So Near and Yet So Far

The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind

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

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

by Christopher Stringer and 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.