, Neanderthals were not as adept as Cro-Magnons in virtually any activity involving groups: they could not hunt as well, could not educate children verbally as successfully, and, if trade was involved, they were quite possibly poorer traders (one might even imagine, if Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon coexisted and traded, that the Cro-Magnon came to regard Neanderthals as easy marks - which might even explain the tendency some possess to associate sloped foreheads and weak chins with stupidity or gullibility).

    The ability to coordinate activities in groups of any size is one of the most significant advantages that hominids had once we left the jungles. A slight (relatively speaking) linguistic advantage, during a shortage of resources requiring cooperation to acquire (such as, for example, large game hunted during the ice age - hunting a mammoth takes an enormous and well-coordinated hunting party), would quickly turn into a tremendous evolutionary advantage.

  • At 7:19 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    It's an interesting theory, and one that would fit with my prejudices very well. However, I've also seen theories that suggest Neanderthal had a greater range of speech sounds than early modern humans.

    The mechanics of making speech rely so much on soft tissue that we aren't going to know for sure, until and unless DNA analysis can give us a whole Neanderthal genome.

  • At 9:40 PM, Blogger Ted Dawson said…

    It is possible that we hunted Neanderthals and even other humanoid species to extinction, just as we have several other species of animals. This would account for the general nature of humans to be racist, ignore strangers, hate others who look and act differently... It's uncomfortably apparent that hate and violence are a part of who we are, and it stands to reason that we are the sole surviving human species because we were the more violent and aggressive. Now that we have killed off all the other species, we still have these deadly survival instincts and turn them upon others with only minor differences.. whatever we can find, for we have to find them.

  • At 8:31 PM, Blogger Dr. B.S. said…

    I find it terribly unlikely that the neanderthals could have been wiped out by Cro-Magnons. Neanderthals were about four times stronger than modern humans, they were taller than Cro-Magnon, had 10% larger brains than modern humans, and were considered apex predators who would only kill prey animal in it's physical prime. Even if Cro-Magnon man used it's superior social skills to wipe out the Neanderthals, there would be some evidence of conflict between the two races, but there doesn't appear to be any. I think that it is far more likely that Neanderthals interbred with Cro-Magnons and contributed positively to the human gene pool. In fact, the areas that had the highest probability of interbreeding (Europe and the Middle East), had the most advanced civilizations. I think that many modern humans are simply Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon hybrids.


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