In a previous piece, I commented on the press excitement around the Homo naledi remains, newly published from South Africa, suggesting that some of the more breathless statements about their significance might do well to await further evidence of date and taphonomy. At the risk of attracting descriptions such as curmudgeon or grumpy old pedant (or worse), this is a piece about Neandertals and the enthusiasm with which they are being made to seem more and more ‘like us’.
What set me off was an article in Science that presents some of the latest work on bone fragments from the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sûr-Cure. The gist of it was to say that new evidence from the Grotte confirms that a number of decorative objects, such as teeth and a fossil brachiopod, which had been drilled or otherwise modified as if to wear as a pendant were definitely made by Neandertals, not by the anatomically modern humans (AMH) who replaced them in Europe. If true, this would be important news, as the use of personal decoration and art in general has long been argued to have been a trait of AMH in contrast to the purely functional artefacts of Neandertals. The new research consisted of some quite brilliant analyses of tiny bone fragments from the same layers as the decorative objects at Grotte du Renne showing that the fragments derived from Neandertals, not from AMH, and providing a radiocarbon date (36,840 ± 660 14C BP) for one fragment. As a number of teeth from the same layers had previously been identified as Neandertal on anatomical grounds, the new research is mainly important for providing a date, as well as demonstrating a neat analysis of ancient proteins and DNA.
What the research does not show is what the Science article says it does: that Neandertals made the decorative objects. Those objects were excavated in the late 1950s to early 1960s from the same levels as the Neandertal teeth and bone fragments, but that does not necessarily mean that the new radiocarbon date gives an age for the objects. When another research team dated a wide range of bone fragments from Grotte du Renne some years back, they obtained an unexpectedly wide range of dates from samples from the same levels, leading to suspicions that those levels contained a mixture of older and younger material. The sequence at Grotte du Renne has undoubted Neandertal levels overlain by the disputed levels that yielded the decorative objects, in turn overlain by undoubted AMH levels, where decorative objects might have been expected. Despite the new research, it is still possible that the Grotte du Renne decorative objects are of AMH manufacture, displaced downwards by the sediment movements that bedevil archaeology in caves.
The uncertainty remains. Despite that, the objects are cited as evidence that Neandertals made arty things as well as useful things. Why is there such enthusiasm to make them seem more like us? In part, it is an obvious reaction to older literature that depicted Neandertals as stooped, bestial, knuckle-dragging primitives, but is it an over-reaction? We have a clear idea now about the skeletal differences between Neandertals and AMH and we can infer a fair bit about their build and musculature. In the Hominin Rugby XV, Neandertals were the prop forwards: medium-height barrels of muscle with powerful shoulders (and cauliflower ears?). Credible reconstructions show them with faces that look slightly familiar, albeit with magnificent eyebrows and a protruding nose and mid-face. Put a Neandertal in a suit, the argument goes, and he could walk down a city street unnoticed. Apart, of course, from the obvious confusion, fear or anger induced by traffic, artificial lighting and the crowds of weirdly tall, skinny people.
Let’s turn this on its head. How different could Neandertals have been? There is a lot of speculation about their intelligence, most of which falls into the ‘how like us?’
school of debate. What if Neandertals were intelligent but in quite a different way to us? Setting the questionable pendants aside for the moment, one of the big differences does seem to be art and the production of non-functional decorative objects. Art, in its loosest sense, requires a capacity for metaphor, cognitive pathways that enable us to understand that this object represents and stands in for something else – a scene, a person, an animal. Why spend time drilling a hole in a wolf canine so as to wear it around your neck? Because I like wolves, because I wish to associate myself with wolves, because I want people to think I have qualities of a wolf, because I come from a place where there are wolves, because my grandfather killed that wolf. In each case, the pendant represents something. If the Neandertal mind did not function along metaphorical lines, it is easy to see that art and personal decoration might have meant nothing to them. That is not an implied lack of intelligence, simply a different sort of intelligence. What about language? Suppose that Neandertals in different parts of Eurasia spoke different, though broadly related, languages, but with a tense structure that lacked the conditional mood. Many extant languages have a way of expressing “If X happened, I would do Y”. Would the absence of that tense make it impossible to conceptualise any hypothetical situation, and how would that affect thinking and planning? What if those languages had no future tense?
We could extend the speculation a little further. Neandertals had magnificent noses,
and a much greater volume within their nasal cavities than we do. Might they have had a much more acute sense of smell? There was certainly plenty more room for scent receptors. A ‘better’ sense of smell could mean the ability to detect odours at much lower concentrations (“Dead animal upwind, long way”), or the ability to discriminate between very subtly different odours (“Dead female bison upwind…”). A more typically mammalian sense of smell would have given Neandertals a quite rich landscape in which to function, including social interactions (“Man upwind, not my people, exhausted”). It might, in fact, have made clan or tribal signifiers such as pendants quite unnecessary. Our suited Neandertal walking down the city street might be horrified by the intense, alien smells of traffic fumes, deodorants, dry-cleaning residues, warm tarmac.
I can understand the desire not to imagine Neandertals as grunting beasts, but we should not allow that desire to push us either towards uncritical acceptance of flaky evidence or away from considering that the Neandertal mind and world-view may have been very different to ours. One of the fascinations of the hominin fossil record is the blend of familiarity and difference that other species present. In trying to understand our species’ ancestry, we focus on the familiar, perhaps at the expense of giving the differences due consideration.