Sunday, 17 October 2010

Are we being a bit unfair to Neanderthals?

This is another post dedicated to my ongoing efforts to battle Neanderthal racism... I believe Neanderthal technology and its reputation for its uninovativeness is partially due to being compared to a benchmark of quite recent human cultural complexity.

At a recent conference, I was lucky to hear a talk from Wil Roebrooks (Professor of Archaeology, Leiden University).  The conference was on the evolution of language, and researchers with an in depth knowledge of the Palaeolithic did not number many in the crowd, so it was a bit lighter in content than his talk at the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain conference a week earlier (which I was also lucky to have seen!).

During this talk though, Roebrooks did something that has been done many times before: Neanderthal and ancient human culture were compared side by side, tallying up cultural achievements.

This talk made me think about how we as researchers can be quite unfair to Neanderthals, who died out in Europe around 30,000 years ago.  We have a common ancestor, and had a very similar contemporary cultural repertoire throughout most of that time.  The complex cultural achievements people often associate with modern humans have mostly happened since the Neanderthals have disappeared.

Pockets of innovation in Middle Stone Age Africa showed that some human cultures developed new innovative tool technologies well before the upper Palaeolithic; harpoons (such as those at Katanda), blades (such as those at Kapthurian formation 500,000 years ago), and decorative items like shell and ostrich beads (Qafzeh and Blombos Cave) appear before modern humans entered Europe.   Things such as cave paintings, clear forms of social hierarchy, specialisation and wealth appeared much later.

We also see Neanderthals with their own shell ornaments, covered in red ochre at 50,000 years ago in Spain, evidence of exploiting marine resources, and the use of deep caves such as at Bruniquel (Hayden 2003).  These examples suggest a cognitive ability not unlike that of their closest living relatives of the time.  Though the Middle Stone Age of Africa no doubt shows humans at this time to have a higher number of sites that show pockets of innovation, these sites are not typical of humans cross culturally during the MSA.
It makes sense to compare Neanderthals and humans, how they were utilising and experiencing their environment, and exploring their differences and commonalities, being two similar species evolving on separate continents.  But I want to point out what I believe is a strong bias that makes the material cultural differences between the two seem much larger than might be the case, leading to the conclusion by many that they were much different as a species, cognitively and culturally.
Roebrooks’ talk looked at Neanderthal material culture, but when it came time to compare this with what humans achieve culturally, time fast forwarded to Gravettian Europe for modern human examples.  Was this a fair comparison?  If culture has sort of a feedback loop, if it first needs to build on itself in order to achieve a more complex stage, then what needs to happen for that complexity, other than a pressure for that complexity to come about, is the passage of time.

To compare Neanderthal complexity at 70,000 years ago with modern humans at 20,000 years ago, where Neanderthals' cultural development was cut off due to their extinction, is a bit unfair to what they could have develloped if given a few more millenia for cultural complexity to intensify.  After all, modern humans at 70,000 years ago really had not accumulated much of their extreme material culture differences that we see showing up later on.  Again, culturally, their material culture was very similar to their European cousins.

Right before Neanderthals disappeared, they developed a culture called the Chatelperronean.  There exists much debate about whether or not this culture is due to contact with humans (for, how could they develop cultural complexity on their own?)

Often humans are cited as the reason for Neanderthal extinction.  While not saying this is not the case, I do have a problem with this is explained as being because modern humans were somehow ‘doing a better job at soemthing’ than Neanderthals (making tools, hunting, speaking, thinking).  Even if modern humans showed up on the scene with higher cognitive capacities and a complex language that they lacked, what in this would force Neanderthals to die out?   If this were the case, surely there would be a massive Europe wide extinction as each species with lower cognitive capabilities to humans started to die out in response to a ‘smarter’ species on the scene?

My main point is that to compare what Neanderthals did on average throughout their 400,000 year stint in Europe, with modern human Gravettian culture at 20,000 years ago, which even in human terms is pretty impressive, is no less than an unfair comparison and puts Neanderthals in a very uninovative light.  It would hardly be fair to compare 21st century art, technology and cultural achievements of Japan, to say, the gravettian cultures of France at 20,000 years ago.

Perhaps if Neanderthals did not die out roughly 30,000 years ago, if left to their own devices they may have fallen into a cultural feedback loop of increasing complexity that could rival that of our own ever increasing speed of invention.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. For me, context is the foundation of all Anthropology. With this in mind, I'm often frustrated when cultural and linguistic complexities and capacity for intelligence are compared using incomparable scales. This can be seen though out nearly all cultural comparisons I've read regardless of era or region. There is always a scale, one always comes out "on top", so to speak. However, how objective can an author be when faced with the natural instinct to create "the other"?


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