Friday, March 30, 2012

What is it like to be a cave man?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, anthropology, archaeology, neandertals

A prefatory note: The moniker "Neanderthal Man" was coined in the late 1800s. In 1901 the Germans reformed the spelling of their language, and since then (111 years already), the appropriate term has been Neandertal. No matter how it is spelled, the word has never included a "TH" sound. In old high German, "th" was pronounced "T".

In a group sitting around a camp fire, would a Neandertal stand out? Would he or she seem odd in any way? Probably. Physically, the person might seem a little short and stocky, but not much out of the ordinary. The behavior, though, might eventually give the game away. He or she would probably quietly watch the fire, take no part in banter or storytelling, and simply look befuddled at most of the jokes. Let someone bringing a load of wood trip and drop it, though, and our friend just might erupt in the loudest laughter of the group.

In How to Think Like a Neandertal, Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge discuss in detail ten aspects of Neandertal life and what they reveal about the way they must have thought. Did they have language? Most assuredly. The common ancestor species, Homo heidelbergensis, is thought by most researchers to have had language and, most importantly, a "Language Acquisition Device", or syntax organ, in their brain, at a level not matched by any ape, even though it was probably less complex than the language and language learning facility in modern humans.

Let's compare us modernized Cro-Magnons with Neandertals, physically; not in detail but just gross anatomy. Average height and weight for Neandertal males would have been an inch or two (2-5 cm) shorter, but 30-50 lbs (14-22 kg) heavier, with a distinct barrel chest. A few "Mr Universe" types can lift one end of an automobile; the average Neandertal male could do so. Average height and weight for Neandertal females was very close to average female C-M height, but 20-40 lbs (9-18 kg) heavier. Whether a Neandertal female would have similar secondary sexual characteristics is not known (and this is not discussed by the authors); she may have had a flat chest when not lactating, and maybe not. Though the average Neandertal had heavy brow ridges and a somewhat receding chin, so do a goodly number of modern folk. In the last chapter, the authors speculate that C-M's were dark skinned and Neandertals more pale. Perhaps. Chimpanzee skin is usually pale under their pelt.

You'd be bored by their diet. "What, mammoth again? At least cook it a bit longer so I can chew it!" Neandertals did not have throwing spears, just thrusting spears. They seem to have fought mammoths close-up, skin-to-skin, where the mammoth could not make effective use of its natural weapons. They had to be fast; getting that last five feet closer is the most dangerous moment. The authors mention just once that many spears were sharpened at both ends. I suspect they were also rather long, perhaps two meters or more: You run in close, jab the mammoth to get it to rear up, and jab the butt into the ground so the mammoth will fall on the tip as it tries to come down on you (you gotta be fast!).

Neandertals, like their ancestor species, were expert flint knappers. This took a lot of repetition to learn, so they were probably more focused than most of us. The chapter on toolmaking has fascinating material that shows just how precise they had to be to strike of those big flakes from a "core". But once expertise is gained, making stone tools was cheap and easy, so the availability of good stone was the only thing that limited how many tools someone could make. They seem to have found it easier to make a new tool than to sharpen an old one. There are millions and millions of Neandertal and earlier tools held in museums and scientists' labs around the world.

Did they tell jokes? Could they understand a joke? Maybe, but it is unlikely. They were not innovators to the extent that we are. It takes an innovative mind to balance the incongruity of a typical joke or pun and see its humor. They'd more likely have appreciated physical humor (Three Stooges?). But their ability to focus and learn by watching would have made them formidable mechanics. If you were to raise a Neandertal baby in the modern world, he or she would probably excel at a number of skills that are learned by apprenticeship, including medicine! Calculus 101 might be a hurdle, though… Take someone with great focus, poor to middling social skills in groups larger than about five, and tremendous ability to learn from repetition: A Neandertal might make a very good computer programmer. Just keep them supplied with mammoth-meat pizzas!

Did they dream? Every other mammal does, so why not? But what did they dream? Probably similar dreams to ours: falling, being chased, forgetting something, looking for something. Many dreams seem to be rehearsals for coping with misfortune, or reminding us not to forget something.

I once read that when tribesmen in New Guinea meet in the forest, they first discuss whether they have any common relatives or powerful friends. They are trying to establish if they can afford to extend friendship, or must strive to kill one another. About half the time, there is a fight to the death. This is probably true of many societies called "primitive", for lack of a less pejorative word. Not all the world's cultures are as comfortable with meeting strangers as the typical Westerner. Neandertals would have been a bit more taciturn and xenophobic, suspicious of anyone outside a family group that seldom numbered more than fifteen. They had to have some tolerance for strangers, or some way of establishing trust, because it is likely that adolescents, either males or females but not both, left their home group to "marry out" into another group. There is little evidence that they carried a gift, which is more common among some modern societies (dowries and bride price customs).

Contrary to some depictions, the authors find no evidence that Neandertals had complex burial practices. They seem to have deposited a fresh corpse in a low spot, perhaps scooped out a bit deeper, and covered it with dirt and stones. More of an "out of sight out of mind" maneuver. They didn't always do so, and often lived among the bones of their ancestors, treating them like sedimentary stones, as they treated the bones of their prey; something to be kicked aside when you sit down. And there is no evidence they expected an afterlife.

Could a baby Neandertal learn a modern language? Could a baby C-M learn a Neandertal language (there were probably a great many languages)? Possibly with ease, in both cases, but more likely, with some difficulty. The brains of Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens were somewhat different shapes. So were their thought patterns. In either case, there would be concepts that could not be grasped. The authors think it likely that a Neandertal baby would do better growing up among us, than the opposite scenario.

Neandertal life may have been brutal, but they were not brutish. These were not knuckle-dragging ape-men. They were men and women, they stood upright, and in a suit of modern dress, one of them would not seem unusual. The authors have delivered a great contribution to our understanding of a cousin species, which may also have added a little to our genetic endowment.

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