The Neanderthals Next Door

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

An excellent article on Neanderthals in the current issue of The New Yorker (August 15 and 22) got me thinking about this creature from the dawn of our history. That’s easy to do. I don’t know anyone who can resist imagining these very early humans—for humans they now appear to have been—and speculating on what they were like, what became of them, and—on the fringes—whether they still survive somewhere.

In one sense they do indeed survive, if we can believe the latest findings. It was long thought that Neanderthals and early “humans” (homo sapiens sapiens, the cave painting guys) were separate species. It was not simply that they chose not to interbreed, but that biologically they couldn’t. Eventually, so the story went, the brawny Neanderthals, outwitted by the brainy homo sapiens sapiens, reached an evolutionary dead end, became extinct.

Well, evidence is building that they did interbreed, and the evidence is very strong: If you are of Asian or Caucasian stock (but not, curiously, African) you are walking around with between one and four percent of Neanderthal DNA in your make-up, you old troglodyte!

But we need to back up a bit. There are two main characters* in our evolutionary drama: the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals. There is general agreement that the Cro-Magnons were the cave painting guys mentioned above, and our direct ancestors. In that famous textbook march of evolution, with a woebegone chimp at the one end and George Clooney at the other, the guy just a few steps behind Clooney is a Cro-Magnon. Cro-Magnons were about the same size and build as modern humans. Being hunters, they had stronger legs than we. (They probably would have been formidable marathoners.) And they did leave an impressive record. Not only were they the first interior decorators, but they also made very sophisticated tools and wove baskets and even cloth.

Then there were the Neanderthals, and at first nobody quite knew what to make of the remains that had been unearthed. For one thing, these bones were even thicker than those of the Cro-Magnons. Extrapolating from skeleton to musculature gave rise to the belief that the Neanderthals were unbelievably strong. So, early theorizing about the Neanderthals gave us the cartoon version: A Neanderthal was a hairy, beetle-browed, knuckle-dragging galoot who could lift the back of your car off the ground without breaking a sweat. Some even suggested that the ogres of folklore arose from racial memories of the Neanderthals.

And some think—or thought—that the Neanderthals could barely speak. Bill Bryson, in The Mother Tongue, reports that only in true humans are the larynx and hyoid bone so positioned as to allow speech. This, he says succinctly, “explains why you can talk and your dog cannot.” It does appear now that Neanderthals were human and were capable of some limited speech. But highly articulate they were not, and that would affect their culture in many ways. We now think, though, that Neanderthals were not so primitive as the cartoon version would have it. They did care for their old and sick, and had fairly elaborate burial customs. They may not have been as sophisticated as their Cro-Magnon cousins, but they were not the apelike bozos that we had made them out to be. In fact, recent researchers think that if you gave a Neanderthal a shave and haircut and outfitted him at the Gap, he could pass for any one of us. Well, maybe.

Nonetheless, historically the Cro-Magnons are still seen as the fair-haired boys and the Neanderthals as “throwbacks.” I blame those damn cave paintings versus the legendary strength of the Neanderthals. It’s the old story of brain versus brawn, sensitive artist versus grunting jock. Which would you rather be descended from? Need I even ask?

Like Rodney Dangerfield, the Neanderthals still get no respect.

So how do you feel now that scientists have shown that there is a little Neanderthal in each of us? I rather like the idea. In fact, I’ve found myself swaggering a bit lately. In fact, I think I’ll go out in the driveway and clean and jerk the back end of the Little Red Beast, just for fun.

See you next week.

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