Kate Wong brings us up-to-date on the latest research into the Neandertals in this month’s issue of Scientific American.
I’ve always been fascinated by ‘Neandertal Man’ as he/she used to be called. We think about what it would be like to meet aliens. (Well, I think about what it would be like to meet aliens!) Would we be able to communicate? Would we be able to understand each other? Yet here in our own back yard, in Europe and the Near East and much of Asia, modern human beings were living side-by-side with another hominid form, meeting and presumably trying to communicate, only 30,000 years ago. I refrained from saying ‘another human species’ because the great and still unresolved question is whether we belonged to distinct species, and whether or not modern humans and Neandertals could interbreed. And despite the theories about genocide (by humans), climate change, and diet – we still don’t know why they became extinct about 28,000 years ago.
It seems that they had jewellery and bone tools and made sophisticated weapons; but modern human beings had the edge – in their social organisation, in the efficiency of their physique, and in their sheer intelligence and creativity. ‘The boundary between Neandertals and moderns has gotten fuzzier’, writes Christopher B. Stringer – but there is still a boundary. There is something radical and new about human intelligence, a leap and not just a lurch, that gives rise to art, creativity, sophisticated language, morality, and some more reflective kind of self-consciousness. And, interestingly, one of the key markers for paleoanthropologists is the emergence for the first time among human beings of symbolic customs surrounding the burial of the dead. Human intelligence seems to go hand in hand with an appreciation of the significance of death.
Neandertals, we presume, in some way asked questions about how to live; human beings, as far as we can tell, are the only creatures to ask questions about the meaning of that living, and the possibility of living beyond death.
[A wonderful book that first got me interested in human uniqueness in relation to Neandertals is Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall, OUP 1998. It’s probably a bit old now, but it is still in print]