Neandertals from a humanist perspective

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It happens that I have a book chapter in press that examines Neandertals as a humanistic perspective. This seems to fit the zeitgeist.

A couple of news articles this week look at the emerging humanist perspective on Neandertals. From the New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert, “Our Neanderthals, ourselves”. Kolbert reflects on a series of recent papers, concluding:

It had been comforting to think that the Neanderthals were inferior to modern humans—less clever or dexterous or communicative—and that that’s why they’re no longer around. It turns out, though, that the depiction of Neanderthals as hairy, club-wielding brutes—popular ever since the first Neanderthal bones were discovered, in the eighteen-fifties—says more about us than it does about them. With each new discovery, the distance between them and us seems to narrow. Probably they are no longer here precisely because we are. And that only makes the likeness more disquieting.

Does she mean that all those anthropologists who have made up stories about Neandertals were really being self-centered?

From the Boston Globe by Ruth Graham: “Our lost cousins, the Neanderthals”. This story quotes Steven Churchill and Paola Villa, but exerts most of its attention on Pat Shipman’s upcoming book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Shipman argues that the domestication of dogs converted modern human groups into a deadly horde.

Framing humans as “invasive predators” in longtime Neanderthal territories, she describes how harnessing canines’ speed, their ability to track by scent, and propensity to surround and harass prey would put humans at a huge competitive advantage. “That would be the kiss of death,” she said. “A wolf-dog and a human in that ecosystem with those weapons and those prey species would have been just about unstoppable.”

My first reaction: this is a bit like the most recent Hobbit movies, where the warg-riding orcs are deadly and fearsome out of all proportion to Tolkien’s book. Wolf-dog-empowered humans might indeed have been fearsome, but the idea strikes me as yet one more in a long list of single-factor explanations for the Neandertal endgame. So my initial reaction is one of skepticism. Still, I will be interested to read Shipman’s take on this idea.