The archetypal image of Neanderthals has been one that reinforced the Darwinian story of human evolution. A Washington Post story puts it like this: "Early study of Neanderthals described them as very hairy, brutish, unable to talk or walk like more-modern humans." Although things have changed slowly, media presentations have continued to create an impression that does not differ much from this description. However, the evidence for their humanity has accumulated rather rapidly in recent years, and the past month has seen two significant additions to the literature. A Wired Science report introduces one of these studies like this:
"For decades, Neanderthal was cultural shorthand for primitive. Our closest non-living relatives were caricatured as lumbering, slope-browed simpletons unable to keep pace with nimble, quick-witted Homo sapiens. However, anthropologists have found evidence in recent years suggesting considerable Neanderthal sophistication, and not only in tool-making and hunting, but in their ability to feel [i.e. to show compassion]."
It is time to wear the t-shirt (Source here)
The first paper is concerned with the role of emotions in social relationships and re-appraises the archaeological record of Neanderthals and other Palaeolithic peoples. A summary is provided by Penny Spikins in an interview with Wired.
"We look in the archaeological record for evidence of individuals who were sick, and not able to care for themselves. We see that in early Homo, and by the time we get to Neanderthals, that kind of record becomes much more extensive. Take the "Old Man of Shanidar". He had had degenerative deformities in the base of his legs, would have had difficulty walking, and had a crushing injury to his cranium, so he was probably blind in his left eye. The bones show those injuries occurred when he was adolescent, and he lived to 40. He was probably looked after for 25 to 30 years, which implies that it wasn't just one person looking after him, but several. Most of our Neanderthal skeletons show some evidence of having been looked after for their injuries. And in the age of Neanderthals, you also start to see evidence of deliberate burials and funerary rites. That means a shared feeling."
The other study is from Julien Riel-Salvatore, who has come to realise that the explanations given to evidences of Neanderthal technology and cultural artefacts is flawed. It has been said that Neanderthals gained 'modern' tools and ornaments through contact with groups of migrating Homo sapiens. The thinking was that Neanderthals could not have done it on their own - they lacked creativity. However, by studying a group of Neanderthals that lived separately from Homo sapiens, the picture changes dramatically.
The findings by anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore challenge a half-century of conventional wisdom maintaining that Neanderthals were thick-skulled, primitive 'cavemen' overrun and outcompeted by more advanced modern humans arriving in Europe from Africa. "Basically, I am rehabilitating Neanderthals," said Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at UC Denver. "They were far more resourceful than we have given them credit for."
The research has involved an analysis of Uluzzian archaeological sites throughout southern Italy, and Riel-Salvatore has come to the conclusion that the inhabitants responsible for the artefacts were Neanderthals who developed their own unique blend of "projectile points, ochre, bone tools, ornaments".
Such innovations are not traditionally associated with Neanderthals, strongly suggesting that they evolved independently, possibly due to dramatic changes in climate. More importantly, they emerged in an area geographically separated from modern humans. "My conclusion is that if the Uluzzian is a Neanderthal culture it suggests that contacts with modern humans are not necessary to explain the origin of this new behavior. This stands in contrast to the ideas of the past 50 years that Neanderthals had to be acculturated to humans to come up with this technology," he said. "When we show Neanderthals could innovate on their own it casts them in a new light. It 'humanizes' them if you will."
The picture that is emerging, reinforced and validated by the newly reported research, is that Neanderthals are somewhat different, but nevertheless equal. The evolutionary story is misleading and it needs to be discarded. The comments of Riel-Salvatore are spot on:
"The fact that Neanderthals could adapt to new conditions and innovate shows they are culturally similar to us," he said. "Biologically they are also similar. I believe they were a subspecies of human but not a different species." [. . .] "It is likely that Neanderthals were absorbed by modern humans," he said. "My research suggests that they were a different kind of human, but humans nonetheless. We are more brothers than distant cousins."
A previous blog had the title: Neandertals are part of the human family. Other blogs in this series carried similar messages. Burying the view that Neanderthals were half-wits, Darwinist thinking on the origin of religion, The cognitive skills of Stone Age Man, Images of evolution as secular icons, Walks like a man, talks like a man - is it a man?, and Rethinking Neanderthals. If we are prepared to follow the science, we must move on in our understanding of Neanderthals!
From Homininity to Humanity: Compassion from the Earliest Archaics to Modern Humans
Spikins, P.A.; Rutherford, H.E.; Needham, A.P.
Time and Mind, 3(3), November 2010, pp. 303-325 | DOI: 10.2752/175169610X12754030955977
Abstract: We are increasingly aware of the role of emotions and emotional construction in social relationships. However, despite their significance, there are few constructs or theoretical approaches to the evolution of emotions that can be related to the prehistoric archaeological record. Whilst we frequently discuss how archaic humans might have thought, how they felt might seem to be beyond the realm of academic inquiry. In this paper we aim to open up the debate into the construction of emotion in early prehistory by proposing key stages in the emotional motivation to help others; the feeling of compassion, in human evolution. We review existing literature on compassion and highlight what appear to be particularly significant thresholds in the development of compassion for human social relationships and the evolution of the human mind.
A Niche Construction Perspective on the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in Italy
Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, published online 19 August 2010 | DOI 10.1007/s10816-010-9093-9
Abstract: This paper presents an overview of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition in Italy in light of recent research on the Uluzzian technocomplex and on the paleoecological context of the transition. Drawing on the realization that human niche construction can be documented in the pre-agricultural archaeological record, niche construction theory is used as a conceptual framework to tie together facets of the behavioral, biological, and ecological dimensions of the transition interval into formal models of their interaction over time and in diverse contexts. Ultimately, this effort shows how foragers of the transitional interval in the Italian peninsula were active agents in shaping their evolutionary history, with consequences of some adaptive systems being felt only much later and directing the forces responsible for the ultimate disappearance of the Mousterian and Uluzzian technocomplexes in favor of the proto-Aurignacian industry, the exact nature of which clearly appears to vary on a regional level.
Neanderthals more advanced than previously thought, EurekAlert, (September 21, 2010)
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