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The Upside Down: Kissing Cousins – Why Learning About Neanderthals Teaches Us More About Ourselves

John Mitchinson explores why our closest cousins were wrongly defamed as boorish, rude stupid louts

Reconstruction of Neanderthal 1 by Hermann Schaaffhausen, 1888. Photo: Wikipedia

THE UPSIDE DOWNKissing Cousins: Why Learning About Neanderthals Teaches Us More About Ourselves

John Mitchinson explores why our closest cousins were wrongly defamed as boorish, rude stupid louts

The recent discovery of remains of Homo sapiens in Grotte Mandrin cave in the Rhône valley sets back our arrival in Europe by 12,000 years and undermines one of the most fundamental assumptions about human prehistory: that we soon after we arrived, the population of Neanderthals quickly went extinct. 

The pathos of ‘the last Neanderthal’, the final flickering out of a simpler, less well-adapted species, was the inspiration for William Golding’s 1955 masterpiece The Inheritors, and the idea of a different kind of human-shaped being – like us but stronger, more violent, with different powers – haunts out folklore.

What the latest discovery points to is a much more complex picture of interaction. We estimate that the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals lived somewhere between 800,000 and 315,000 years ago, which offers a massive margin for error. 

What we do know is that Neanderthals moved out of Africa into the Middle East, Asia and Europe much sooner than Homo sapiens did, and lived there for maybe four times as long.

The evidence from Grotte Mandrin suggests that humans and Neanderthals coexisted in Europe for at least 100 centuries and the most recent studies of the human genome shows that we regularly interbred – an idea which would once have been considered untenable, even shameful. In fact, about 2 to 4% of the genome of non-Africans today is derived from Neanderthals. So, we only just qualify as different species – our offspring were viable – and our Neanderthal inheritance includes a particularly rich concentration of genes involved in hair, skin and the immune system, which might have helped us adapt to the harsh new Eurasian environments we found ourselves living in.

The first fossilised Neanderthal remains were found in 1856 near Düsseldorf in the Neander river valley, hence the word Neanderthal (Tal, then spelt Thal, is German for ‘valley’). At the time, scientists weren’t sure what they had found: some claimed they were Mongol horsemen, others that they were slightly deformed modern humans. 

It wasn’t until 1864 that William King, the Irish geologist, was prepared to declare the find a new species of human. He gave them the name Homo neanderthalensis in preference to the alternative proposed by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, Homo stupidus.

Not that King’s was much more positive. Referring to the skull, with its prominent brow ridge, he wrote that the “thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute”. This reputation was carried over into popular culture and, by the 1920s, to be ‘Neanderthal’ meant being boorish, loutish, oafish, swinish, rude, ill-mannered or stupid. 

Much of the misconception derives from the reconstruction of the first complete skeleton found at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1911 by French palaeontologist Pierre Marcellin Boule. His version revealed a specimen with a curved spine, a stoop, bent knees, and a head and hips that jutted forward.

In 1957, the skeleton was re-examined and it became clear that the original owner had suffered from a grossly deforming type of osteoarthritis. Not only did this not represent the average Neanderthal, but Boule had also let his preconceptions affect his work – giving the skeleton an opposable big toe like a great ape, even though the bones didn’t provide any evidence for such a conclusion. 

Since then, we have radically revised our views of our closest cousins. 

We now estimate that their brains were a little bigger than ours (though a slightly different shape) and there is a strong likelihood they had a spoken language. We know they made jewellery, now it seems they also made rudimentary cave art. In three different Spanish caves, paintings of ladder-like shapes, dots and handprints have been found that are at least 64,000 years old, making it impossible for the paintings to have been made by Homo sapiens, who didn’t arrive for another 10,000 years, even by earliest estimates. In one example, there are tantalising shapes that might be animals, which would make it the oldest figurative art yet discovered.

All of this points towards a more nuanced idea of cultural interaction between the two human populations. But the mystery of what happened to them remains. 

In her 2020 book Kindred, the archaeologist Becky Wragg Sykes suggests an alternative to the ‘extinction’ scenario: “Instead of Homo sapiens as colonisers pushing into fresh lands ripe for exploitation, a different story suggests itself… Unfamiliar lands and creatures to meet; new-yet-ancient peoples becoming partners in a never-ending dance. Flip the mirror, and the Neanderthals weren’t powerless and waiting for extinction, but intuitive and astute, seeing incomers not as an existential threat but as an opportunity for connection. There was not an end, but many meetings, joinings, transformations; a way to survive, to be reborn.”

In other words, the Neanderthals didn’t go extinct – they became part of us.

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