Neandertals inside and outside humanity

The historian of science Lydia Pyne has published a couple of recent articles that detail interesting aspects of the history human evolution. The first is about science’s changing perspective on Neandertals, “Our Neanderthal complex”, which appears in the most recent issue of Nautilus.

Neandertal sculpture at museum in Mettmann, Germany
At the Neandertal Museum. Photo Credit: John Hawks CC-BY-NC-ND

I must say my favorite part is how she traces Boule’s concept of stupid and inferior Neandertals up through the years: Instead of describing these ideas as simply outmoded, she recognizes how they contributed to the work of recent anthropologists, with Richard Klein as a visible manifestation.

Even the language of extinction imbued Neanderthals with an aura of evolutionary fatalism: “demise,” “fate,” and “loss” helped us cast our interspecies interaction as a relationship between winners and losers. “It is not difficult to understand why the Neanderthals failed to survive,” noted Richard Klein in the third edition of his seminal textbook, The Human Career, in 2009. “The archaeological record shows that in virtually every detectable aspect—artifacts, site modification, ability to adapt to extreme environments, subsistence, and so forth—the Neanderthals lagged their modern successors, and their more primitive behavior limited their ability to compete for game and other shared resources.”

Pyne comes at the end to an essential point about Neandertals: We long defined ourselves as whatever the Neandertals are not. Now we have begun to explore the implications of defining them as part of our family.