Friday, March 2, 2018

Neanderthals Among Us

Update:  Make that Neanderthals WITHIN Us. 

During this illness, to keep from thinking about the congestion, the coughing, the wheezing, I listened to a bunch of stuff on Youtube, including two old Nova episodes about the Neanderthals, one from 2003 and one from 2011.   The change in beliefs about Neanderthals, from them being a totally different species that couldn't have contributed to the modern human population asserted in the 2003 show gave way to DNA analysis proving that modern humans have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA in it, especially populations in Europe and elsewhere.  The lowest percentage is found in Africans and some Asian populations, which makes sense because Neanderthals aren't found in Africa. 

I remember back when I took courses that touched on the evolution of humans back in the 60s and early 70s, the idea that Neanderthals and "modern humans" might have had successful offspring was considered a foolish idea, as one eminent figure in 2003 implied, it was considered a stupid idea.  The scientific concept of Neanderthals, based on late 19th and early 20th century scientific expertise was largely wrong and now looks quaintly silly, which proves that at any given time science holds some wrong and quaintly silly ideas, especially when those ideas are largely a product of creative analysis of scanty fossil evidence that is prone to creating stories the scientists like.

By chance, last week's Quirks and Quarks had a segment on about the discovery of cave paintings that are dated from the Neanderthal period, well before there were modern humans in Europe.

Artwork dating back 64,000 years shows that Neanderthals developed the ability to make red ochre paints.

Made deep within caves, in a position where it would have had to be the result of elaborate planning, with illumination carried into the cave along with a paint kit and painted in awkward positions like some Neanderthal Michelangelos the remake of the image it forces is quite drastic.   Among the things said in the story points out that the idea that Neanderthals were a separate species has to fall and they have to be considered a separate population of human beings who, instead of being obliterated by the latecomers to Europe and Asia, were incorporated into the predecessors of the present day population. 

The change in the science around Neanderthals has changed pretty drastically just within the past twenty years, nevermind the fifty or so years I can remember. 

Neanderthal the Brute

The image of Neanderthals we're often presented with is a primitive and simple creature: a hulking mass of muscle, all brawn and no brains. The sloped forehead, mitt-like hands and protruding jaw suggested to many a mind far inferior to ours.

That perception of the brutish Neanderthal, it seems, was based more on an assumption of human superiority than evidence. New research published in the journal Science by Dr. Alistair Pike and his colleagues puts that idea to rest for good. It suggests that Neanderthals were capable of art — and that, in turn, means they were creative, planned for the future, and had the ability to ascribe meaning to symbols. In other words, they possessed the power of abstract thought.  

The Artist

Dr. Pike and his team used a clever approach to date cave art from three different caves in Spain. The artwork featured hand stencils, arrangements of red dots and abstract line figures made with red ochre pigments in the dark depths of the cave. Until now, most researchers had assumed it was made by early modern human colonizers in Europe. The team used uranium/thorium radioactive decay to determine the age of calcite deposits that have been deposited over the artwork over thousands of years. They found that these deposits on top of the art date back approximately 64,000 years — over 20,000 years before the appearance of modern humans in Europe. That means that the art had to have been made by Neanderthals.

The Inventor

This research opens the door to the idea that Neanderthals were in fact the first true artists on the planet. They might have even inspired the more recent artistic creations that adorn so many caves across the European continent.

That, along with the more developed thinking about the sophistication of the Neanderthal tool types, developed by studying and practicing flint knapping, that showed that the actual tool was very difficult to make and that it was made for its particular properties shown in the second of the Nova shows mentioned above, shows how apt we are to underestimate things based on preexisting prejudices of the kind that professionals develop as part of their indoctrination into the subject their credentials grant them expertise in.

1 comment:

  1. Those cave paintings also put the lie to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Neanderthals didn't have a civilization which secured food, shelter, and clothing, yet they went to great effort to create art. Again the assumption is spirit comes last because reason is supreme and art emotional and inferior.

    We have a lot to unlearn.