My Ancestors, Myself: Fossil Genomics Opens a New Windows to the Past But the View Through Them Isn’t as Clear as We Think
Neanderthals hold a special place — biologically and mythologically — in the knowledge of who we are and where we came from. Even now, scientists cannot agree whether they are a variant of our species, or a separate species in our genus Homo. The discovery of Neanderthals in the 19th century pointed to a deep history of ‘otherness’ in Europe, of people who might have been ancestors, variants, or even victims of modern-day Europeans. Their differences from us are fairly small. You can find people today with brow ridges, or sloping foreheads, or weak chins, or long heads, or narrow faces, or projecting mid-faces, or large jaws with more than enough room for the wisdom teeth. But you don’t find those features together, or quite so extreme, in anyone living today. The discovery of remnant ‘Neanderthal genes’ in modern Europeans has rekindled the debate about how we make scientific and cultural sense of our human ancestry — and, more broadly, of our place in the natural order of things.
What, then, is our relation to the Neanderthals? Are ‘they’ the odd-looking people whom ‘we’ — that is to say, lanky, round-headed, anatomically modern Homo sapiens — dispossessed and exterminated? That was an explanation that made sense to 19th-century Europeans, who imagined their own colonial ambitions and barbaric exterminations stretching back into the dim past. Or did ‘they’ represent humans in a state of pure nature, their lives ‘nasty, brutish and short’ as Thomas Hobbes and his Enlightenment successors portrayed the forerunner — and shadow — of civil society? Perhaps ‘they’ were neither primordial victims nor primordial forebears, but simply freaks of nature — deformed, maybe by accident of birth or circumstance of life, and interesting because they are weird and pathological?
The truth is likely to be ‘a little of each’, since the alternatives were never mutually exclusive. Their bones show lots of evidence of healed fractures; their teeth are worn as if they were being used as tools; and their muscular development was strikingly asymmetrical. Whatever they did, it was rigorous, it was cultural and it was humane (at least, they took care of friends with broken arms better than chimpanzees do). They also tended to get a lot more exercise on one side than the other. They were replaced in the fossil record of Europe by less stocky people like you and me, who had chins and foreheads. And yes, they were ‘uncivilised’. They often buried their dead, but never sent any grave goods along with the deceased for the journey. They didn’t build anything, or at least anything lasting or recognisable. If they decorated themselves, or had any aesthetic sensibility at all, it was rudimentary at best.