Our Friend, Our Foe, Our Lover

The story of our relationship with the Neanderthal is, to say the least, complicated. Recently, this distant cousin of humankind has figured in the media […]

The story of our relationship with the Neanderthal is, to say the least, complicated. Recently, this distant cousin of humankind has figured in the media quite frequently, revealing our conflicted feelings for this red-haired neighbour of our ancestors. Popular perception of the Neanderthal has gone through a massive makeover during the last couple of decades. Gone is the picture of a brutal, ape-like wildling, too ‘dumb’ or ‘crude’ to have developed any culture of their own, limited to borrowing the technology and cultural expression of Homo sapiens instead. On the contrary, Neanderthals were quite a resourceful toolmaker. Evidence suggests the existence of a Neanderthal specific tool industry – the Mousterian industry – which is a whole new approach to the core/flake technique that our own ancestors swore by. Basically, instead of producing a certain amount of stone flakes from a stone, and then use both the flakes and the remainder of the stone – the core – as tools, the Neanderthals kept going until the whole core stone had been turned into flakes, that could then be transformed into a very specialized toolkit. Maybe they were not all that dumb, after all, and maybe not so unlike a human being after all.

It is often said that if you took a Neanderthal, gave him a haircut, a shave, and a clean suit and sent him out into our modern human world, no one would look at him twice. Despite this, we seem to be very reluctant to admit that we would be anything like such a creature.  The suggestion that recent H.sapiens-Neanderthal admixture may have occurred, and that it was us who picked up their DNA, seems to be a scary thought to many people, even though we are speaking of very low estimated levels (1-4% of genetic contribution). It is interesting that it should be this way; our two species are so genetically similar, and yet we are horrified about exactly where a few percents of that similarity comes. Moreover, it turns out that the Neanderthals, just as us, had the ‘language gene’, FOXP2 (Pääbo, 2012). Obviously genes often have completely different functions in different species, and much more must be learned about the origins of speech before we can know for sure, but it is possible that they, just as us, could exhibit some form of speech.

Why is it that we are so willing to diminish the capability and intellect of the Neanderthals? Perhaps we don’t want to associate ourselves with a creature that was ‘too stupid to survive.’ If so, we forget that extinction is a natural part of any ecosystem, and that any species who is unable to adapt to changed conditions such as a transforming niche or a new invading species (i.e., us) will be outcompeted. Such is the nature of Mother Nature.

Another possible explanation of our uneasy feelings toward Neanderthals perhaps lies in our guilt. Perhaps we feel culpable for stomping into Europe and wiping them of the planet by disease transmission, brutality and war, or simply being better than the Neanderthals at adapting for that particular environment. If that is the case, we should feel more exculpated by recent research: an updated radiocarbon dating method on Neanderthal remains from Iberia shows that these individuals may have died 15,000 years earlier than previously thought, not having lived alongside humans 35,000 years ago. Although we need more data for confirmation, there seems to be a fair chance that modern-day Homo sapiens were not the only reason for the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Many mysteries surround this species of archaic humans, still. However, scientists have recently taken giant steps towards solving some of them. In 2010, Professor Dr. Svante Pääbo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology sequenced most of the Neanderthal genome, which will become very useful in answering our questions. Drawing further media attention on academic research on Neanderthals is Harvard Medical School Professor George Church’s recent claim that it would be possible to create a Neanderthal baby, as long as he could solicit a woman willing to carry the child. Aside from the blatant ethical and biological risks involved for both mother and child (growth speed, size of the baby, hormonal differences), one can easily decide, from reading the online comments to these articles, in which commenters fail to realize that the child would actually be a human being and not a prehistoric ape, deduce that the world is not yet ready for a Neanderthal child.

About Anna Sigurdsson