Wanted: adventurous female to give birth to Neanderthal

If we were honest with the evidence, we might not equate our prehistoric cousins with the monstrous creations of Moreau or Frankenstein. We might even be a little more open-minded

Neanderthal: Unfair coverage?
Mark Wallace
On 24 January 2013 12:11

It may read like a promo for a 50s B-movie (is there such a thing as paleosploitation films?) but that was the broad summary of an idea floated by George Church, a Harvard genetics professor a few days ago. One possible benefit, he publicly mulled, was that they might bring new ideas on ways to deal with possible threats to our extinction – such as pandemics, or global warming.

The reaction was predictable: the Mail warned of the perils of creating a “Frankenstein’s monster”, the normally right-on Guardian joked about “Rosemary’s Baby” and even rather harshly nicknamed the hypothetical baby “Ug Jnr”. Facing accusations of being a heartless “Dr Moreau”, the Professor himself felt forced to clarify that he’d been saying it would soon be possible and should be discussed, not that he personally intended to carry the programme out.

Needless to say, every paper ran with photos of god-awful museum waxwork impressions of what Neanderthals might have looked like – from which readers could learn that they vaguely resembled a confused-looking David Bellamy, had more facial hair than ZZ Top, and often carried large rocks above their heads, presumably for fun. The world’s Picture Desks essentially presented them as Razor Ruddock with a furrier wardrobe.

Frankly, that says more about the hazards of giving museum curators free rein with waxworking tools than it does about our actual knowledge of our prehistoric cousins.

And there’s the problem. We have so many preconceptions about now-extinct hominids, and so many baseless stereotypes, that Homo Sapien is apparently incapable of approaching the question with anything like an open mind.

If we consider the most basic common “facts” about Neanderthals, we swiftly find our ignorance to be absolute. Ask people what they know about them, and the first thing they say is “they lived in caves”.

Even that core concept is fatally flawed. Yes, we mostly find their artefacts, art and skeletal remains in caves, but that is due to the fact that caves are protected environments in which archaeological material survives better. After 150 years of study, we now know they lived in numerous environments as well as caves, and built their own carefully designed structures to shelter in, too.

The same goes for other common ideas - that they could definitely only grunt (physically untrue, though we don’t know whether their brain was wired up for speech), that they looked like apes more than people (physically untrue judging by recent reconstructions), that they were really hairy (no evidence whatsoever, purely attributable to those manic museum wax artists) and that they were savages compared to Homo Sapiens.

The last theme in particular is a gross injustice to the Neanderthals. They had their own jewellery, they made their own musical instruments, and there are some suggestions they even manufactured and used their own make-up or facepaint. That might not seem much in the age of the iPad, but we should remember that our own mob back then weren’t exactly Alain de Botton.

The difference, as far as we can deduce from the scant evidence available to us, seems mainly to be in the way they thought. This is always a tricky area for archaeologists – a science based on the physical remnants of the past clearly cannot read minds, or scan brains which are long since lost, but it can try to work out how people thought by the way they went about inventing, creating and using things.

It’s guesswork on the scale of drawing an animal by hand using a photographic negative showing it in fancy dress in a darkened room, and hypotheses are smashed apart and replaced on a regular basis, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

There is a lot of evidence that Neanderthals were not just a more stupid, slower version of us, but rather a relation which thought in a very different way. For example, they developed complex hunting techniques dependent on group co-operation long before our species evolved – but they didn’t think of making jewellery until Homo Sapiens had done so. Having presumably seen the knick-knacks we were turning out, they took the idea – and then riffed on it in their own style and to their own tastes.

In short, their creativity and the things they valued seem to have been based on different principles to our own.

For that reason, perhaps Prof Church is right that they could bring a new perspective to the challenges that face us – and a new way of analysing what’s important and what isn’t.

The simple fact is that we just don’t know. That element of the unknown seems to be what scares us into ridiculing the poor old Neanderthals – along with perhaps a touch of guilt at the possibility we might have helped to do them in.

We enjoy an unchallenged position as the superior species on the Earth, so we tend to take comfort in the idea that our close relations didn’t make the evolutionary cut. Cousin Ug must have been so dumb, grunting around, getting his back hair trapped in things and dropping that rock on his head all the time that nature appointed us as the winners.

If we were honest with the evidence, we might not equate them with the monstrous creations of Moreau or Frankenstein, but be more open-minded about the idea. But then we would have to face up to the fact that if – and it is still hypothetical – medical science allowed the Neanderthals to join us again, 20,000 years after their extinction, they might turn out to be more interesting, and nicer to hang out with, than us. That seems to be the truly “monstrous” prospect.

Mark Wallace is the author of the popular political blog Crash Bang Wallace

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