Giving Neanderthals Some Respect (Especially In An Election Year)

Mar 22, 2012
Originally published on March 22, 2012 5:28 am

"Knuckle-dragging Neanderthals!" Every election year, political candidates of all stripes are tarred with this epithet. In a recent column, Washington Post pundit Kathleen Parker asks if it's fair that many U.S. women see the Republican party in precisely those terms. My question: Is that fair to the Neanderthals?

I care about Neanderthals. So, today I want to explain why they weren't at all the cartoonish, bent-kneed, club-wielding cave people of popular legend. Here are my top 5 reasons why we all should give Neanderthals some respect:

5. Neanderthals were heavy-featured and thick-bodied, but they walked perfectly upright. No dragging knuckles, no bent knees. In fact, as the cover story at April's Scientific American attests, bipedalism evolved in our early australopithecine ancestors, millions of years before the Neanderthals were around.

4. Earlier this month, researchers explained why they think that Neanderthals living in what is now France ornamented themselves with eagle claws as far back as 90,000 years ago. Such a symbolic use of skeletal material from animals indicates that these people lived in ways that went far beyond concerns of survival and reproduction.

3. Neanderthals were highly skilled in the survival-and-reproduction arena, too: they successfully hunted mammoth, for instance. As a site in northern Italy attests, at least some of the time they brought down the massive beasts using spears. Such a hunting strategy would have required complex cooperation and communication.

2. Some Neanderthal groups buried their dead, a practice not known to occur in earlier time periods. As I discussed in my book Evolving God, scientists debate whether all the supposed graves of Neanderthals are really intentional burials. But some are convincing to me, including La Ferrassie in France, showing a new level of community engagement with some kind of ritual practice.

1. For thousands of years, Neanderthals and our own Homo sapiens ancestors co-existed. Even today, as much as 4 percent of the genetic material in some populations derives from Neanderthals. I often wonder what it must have been like at about 40,000 years ago, or so, when we weren't the only humans around — something we modern people will never experience. (For details on the relationship of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, check the website of my anthropological colleague John Hawks.)

Today we search the cosmos to see if other intelligent life may be present in our universe. We aren't, of course, the sole smart species on Earth; great apes, elephants, cetaceans and other animals join us in that role. But the confrontation of two human species, both big-brained and technology-oriented? That's something else again.

What would their lives be like today if Neanderthal populations were still around? How would we treat these evolutionary cousins in the 21st century? How would our lives be different if Neanderthals lived among us?

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter.

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