Sunday, September 28, 2008

In the Penny Press - Part Two!

Also of interest in this latest batch from the Penny Press was the cover article in the October National Geographic, a gripping (albeit maddening) piece by Stephen S. Hall titled "The Last of the Neanderthals."

The article centers on the 1994 find in northern Spain of a cave full of fossilized hominid bones from about 43,000 years ago. The bones belonged to Neanderthals, a widespread species of human at the time, and many of the bones show signs of knifework, suggesting that the meat was hacked from the bones - in all likelihood for the purposes of eating it (simple murder wouldn't explain the butchering).

Hall's prose is clear and straightforward, but his article has all the innocence of a Catholic school class on the birds and the bees. Everywhere throughout the piece, the stark, staringly obvious truth about "the last of the Neanderthals" is shuttered, obscured, and outright avoided. Take this, for example:

Within another 15,000 years or so, Neanderthals were gone forever, leaving behind a few bones and a lot of questions. Were they a clever and perserverant breed of survivors, much like us, or a cognitively challenged dead end? What happened during that period, roughly 45,000 to 35, 000 years ago, when the Neanderthals shared some parts of the Eurasian landscape with those modern human migrants from Africa? Why did one kind of human being survive, and the other disappear?

Or this priceless bit:

"Most Neanderthals and modern humans probably lived most of their lives without seeing each other," he [specialist Jean-Jacques Hublin] said, carefully choosing his words. "The way I imagine it is that occasionally in these border areas, some of these guys would see each other at a distance ... but I think the most likely thing is that they excluded each other from the landscape. Not just avoided, but excluded. We know from recent research on hunter-gatherers that they are much less peaceful than generally believed."

And then there's this stunning little line:

All this from a group of ill-fated Neanderthals buried in a cave collapse, soon after they were consumed by their own kind.

Something should be pointed out here that is pointed out nowhere in this article: there's not one particle of evidence that the Neanderthals in question were eaten by other Neanderthals. Other such sites also show the same bone-chipping as this one, but all that demonstrates is homicide, not cannibalism. To lock in cannibalism, you'd first have to conclude that Neanderthals were the only mammals around who could have fashioned the sharp-edged tools necessary to cause the bone-chipping. If there's another candidate who could do that, you can't lock in cannibalism.

Now quick everybody: look up from this computer screen and see if your eyes can't find a man-made sharp edge within ten feet of where you're sitting.

So-called 'modern' man (why 'modern' instead of 'extant' is a mystery) arrives on the scene (be it Eurasia or the Americas), and within a geological eye-blink, virtually all that scene's megafauna disappear (giant bears, giant sloths, giant lions, giant beavers, several species of elephants, dire wolves, giant tigers, etc., etc.) - often leaving behind fossil evidence of massive killing-fields. Likewise all other talking, tool-using hominid species disappear, often leaving behind fossil evidence that the flesh was carved from their bones (and almost always leaving behind evidence of cranial fracture - Hell, the photo of a Neanderthal skull in this issue has a beauty of a hole in its forehead, right between the eyes). But the best Hall or any of his experts can manage is to tamely note that hunter-gatherers aren't always as peaceful as previously believed?

Neanderthals were squatter than extant humans (although not dumber - their brains were on average larger than those of the sole surviving species of human), heavier, very much stronger, and no less socially organized, but they lacked the one essential defining characteristic of modern mankind: they weren't genocidal maniacs. Somewhere in the genetic evolution that provided homo sapiens sapiens with its magnificent brain, there also occurred a slight chromosomal twist, just a little nudge here or there, that resulted in a species bloodlust unparalleled anywhere else in the history of the animal kingdom. Every single person reading this post, young or old, male or female (or Beepy), has at some point in their life killed some living thing without any need or cause. Not statistically: every single one of you has. Even if other species were able to think of such things, they'd find it unthinkable - they might kill out of anger or competition, but it would never occur to them to kill out of idleness, and certainly not to kill all of a given form of life.

The question posed in this issue's table of contents, "Why did our Ice Age rivals vanish?" couldn't have a clearer answer. They were excluded, every last man, woman, and child of them. So everybody raise a glass to the dearly departed Neanderthals, and when you're done, make sure to bring it down with a nice satisfying thwack onto the spider whose only crime is that it's skittering across your table right at that moment.


Jeffrey.Eaton said...

SteveReads: come for the charm, stay for the misanthropy!

You are, of course, completely right. I've always enjoyed the Michael Crichton "Eaters of the Dead" theory that the Neanderthal genocide is the true origin of the Beowulf story.

steve said...

Yes, but how many people did you kill TODAY?

Sam said...

The Natural History Museum in New York is very straighforward about the likelihood that Neanderthals were killed off by their more stylish cousins.

jc said...

Yeah, the Smithsonian museum too. I noted that when I micro'd the new Oxford caveman history. Why the cover-up? I mean, it's not like we aren't inundated daily with science about how we killed off all the megafauna -- like this clincher of an Australian study -- but the subject is still somehow taboo. The other day, someone said to me, in the middle of a discussion about this, 'oh, well but there were climate reasons for that too, right?' No, there weren't.

Why the taboo?

steve said...

Nobody likes admitting the shameful things in their past. For instance, I always referred to the children I sired on my slaves as "suntanned" ...

steve said...

plus, you have to give National Geographic some credit ... they want so bad to be a CIVILIZING force in the world! Hardly enough of those around, even if they feel the need to whitewash mankind's genocidal nature ...