We Were Not Alone

Seems like science fiction, but for a long time, Homo sapiens were not the only human beings on earth. And there were a lot of them. And they lived in a very large area that included most of Europe, much of Asia, and probably, in many other places, too (but we haven’t yet found the evidence). They were far more sophisticated than you might imagine, very similar to our own kind as we evolved, in parallel, from about 350,000 years ago until (fairly recently?) until about 40,000 years ago. If we extended our individual family trees back to that time, most or many of us would find parents, aunts, and uncles, and plenty of cousins who were Neanderthal or mixed with our own kind, and quite likely, mixed with other early humans, too (and, probably, other species). This is not some exotic scientific story. This is the story of our own lives. And no less messy.

This morning, I happened to see a cartoon drawing of two large bears inspecting a minivan. On the back window of the vehicle were stick figures of a human family. One bear remarks, “Look! A menu!” It’s not easy to study the Neanderthals, or other early hominids, because they were eaten, destroyed in battle and accidents, burned, and buried. In fact, buried is good–if you know where to look. So far, we’ve been lucky enough to find bones, tools, settlements, but not many of them. Still, it’s a start, and we’ll no doubt find a lot more throughout the 21st century as we improve our satellite imaging (for example). In the meantime, scientists and historians have figured out some parts of the puzzle. Bear in mind that humans have been pursuing archeology for just over 150 years–and for the first 50-100 years, there were a lot of questions about validity, integrity, and there was astonished disbelief because humans (and their religions) didn’t want to consider the possibility that we were not alone as a human race. Getting past the idea of a “missing link” between humans and apes was, and perhaps remains, a problem, too. And this is made more complicated because Neanderthals are “extremely similar creatures to us” but “many simultaneous pathways existed, some finishing in dead ends, others like Neanderthals developing their own unique bodies and minds that were a match from our own.”

I’m quoting Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a remarkably talented storytelling and scientific historian whose book, KINDRED: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is an absolute delight. She keeps the story interesting (fascinating would be a better word), piling on the historical details, open questions, likely facts, and the vast vastness of things we don’t know. I love that.

So far, we’ve found about 250 Neanderthal bodies, or enough parts and pieces of bodies to develop some ideas about their lives. We will certainly find a lot more. Their brains and our brains–about the same size (“just as big and deliberating as your own”) Their brow–more expansive than ours. Their babies’ chins–less prominent, so our babies are, or were, probably cuter than their babies. Their eyes–bigger than ours, noting that “people from higher latitudes have eyeballs up to 20 percent bigger than those from near the equator.” Their ears–very similar to our own, inside and out. Their noses–certainly larger, so they could “snort in the air at almost twice the rate we do.” But why? Here’s the speculative layer that’s found throughout the book–questions about whether the larger nose provided greater airflow, more air filtering and conditioning, or a more powerful or refined sense of smell. “…in some ways, Neanderthals’ large internal structures resemble reindeer and saga antelope, which have extensive mucous membranes to reduce dehydration and heat loss…[but] the internal structures in Neanderthals appears to be worse at air conditioning than our own.”

There’s a strangeness about discovering Neanderthal life expressed in time and distance. They lived for several hundred years in an expanse from Spain to Siberia. When something is discovered about a particular body or settlement, one must consider not only where it was found but also when. That’s because cultures and communities are always in motion–so a place-based assumption may, in fact, be more of a time-based assumption. Think in terms of discovering a human body from the Middle Ages in France and another from two years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, and making statements about their dental care, or their diet. Assumptions must be carefully considered. Now, expand the time scale from a thousand years to twenty thousand years–the assumptions become that much flakier.

Tools: “More artisans than klutzes, [Neanderthals] appreciated the right tools for the job. Selecting hammers…was crucial. Small cobbles have the necessary mass to hit hard for big flakes, but for more delicate work, pebbles are better. And using soft rather than hard hammers produces different effects. Elastic organic materials like antler and bone or even dense rock like limestone spread out the kinetic energy and produce thinner, longer flakes…Tools were often retouched, sometimes to give a particular edge, but often to resharpen them–flakes dull very fast even when cutting meat.” So: yes, Neanderthals made and used a variety of tools for a variety of purposes, just as we did, and do today. This suggests the range of activities they pursued–hardly anything as simple as hitting a bear with a wooden club, though they may have done that, too. They used wood to make spears: “far from pointed sticks…finely crafted from thin spruce and a single Scots pine, their tips are all at the stump end: the hardest part. The shafts were systematically carved off-center for increased strength…Experiments show that the shorter-throwing spears easily range to 30 meters (30 yards).”

Their diet was varied. “Beavers’ fatty tails would have been succulent treats…they certainly gorged on tortoises…dolphins, seal and large fish…ticks and lice might have been nibbled while grooming hair…Neanderthals hunted [bears] more than other predators…burning hints at cooking right there in the den.” They ate plants, too–pine, mushrooms, moss. They cooked stews. They soaked acorns, then boiled them, a far more sophisticated conception than eating only raw meat. They fermented food, one of many examples of planning and preparation.

I could go on through where they lived, how they raised their children and families, the art they made, their customs and care for the dead, and more. There is so much in KINDRED, and so much of it is captivating. And I am so looking forward to the next book from Ms. Sykes. I have found a new favorite author.

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