Neanderthal Revisionism



Speaking of primitivism, or at least of primitive man, the Daily Mail has an interesting roundup of recent scholarship on the Neanderthals. The current portrait of our predecessors depicts a people who "were not the brutes of legend but a sophisticated and intelligent species, capable of creating fire, fashioning delicate tools, burying their dead and perhaps even making music. Their brains were actually larger than ours—although subtly different in structure." They also survived much longer than was previously believed, and were taller than is usually imagined. ("The popular and misguided view that the Neanderthals were short and stooped may have arisen because some of these skeletons probably came from individuals suffering from severe arthritis.") They might even be among our ancestors:

Maybe the supposedly dim-witted Neanderthals were wiped out systematically, the planet's first example of deliberate genocide. Maybe we simply beat them in the competition for food and territory.

Or maybe—and most intriguingly—the Neanderthal gene pool was absorbed into ours. In 1998, a skeleton was found at Lagar Velho, an excavation site about 90 miles north of Lisbon in Portugal.

The bones of a four-year-old child buried with decorative shells and ochre paint showed both recognisably Neanderthal and human characteristics, suggesting that interbreeding had occurred. This idea is controversial, and many palaeontologists maintain that the human and Neanderthal gene pools were always separate.

But if humans and Neanderthals did interbreed, this raises the possibility that many of us to this day, in Europe, have a dash of Neanderthal blood.