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So Near and Yet So Far

The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind

by Erik Trinkaus, by Pat Shipman
Knopf, 452 pp., $30.00

In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins

by Christopher Stringer, by Clive Gamble
Thames and Hudson, 247 pp., $29.95


Lady Psyche, Professor of Humanities at Castle Adamant, the Women’s University of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida, sings a lesson about the depravity of man (and she does mean “male persons,” though I will generalize):

Darwinian Man, though well- behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved!

I wonder if William Straus and A.J.E. Cave (a lovely name for a student of Neandertals) had this image in mind when they wrote, in 1957, their famous defense for the “basically just like us” theory of Neandertal anatomy and ability:

If he could be reincarnated and placed in a New York subway—provided that he were bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing—it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens.

Combined with an earlier 1939 drawing by Carleton Coon, showing a Neandertal in a coat, hat, and tie, this image became one extreme in a spectrum of interpretations for the human populations that inhabited Europe just before the influx of those sophisticated people, our own ancestors, who painted the caves at Lascaux and Altamira, carved the Venus figurines of Willendorf, and, under the name of Cro-Magnon, became the very model of modernity. We all know the other extreme—the primitive Neandertal who couldn’t be more brutish and different, the beetle-browed, knock-kneed, stoop-shouldered lug with a club in one hand and his woman’s hair in the other as he drags her toward the communal cave.

All logically conceivable positions about the status and relationships of Neandertal people have been maintained since their discovery in 1856. Passionate debate has pervaded everything that could possibly be contended, even something so trivial as spelling. (Tal is German for valley; a twentieth-century orthographic reform dropped the silent “h” of the original name, but both versions persist; hidebound Brits tend to prefer the older Neanderthal and a pronunciation, always false to German ears, with the sounded English “h”; American pragmatists go with the modern Neandertal, which sounds closer to what Germans always said—hence the differences in the two titles here reviewed.)

Post-Renaissance scholars often adopted the affectation of recasting their names in classical form. Sometimes the change only Latinized a few letters at the end—as Karl von Linné, for example, became Carolus Linnaeus. But some alterations really soared, as when the prosaic Georg Bauer, the great sixteenth-century German mineralogist, became Georgius Agricola, which means the same thing—farmer. In this tradition, Joachim Neumann, the seventeenth-century organist of Düsseldorf, signed his compositions, Neander, or “newman.” Neumann’s countrymen named a local valley for him, the Neandertal. Has any designation ever proven more appropriate, since the first human fossils emerged from Neumann’s valley?

But being first doesn’t guarantee such perceived importance and passionate debate. Why are Neandertals so central to discussions of human evolution? The answer involves two understandable parochialisms: (1) our tendency to place a microscope over the most recent events in our history, and to worry every detail to the outer limits of resolution (since Neandertals lived from about 220,000 to about 30,000 years ago, and were directly succeeded by the people who became us); (2) the Eurocentric tendencies of Western scholarship (since Neandertals were the people of Europe, the only known people of Europe during the period just preceding the arrival of fully modern humans, though they lived in western Asia as well).

For all the nuances of various positions maintained by scientists for more than a century, the debate about Neandertals has always centered on two obvious alternatives, since all theories embody some version of those two positions: Did Neandertals evolve into us? Are they, in other words, our direct (and, in almost all versions, primitive) ancestors? Or do they represent a separate evolutionary line, an ultimate dead end replaced by our own people (through a process of warfare, assimilation, simple displacement, or a forest of other proposals, for the possibilities are nearly endless)? This question has proven so riveting that a substantial literary tradition has even arisen for novels about the first encounter of Neandertal with Cro-Magnon—from William Golding’s The Inheritors; to Jean Auel’s trilogy about Ayla, the young Cro-Magnon girl raised by Neandertals, Clan of the Cave Bear; to Björn Kurtén’s Dance of the Tiger.

By well-considered and deeply engrained habit, New Yorkers don’t stare at strangers while riding the A train, so a Neandertal might just pass, but not because he blended in with modern human diversity. Neandertals may be immediate ancestors or closest cousins, but they lie outside the anatomical range of contemporary Homo sapiens. Neandertals departed most strongly from us in their robust and stocky physique. They did not look like an obese or large-boned Homo sapiens, but had a pervasively different muscularity. Their heads were as large or larger than ours, but differently shaped (with brains at least equal in volume, and perhaps exceeding on average those of modern humans). The head bore an enormous, projecting nose, with cheekbones swept back behind. The large front teeth were probably used as a clamp in toolmaking and processing of animal skins (as studies of wear marks indicate). A pronounced brow ridge stood out above the eyes (a standard feature in our prejudicial icon of primitiveness, but surely no sign of bestiality or want of braininess). Skulls were long, low, and very broad. The short, stocky bodies of males probably averaged about 5 feet 6 inches in height, with a weight of some 155 pounds; the females were about 5 feet 2 inches on average, with a weight of about 120 pounds.

The standard theory coordinating all these features holds that Neandertals were primarily hunters and scavengers adapted to the periodically cold environments of Europe during the ice ages (modern Eskimo peoples are among the shortest and sturdiest of contemporary humans). This idea also explains the striking geographic variability noted among Neandertals—with (ironically for racist notions about Aryan lands) the sturdiest and stockiest populations living in north-western Europe (most “brutish” in traditional iconography), and the more lightly built populations living both in southern and eastern Europe and in western Asia (superficially more similar to us, but not genealogically closer). These two populations have been called “classical” and “progressive” Neandertals respectively. This distribution of variation makes sense on the climatic theory, since classical Neandertals of northwestern Europe lived in colder regions nearer the ice sheets.


The centrality of “the Neandertal problem” in resolving the source of our recent origin as Homo sapiens becomes clear when we take a broader view of the hominid family tree. By measurement of genetic distances between modern apes and humans (not yet by direct evidence from fossils), the human lineage split off from our closest cousins (chimpanzees and gorillas) some 6 to 8 million years ago. The first human fossils, found in Ethiopian strata dating between 3.0 and 3.9 million years old, all belong to the single species Australopithecus afarensis (popularly known as Lucy, the “field name” originally and irreverently applied to the best specimen, and chosen to honor the heroine of the Beatles’ song). This species shows remarkable anatomical stability during the million years of its recorded existence. (An even earlier species, named Australopithecus ramidus and anatomically more primitive than Lucy, has just been discovered in Ethiopian rocks 4.4 million years old.)

The next million years in Africa, then the only home of our lineage, featured intense evolutionary activity in a half dozen or so recorded events of speciation within two subgroups, probably in response to an accelerated tempo of climatic change as glacial climates began to cycle at higher latitudes. One subgroup, the erect but small-brained australopithecines, features three to five species of lighter built “gracile” forms like Australopithecus africanus (the first found member of this lineage, discovered in South Africa by Raymond Dart in the 1920s), and heavier “robust” forms like Australopithecus robustus from South Africa and A. boisei discovered by Louis and Mary Leakey in East Africa. (The robust australopithecines are often placed in the separate genus Paranthropus.) The australopithecines lived and died entirely in Africa, with one or two species perhaps surviving until about one million years ago.

The other subgroup, manifesting the most celebrated of all trends to larger brain size, includes species of our own genus, Homo. The oldest members of Homo belong to the species Homo habilis, first found by Louis and Mary Leakey in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, in the 1960s. Most paleontologists now feel that the remains originally categorized in Homo habilis represent at least two separate species (the other usually called Homo rudolfensis). The most famous early members of our genus, our immediate ancestor Homo erectus, arose a bit later within this subgroup, with the oldest African fossils dated at about 1.8 million years. The finest of all early African specimens, the “Turkana boy” found by Richard Leakey and his field team in 1985, belongs to this species. This most complete of all early human skeletons, dated to 1.6 million years, belonged to a boy who died at about eleven years of age and was already 5 feet 4 inches tall (but destined for an adult height of over 6 feet).

Homo erectus became the first intercontinental traveler of our lineage. Populations of this species walked out of Africa, into parts of Europe, and all the way to eastern China and Indonesia (where, as “Java Man” and “Peking Man” of the old textbooks, their discovery between 1890 and 1920 began the serious study of ancient human fossils). The recent redating of Indonesian specimens to as much as 1.8 million years old indicates that this migration from Africa may have occurred earlier than previously recognized. (The oldest known African specimen is also 1.8 million years old, but the oldest found is almost never the first existing, and Homo erectus may well be more than 2 million years old in Africa.)

The stage is now set for the great debate about our own origin from the stock of Homo erectus, and the crucial role of the “Neandertal problem” in this controversy. One million years ago, Homo erectus populations lived on the three continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Between about half a million and 100,000 years ago, a highly confusing group of specimens, bearing the most unsatisfactory name of “archaic Homo sapiens” lived on all three continents, presumably as descendants of Homo erectus. These diverse specimens are in some respects intermediate between Homo erectus and modern humans, and in some respects unique unto themselves. (They have been found in such famous sites as Petralona, Heidelberg, Steinheim, and Swanscombe in Europe, and Bodo and Broken Hill in Africa). In this context, the essence and status of Neandertal can be quickly stated. The Neandertal people are the unique descendants in Europe (and immediately adjacent western Asia) from this evolving complex of Homo erectus through archaic Homo sapiens.

All subsequent discussion must occur in light of the debate that has pervaded anthropology and received so much deserved attention in the popular press during the past decade—the distinction between the multi-regional (also known as the candelabra or menorah) view, and the “out of Africa” theory (also known as “Noah’s ark”). Like all dichotomies, this clean division is a bit oversimplified and caricatured (while the cute names given to the two positions often hinder understanding as much as they help definition). But the distinction is real and clean—and of highest theoretical significance both for evolutionary science in general and in our eternal quest to define the essence of our physical and mental being as the unique historical species, Homo sapiens.

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