You see him as the villain in a thousand movies. His eyes are huge, maybe the hazel of competing genes of blue and brown. His big brain is encased in a sloping skull. His nose is big, a baking potato in the middle of a flat face. On the subway, he takes up two seats. You would try not to stare. He’s brawny and robust. Barrel-chested, stocky, muscular. You could outrun him, but could you outlast him?
In a way you have outlasted him. His unmistakably distinct Neanderthal features disappear from the fossil record thirty five thousand years ago. Despite the fervent denial of many anthropologists, and the evidence of our own eyes, Neanderthal genes survive in people alive today.
The intensely active male averaged about 5’ 2” and 190 pounds. Neanderthals were predominately right-handed, champion arm wrestlers, and superb hunters who made javelin-like spears more than two hundred thousand years ago. Rebecca Wragg Sykes in KINDRED, Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art describes their technology as a “dynamic response to each block of stone.” Massive hands deftly grasped tiny lithic tools and shaped flakes of obsidian that could “slice between molecules.”
Muscle attached to heavy bone indicates grinding and repetitive motion, the making of things that define our humanity. They used hands and mouths to work hides for shelter and clothing, made grasses and plants edible by manipulation and fire. The red of ochre and black of charcoal decorated deep cave walls. We marvel at pictures of musk oxen carved in stone. We can only imagine the works of bone and wood, tooth and shell that have dissolved over time.
An abscessed tooth could and often did kill you. Want to avoid a toothache caused by pesky fibers trapped in your molars? Thank a Neanderthal. A toothpick was found imbedded in the calculus of the teeth of Shanidar 1. He died in relative old age about fifty thousand years ago—the same old man made famous by Jean Auel in her novel CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. The La Chapelle-aux-Saints fossil also shows evidence of a long life despite illness and injury—not possible without the help of his fellow Neanderthals.
They hunted bison, deer, wooly rhinos and mammoths, and horses that weighed over 1000 pounds. Aurochs stood six feet at the shoulder. They confronted water buffaloes and giant camels, ibex, gazelle, wild ass, boars, and cave bears that weighed 1,320 pounds. Besides seeds and plants they could fish and harvest seafood. Except for lucky fossil finds in collapsed caves, their teeth survive intact to reveal our amazing evolutionary past
IN RACE AND HUMAN EVOLUTION, Milford Wolpoff contradicts the archetypes of incompetent and uncurious brutes who died from stupidity, keeling over in awe of the new and improved superior breed of human (us). He describes migration and mate exchanges that “linked even the most far-flung people,” Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
They roamed from Wales to Siberia. When their ancestors left Africa about five hundred thousand years ago, they manifested the typical body frame we recognize in the first fossil discovery from the Neander Valley. By two hundred and fifty thousand years ago they changed the way they made tools, carving hand axes with long sharp edges. One hundred and thirty thousand years ago a warming period rose in Europe, Africa, and Asia ending the isolation which had separated the two groups of humans, who despite their physical distinctions, made jewelry and tools, weapons and clothing which would allow them to survive for so many millennia.
Neanderthals had consciousness. They made decisions. Keep this, discard that. They threw things away and made others too beautiful to part with, things that would have to be carried in the place of food. This proto man, this straight-legged ape, this leaping, running, dancing animal, could make things and take them, and he would do that across the world.
Miraculously, a cache of spears made from spruce over three hundred thousand years ago was found along with the remains of fifty butchered horses in Schoningen, Germany. We wonder at the skill and courage, the thoughtfulness and strength, it took to surmount an environment without the elemental protections of a thick hide or dagger-like teeth. They made hearths for warmth and concentrated fire to forge weapons and digging tools from yew and boxwood, oak and chestnut. They crafted joinings from sinew and plant fibers and put it all together with adhesive made from bitumen and birch tar.
Few ancient shell tools and spearpoints made from ivory and reindeer antlers survive. What has disappeared since then cannot be reckoned. People who made complex tools must have planned and communicated in complex ways. Wolves plan too, but when the earth turns too cold for their heavy fur, they don’t contrive needles to sew another layer or devise a way to keep warm in a place they were never meant to survive. All early humans taught their young these ways so that uncounted generations built on what they created. They invented, and then they remembered.
Our collective memory endures.