Monday, April 15, 2019

The Smart Neanderthal

Clive Finlayson is especially fascinated by two things, Neanderthals and birds.  Since 1989, he has been excavating caves in Gibraltar, on the north shore of the Mediterranean, where Neanderthals lived from 127,000 to 32,000 years ago.  Gibraltar is the place where the last Neanderthals tearfully bid farewell to this magnificent planet.  Later, after they were gone, Homo sapiens lived in these caves, beginning maybe 30,000 years ago.  There is no evidence of them being in living contact at the Gibraltar site.

For decades, many scholars have adopted the belief that we Homo sapiens were superior to Neanderthals.  They imagine that when humans invaded Neanderthal territory, the inferior species was helplessly overwhelmed and exterminated.  This belief is known as the replacement model, which assumed that we could never meet other humans without wiping them out.  History is loaded with replacement stories.

Beliefs are based on assumptions, which are sometimes daffy balderdash.  Over time, beliefs that pass from one generation to the next can mutate into illusions that are perceived to be certain truths.  Human supremacists really annoy Finlayson, and he has written three books to spank them — Neanderthals and Modern Humans (2004), The Humans Who Went Extinct (2009), and The Smart Neanderthal (2019).  The new book is an enjoyable, well written mystery story, in which the brainy hero (Finlayson) confronts the dodgy beliefs held by many mainstream scholars.

It’s not surprising that folks who have spent more than 30 years studying Neanderthals actually accumulate a lot of experiences and insights.  They learn things that scholars in faraway college towns never do.  The myth of progress is only a few centuries old, and it perceives that all previous generations were inferior — especially our prehistoric relatives.  The human supremacists in academia have generated a list of advanced characteristics that Neanderthals lack.  In his new book, Finlayson examines this list, item by item, and presents evidence to the contrary.  He concludes that humans and Neanderthals were equally intelligent, but not equally lucky in the survival lottery.

Of all the prehistoric hominins, we know Neanderthals best, because we have discovered a number of sites where they lived in Eurasia.  In caves, evidence of days past is far less likely to be blown or washed away, and more likely to be preserved and found.  Over time, layers of stuff build up, with newer ones covering the old.  Scientists assign dates to each layer, and document the artifacts found.

What makes the book especially interesting is that he uses his love of birds to support a number of his arguments.  The caves at Gibraltar contain the remains of 160 species of birds.  The region was once a wonderland for the winged ones, but not now.  “Their world has been destroyed by civilized man in a few centuries.”

Human supremacists assert that dimwitted Neanderthals were incapable of catching speedy prey, like birds or hares.  So Finlayson visited Spain, and watched an old gent attract 300 large vultures by putting out some carrion.  They surrounded him, and happily took food from his hand.  Another time, he went to an island off the coast of Scotland, where it was the breeding season for 150,000 gannets.  None took flight as he strolled through them, instead they pecked his legs bloody.

Some birds respond to danger by flying away.  Others, like the stone curlews, have natural coloration that provides excellent camouflage.  When danger appears, they freeze, and become nearly invisible to predators.  They only take flight if the intruder makes a sudden movement.  Finlayson has calmly walked right past frozen curlews, and could have easily snatched them.  Sometimes speedy hares will freeze in the presence of danger, allowing their camouflage to render them invisible.  Finlayson has walked very close to frozen hares.

The 300,000+ year saga of Neanderthals was an era of roller coaster climate shifts.  Most of their time on Earth was colder than average.  Some climate shifts happened suddenly and sharply.  Children were sometimes born in a steppe habitat which, decades earlier, had been woodland when their grandparents lived there. 

Between the Arctic, and the Mediterranean, there were several climate zones — ice, tundra, steppe, and woodland.  When the climate plunged into frigid periods, glaciers and ice sheets expanded in the north, which compressed the zones to the south.  There were times when the ice sheet extended from Scandinavia to northern Germany, and covered most of the British Isles.  At times, large areas of France were tundra.  The Mediterranean Sea, a large body of warm water, moderated the climate of southern Europe, so the temperature swings were less intense in Gibraltar, and wild foods remained abundant.

One indicator of climate shifts is the types of bones found at various time periods in the layers of cave crud.  The layers associated with Neanderthals usually indicated warm, moist, woodland or forest.  Woodland conditions were identified by the bones of aurochs, red deer, boar, cave bear, leopard, giant deer, and temperate rhinoceros. 

It’s important to understand that the more recent sites, which are associated with humans, often indicate steppe-tundra conditions, when the land was cold, dry, open, and treeless.  Steppe-tundra conditions were identified by the bones of woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, horse, musk ox, ibex, moose, Artic fox, and reindeer.

The human supremacists regularly ridicule Neanderthals for displaying little innovation.  For 300,000+ years, their primary weapon was the thrusting spear.  Obviously, a stable and functional way of life was glaring evidence of low intelligence!  But Neanderthals were woodland creatures who excelled at ambush hunting.  For them, a thrusting spear was the perfect tool.  For humans, who lived in steppe-tundra habitat, it was the opposite of excellent, because a wide open landscape had no trees or brush to conceal their presence.  Their weapon was the javelin.

The latest technology is giving archaeologists the ability to extract more information from the stuff they dig up.  For example, plant pollen.  Long ago, hyenas ravenously devoured carcasses, including their intestines, which contained pollen from the surrounding vegetation.  Fossilized hyena turds (coprolites) have preserved this pollen, allowing scientists to discover the mix of plants in the ecosystem during different time windows.  This indicated current climate conditions.

Finlayson dismisses the notion that Neanderthals were driven to extinction by humans, and wonders if they may have resisted human expansion.  He believes that an increasingly cold climate was shrinking their traditional woodland habitat, and fragmenting their population.  After surviving numerous eras of cold, the latest one pushed them a bit too hard — bad luck drove them extinct.

One point Finlayson doesn’t mention is that Neanderthals emerged 300,000+ years ago in Eurasia, where they evolved in a temperate climate.  Their bodies were stockier to give them better cold tolerance.  Humans emerged in Africa maybe 300,000 years ago.  They evolved in a tropical climate, where they developed better tolerance of heat, and became skilled at grassland hunting. 

When humans wandered into the grasslands of Eastern Europe 36,000 years ago (the “European Serengeti”), their tropical bodies were not fine-tuned for freezing weather.  At this point, their choices were to either to turn around and return to home sweet home, or innovate like crazy and struggle to survive in a hostile climate where large game was abundant.

The human supremacists shout that the humans were simply too smart to fail.  They claim that a miracle occurred 50,000 years ago, when genetic mutations caused human intelligence to skyrocket.  This was called the Great Leap Forward, or the Cognitive Revolution.  Finlayson says “Bullshit!”  Genetic research has found zero evidence of this.

What genetic research has found is clear evidence that Neanderthals and non-African humans interbred.  East Asians have 2.3 to 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA, and Western Eurasians have 1.8 to 2.5 percent.  Markers of these hot romances are as old as 100,000 years ago, and as recent as 37,000 years.  Today, humans of various ancestries carry different segments of Neanderthal DNA.  Thus, up to 20 percent of the Neanderthal genome might still exist, scattered throughout the vast human herd.

Supremacists assert that only humans were brilliant enough to dine on marine life.  Oddly, the Neanderthals at Gibraltar ate mollusks, seals, dolphins, herbivorous mammals, tortoises, and birds.  But, but, but… only humans were smart enough to paint caves and make ornaments.  Recent research is raising doubts (someone was apparently painting caves 64,800 years ago).  Indeed, humans likely learned many tricks from the Neanderthals. 

To make claims of cognitive superiority based on the artifacts of material culture is silly.  The writing tools I used in 1970 were extremely crude compared to the laptop I’m using now.  Has my brain become far more powerful?  Compared to my grandparents, is my brain actually better?

Uncomfortable doubts are growing, with regard to the ultimate value of intelligence.  Neanderthals lived for 300,000+ years, in a manner that had the appearance of genuine sustainability.  They have not been associated with megafauna extinctions.  Following the human colonization of Europe, there was a wave of megafauna extinctions, which occurred between 30,000 to 12,000 years ago. 

Since then, aggressive cultures of our godlike species have blindsided every ecosystem on Earth.  The supremacists leap to their feet, clapping, cheering, and celebrating the wonders of perpetual growth and progress.  Big Mama Nature laughs and laughs, as she prepares some potent surprises to rubbish our illusions of grandiosity.  Soon she’ll be serving us an all-you-can-eat banquet of humble pie.

Finlayson, Clive, The Smart Neanderthal, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019.

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