The Dead Tribe

Changing the Image of Mankind
By Erik Trinkaus and Pat Shipman
Knopf, 454 pp.

They built no architectural monuments, or at least none that have survived, and probably were not capable of doing so. If they had languages, folklore or mystical beliefs, these are all as extinct as they are. They have left no record of themselves but themselves: a tibia here, a jawbone there, a haphazard collection of fossilized remains and primitive tools unearthed from western Europe to the near East. Literally, there is nothing left of them but debris.

Yet they are the object of every school kid’s wide-eyed fascination, and rightly so. They are the Neanderthals, the nagging other to humanity’s insecure sense of self. Between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago, they walked the same terrain we now pave over for shopping malls. They may well have done so at the same time as people who looked very much like us.

In this case, appearances run bone-deep. It’s not simply that the Neanderthal skeleton differs from yours and mine. It’s that it embodies all the markers of what we consider brutishness. Squat and immensely physically powerful, heavy-jawed, beetle-browed and with a sloping cranial dome, the average Neanderthal is precisely what we all fear encountering in the dark alley of the soul. They are us, and yet at the same time they are not us.

What, then, are we to make of their remains? Who were these creatures, and what happened to them? Were they grunting beasts, scrabbling out their existence incapable of abstract thought? Or were they alert and caring social beings? Did humankind somehow evolve from such stock? Or, on the contrary, were they killed off by our ancestors, either deliberately or through greater adaptive success? When we gaze on their bones are we looking at the relics of humanity’s first act of genocide?

Since 1856, when the first skull was discovered by quarrymen in a grotto in the Neander Valley, near Dusseldorf, the answers to these questions have changed and changed again, often in light of new evidence, new analyses, new theories, but always in ways that say as much about the human investigators as the long-dead cavemen themselves. Quite apart from the fact that it is extremely well written, this is what makes Erik Trinkaus and Pat Shipman’s account a superior read: it is both the story of what is known about the Neanderthals (the “h,” by the way, has been dropped in this book in accordance with the German spelling) and a chronicle of human ambition and prejudice, of courage and painstaking work and flashes of breathtakingly clever deduction.

What is doubly pleasing is that the authors are not professional science writers, but paleontologists – thereby putting paid to the canard that the literary scientist is an extinct species. Trinkaus is professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico and probably the world’s leading expert on Neanderthal foot bones. Shipman is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University school of medicine and also an accomplished scholar of the fossil record.

It is one of those eerie coincidences of history that the first bones were found a mere three years before the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. At the time, Trinkaus and Shipman remind us, natural history was a European craze, the intellectual health-club movement of the 19th century. In an era before television, walks in the countryside were exercise for both body and mind. All sorts of folk collected everything from flowers to insects to the strange fossils of animals unlike anything currently alive.

Darwin knew his theory of evolution was political arson. He delayed publication for years until his hand was forced by Alfred Russel Wallace, who had arrived at almost identical insights. But try as he might to discreetly sidestep the issue of human evolution – to focus on finches and beetles – those ancient German bones made the ancestry of our kind the centre of the firestorm.

Even as the evolutionary understanding prevailed – these were not the remains of some great ape wiped out in the biblical flood – the fossil record became a Rorschach blot on to which successive investigators projected their own mental constructs. The most telling cultural caricature is still the Neanderthal as a stooped, shuffling knuckle-grazer. But as Trinkaus and Shipman point out, the portrait is the product of repeated misreadings of skeletal fragments.

The notion that the Neanderthals were bent-kneed arose from an early mistake by a bad anatomist. Their image as bent-over was abetted by what was thought to be the tell-tale pattern of the spine of a Neanderthal, 30 years old when he died, discovered a La Chapelle aux Saints in 1908. But in the late ’40s a French bone-hunter named Camille Arambourg was taking shade from the Sahara sun under the wing of his plane when the heat burst the aircraft’s tire. The wing came down and cracked him on the head. The result was whiplash, and when he returned to Paris he had an X-ray taken of his painful neck.

The radiograph, he realized instantly, displayed the same pattern as the specimen from La Chapelle aux Saints. It wasn’t that Neanderthals had stiff spines. It was simply that this Neanderthal had had a back injury.

The understanding of the cultural sophistication of the Neanderthal has undergone a similar revision. In the ’60s, American Ralph Solecki began excavating a cave in Kurdish Iraq in which he found a number of Neanderthal skeletons, clearly deliberately buried. In 1968, French researcher Arlette Leroi-Gourhan revealed that the soil of at least one of the graves showed an exceptionally high level of pollen residue. Solecki puzzled over this, then concluded that the body must have been buried in petals – an act that demonstrated a sense of ritual and aesthetic.

Another eerie coincidence: just about the time of the Summer of Love, Neanderthals were revealed to be the world’s first flower children.

And were they our ancestors (the beast within) or a semi-human dead-end on the evolutionary grid map (the beast without)?

Recent DNA analysis has muddied the waters, but the current conventional wisdom is that they were indeed a breed apart from early humans, although the two populations co-existed and interbred. In short, there is a little Neanderthal in all of us.

Certainly, some of the fossils show that the old and the infirm were supported by the collective long after they ceased to be physically useful. Did these individuals have other skills? Were they the shamans and the storytellers, or were they simply somebody’s relative?

True, we’ll leave our own scarred remains for future paleontologists to ponder: osteoporosis and pacemakers and the cracked ribs that come with open-chest surgery. But this is the decrepitude of people who were allowed to grow old. Most of the Neanderthal specimens yet discovered either died young or bear evidence of massive trauma: teeth rotted out of the jaw, fractures that never healed properly, debilitating arthritis.

The Neandertals does a splendid job of bringing its prehistoric subjects to life, but there’s no way you’d rather be one of them than one of

  • Montreal Gazette March 20, 1993