Neandertal stories on parade

4 minute read

Long-time science journalist Robin McKie has a long article in The Observer about the Neandertals this weekend: “Neanderthals: how needles and skins gave us the edge on our kissing cousins”.

The article puts together several aspects of recent inquiry into Neandertal biology – the genome sequencing, the dating questions over Châtelperronian artifacts from Grotte du Renne, and some of Steve Churchill’s work on projectile versus thrusting weapons. There’s a real interesting mix of stuff here, some that I agree with and basically find uncontroversial, and other stuff that I find to be outlandish or unsupported by any evidence.

For example, McKie talked to Brian Fagan, who has a new book out (Cro-Magnon) that tries to describe the human “edge” over Neandertals. A good topic, but this paragraph is completely misleading:

But which specific traits gave us such an advantage that we were propelled to global glory at the expense of the Neanderthals? In the suite of behaviours that we evolved in Africa 150,000 years ago, what were the characteristics that really made a difference and can therefore be considered as defining human attributes? There are many candidates complex language and superior memory, for example. However, among many scientists there appears to be consensus that imagination and opportunism were critical attributes.

There is no “suite of behaviours that we evolved in Africa 150,000 years ago.” There just aren’t any. There’s no good evidence of symbolic expression, no projectile points, no subsistence innovations, no evidence of long-distance raw material procurement or trade. That’s the big problem we have substantiating a modern human advantage – the “modern” humans didn’t seem to get many behavioral innovations in Africa that the Neandertals didn’t get, and the Neandertals got them almost as early.

It is an undeniable problem; there’s no sense glossing over it. Churchill’s (and John Shea’s) ideas about projectile weapons are right now among the most reasonable suggestions, because there do seem to be relatively early (ca. 85,000-90,000 year old) projectile points in Africa.

It would be convenient if there were better evidence that projectiles were a singular innovation. But as John Shea Shea:projectile:2006 wrote in 2006, the idea of projectile weapons seems to have gotten around widely, possibly including Neandertals:

The evidence currently available instead favors an indigenous origin for projectile point technology in the Levant ca. 4050 Ka. Similarly, the earliest European Upper Paleolithic stone artifacts that fit the TCSA criteria for projectile points, Chatelperronian points, Font Robert points (as well as Aurignacian split-based bone/antler points) do not have clear chronological antecedants in the Levant (though it is possible that other as-yet-unidentified projectile point types do). While it is possible that over-production of atmospheric radiocarbon between 30 and 50 Ka [39] obscures rapid geographical diffusion of projectile point technology the typological variability of the earliest likely stone and bone projectile points in Africa, the Levant, and Europe do not currently support a diffusion/migration hypothesis. It is vastly more likely that projectile point technology was developed convergently among African, Levantine and European hominin populations.

I probably wouldn’t stretch so far as to say that the Châtelperronian Neandertals were using projectile weapons, even if the points are consistent with that hypothesis. But considering that a big element of McKie’s story is the dispute over the Châtelperronian evidence of ornamentation (at Grotte du Renne), I think it’s fair to remind people that those late Neandertals had a lot of things going on. All the skeletal associations with the industry are Neandertal, and there are multiple sites representing the interesting material culture elements.

I’ve actually been stunned lately by the number of people who have asked me about the Grotte du Renne paper and it’s “demolishment” of the case for Neandertal ornamentation. I say stunned, because people seem completely unaware of the substantial Mousterian record of pigment processing and use.

My candidate for the most subtly controversial element of McKie’s story: the opening passage about the Swanscombe skull:

Many treasures [at the Natural History Museum] compete for attention, but there is one sample, kept in a small plywood box, that deserves especial interest: the Swanscombe skull. Found near Gravesend last century, it is made up of three pieces of the brain case of a 400,000-year-old female and is one of only half-a-dozen bits of skeleton that can be traced to men and women who lived in Britain before the end of the last ice age. Human remains do not get more precious than this.
However, the Swanscombe find is important for another, crucial reason: the skull is that of a Neanderthal

I say that’s controversial because it asserts that this 400,000-year-old skull is a Neandertal. The case for Swanscombe as a member of the Neandertal lineage has been mostly chronological, not because it has any pattern of derived Neandertal morphology. There were people in Europe before the Neandertals, they had a subset of Neandertal features, and so they were plausibly early members of a Neandertal lineage. But the genetic work this year, discussed later in the article, argued that humans and Neandertals shared a common ancestral population only 250,000-400,000 years ago. If that’s true, the chronology is all wrong for Swanscombe to be a Neandertal itself. Indeed, this chronology would not permit Swanscombe to be a member of a population exclusively ancestral to Neandertals.

But what, then, is it?

I think the chronology is wrong, and I doubt whether the evidence will soon let us distinguish gene flow from isolation at this time depth. There’s not much sense talking about the “human-Neandertal ancestral population” when some Neandertals were ancestors of some humans.

Still, the Middle Pleistocene European population focuses the problem. If Neandertals themselves had derived much of their gene pool from Africa in the Middle Pleistocene, as the genetic work has suggested, what does that mean for specimens like Swanscombe? And if we substantially lengthen the chronology of human diversification, what does that mean for Middle Pleistocene Africans?