Neandertals: It's about them, not us

3 minute read

National Geographic has posted its October cover story about Neandertals, reported by Stephen Hall. It’s a good introduction to some recent work, particularly if you haven’t been paying attention to Neandertals for a while. Hall goes to some of the more important developing sites, including El Sidrón and Gorham’s Cave. I haven’t gotten the magazine at home yet, so I don’t know what pictures they’ve included, aside from their now-prominent Neandertal female reconstruction by Kennis and Kennis.

I wasn’t interviewed for this story, although it and the film are being released together, they’re totally independent. So I found it interesting to think about the different areas of Neandertal research that one might review in an article of this length.

The thing that strikes me after reading the article, is that mostly, people aren’t talking about Neandertals, they only want to talk about us.

What do I mean? They all start with recent humans, and then try to project backward to see what Neandertals lacked. Why didn’t Neandertals survive? Well, maybe their social systems were different from ours. Or maybe they weren’t making as effective choices about prey species. Or maybe they didn’t talk very well. Or maybe they lacked symbolic expression.

OK, so it’s egotistical. But is there anything really wrong with this point of view? I mean, if we’re going to all the trouble to scan Neandertal bones and extract their DNA, which aren’t cheap by the way, then shouldn’t we have the aim of learning about ourselves? Hey, the Neandertals are all gone, they don’t care.

Plus, this line of comparison seems at least to generate testable hypotheses. Think that Neandertals couldn’t talk? Well, now we can test that hypothesis with middle ear morphology (they seem to have had ears adapted to hear speech) and genetics (they had the human-derived FoxP2 variant. If you think that Neandertals couldn’t talk at all, then you’re wrong – the evidence refutes that hypothesis.

Here’s how I respond to that. Having the goal of learning about our own evolution by studying Neandertals is one thing. But we could have that goal regardless of our method of studying Neandertals.

Naturally, we can’t resurrect a Neandertal iceman and study his behavior. Yet. So we need to use a comparative method – compare what we can see of the Neandertals to other species about which we know much more. That is where so many analyses go wrong. They compare Neandertals with humans, and then stop. Neandertals are different from humans in ways X, Y, and Z, so we can hypothesize that difference X is caused by differences Y and Z. End of story.

That kind of comparison is insufficient. But more important, it’s boring. Why do we think we know what the “human” state really is? Humans have been evolving at an accelerating pace for the past 30,000 years. There’s no question that we’re more different from each other in many behaviors than those early “modern” humans were from Neandertals. Likewise, humans today are more different from each other in some genes than those early people were from Neandertals.

Now, I don’t deny that there was something

The problem with interpreting Neandertals only through the perspective of their differences from us, is that difference is a unidimensional comparison. From

Consider Steve Churchill’s observation (in the article) that Neandertals had energy requirements on the order of 5000 kcal/day to support their lifestyle.

This idea actually encompasses many of my complaints about paleoanthropology today. Consider

Or, an even more silly example, the increasing research into Neandertal mobility. Here, the analytical methods based on bone (or tooth) chemistry really are incapable of testing whether Neandertals had a human-like pattern of mobility. So we have the conclusion that Neandertals were able to move as much as 20 km (leading Clive Finlayson to note, “We’re talking about humans, not trees!”). What is the real question here? Obviously, Neandertals might be different (more or less mobile) than some human groups, but the more important point is that historic humans have been enormously variable in their mobility patterns. Even among the hunter-gatherers of Australia, we have groups with extremely high residential and marriage mobility and large home ranges, and other groups with smaller values for all three. Looking from the opposite perspective – far out on phylogeny instead of close up – there are no large-bodied, warm-blooded, primarily meat-eating species that