Neanderthal

The young girl on TV is shown at the moment of realization. Run away, run! she had been shouting at the wounded hairy thing as it foundered & went down in a circle of men with spears, & now she is turning a heartbroken face to the cameras from the future, she is calling down destruction on her own kind, because we did not see as clearly as she did that these too were people. She is saying, when the last of the others has been killed, there will be no one left on earth. How can you live without dreams? She is saying, we are all others after dark.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

16 Comments


  1. Curious. You’ve humanized a controversial subject. I’ve had thoughts like this whenever there’s discussion of whether the Neanderthals were humans, and whether they mixed with Homo Sapiens. (I think yes to both).

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  2. Current usuage among physical anthropologists refers to H. sapiens as “modern humans,” implying that other hominids were humans, as well. Seems reasonable, but I doubt our ancestors felt that way. I think it’s very likely that the only reason H. erectus and H. neanderthalis are no longer with us is because our ancestors killed them off. And recent DNA evidence suggests that there wasn’t any inter-breeding.

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  3. Fascinating. I’ve always assumed no-one cared; that our conscience about such things is a totally modern thing. I’ve never gone so far as to imagine the scenario in that much detail though. Heart rending. ‘We are all others after dark’. Yes.

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  4. On the contrary, I think that our ability to empathize is a good part of what makes us human. I mean, what are those cave paintings in France and Spain about, if not an attempt to evoke and summon the spirits of the beloved others (who were also food)?

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  5. Dave: implying that other hominids were humans, as well. Seems reasonable, but I doubt our ancestors felt that way. I think it’s very likely that the only reason H. erectus and H. neanderthalis are no longer with us is because our ancestors killed them off.

    Until well into the historical era, most of humanity had trouble recognizing other races as human, if not other tribes! I sometimes wonder if the story of Cain And Abel might represent a species memory of our treatment of our brother-species. Also note that even today, all the great apes (AFAIK) and a goodly number of primates are threatened, if not barely short of extinct.

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  6. I don’t know about Erecto and Neander, but according to our family bush and some DNA tests we are related to beans from outerspace.

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  7. Sorry to keep chiming in on this, but thinking about it afterwards I remembered reading in a magazine a while ago about how when they were making one of those prehistoric reconstruction programmes, having made up a couple of actors of suitable stature into some form of early hominid, I forget which, with very elaborate make up and prosthetics, they took them on the London Underground out of curiosity to see people’s reactions. The couple didn’t behave bizarrely, were just there, but the hostility and disgust people showed was overt, at times quite violent, clearly visceral, seeming to surprise even those who showed it, far greater than would have been exhibited to a disabled or deformed person or certainly to an animal, which would have evoked compassion. One man, a smart professional type, said something very ugly and threatening, and the proto-hominid woman replied ‘ What’s the matter, haven’t you ever seen a … before?’. The man turned back, suddenly contrite, with ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise it was a medical condition.’
    I do wonder if the murderous hatred which can so easily be stirred in people against others of our kind if we can be persuaded of their difference, their inferiority, has its roots in this.
    I too believe in the exceptional human quality of empathy, but like so much of the good which makes us human, it struggles always with the essentially bad which is human too.

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  8. Thanks for these comments. An extremely iffy internet connection today has prevented me responding much sooner.

    David – There’s good evidence that we might have actually been more tolerant of others in premodern times, especially before the advent of cities and agriculture, but I take your point. I’ve often had the same thoughts.

    Fred – This is outer space.

    Lucy – That’s a very interesting story. Thank you. Just the other day, I read a paper by one anthropologist suggesting that hairlessness and lighter skin colors, neither of them features with any adaptive advantages, might be the result not simply of mate selection but also of selective infanticide. But that still doesn’t answer the question: where does the revulsion to hairiness and darkness come from? What lead Homo sapiens to don clothing in the first place? These are still fundamental mysteries, in my opinion. It’s not as if we’re instinctual killers, as Konrad Lorenz and his epigones used to preach. We’re scavengers, for Christ’s sake. Prey. Tiger bait. Perhaps it’s that instinctual fear that we can’t quite exorcise. Fear and hatred are, after all, pretty tightly linked. I’m not sure a true predator would feel anything akin to hatred.

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  9. Re: Lucy’s story and revulsion, two things to consider:

    First, the most repulsive and frightening monsters are always the ones that are almost, or partly, human… that is the ones that look enough like us to be judged by human standards of appearance, but not enough to “pass” as acceptable.

    Secondly… in an ecological context, your worst enemy isn’t necessarily a predator, especially for humans who are prone to fighting back! Your competitors can be a much more serious threat, and more so the closer they are to your preferred niche. And the Neanderthals certainly shared that first set of major adaptations that shifted us from “ape” to “hominin”….

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  10. As I understand it, neandertalis and sapiens are only the most recent example of (probable) hominid and pre-hominid competition in a long, branching tree of human evolution. It really is a fascinating subject.

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  11. Also, re: David Harmon’s statement, but on the other side of the coin: I’ve often wondered at our knee-jerk reaction to insects, and thought it must be because they are so very alien.

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  12. David – In light of Moira’s very good example of insects, I can’t agree that the most repulsive and frightening monsters are the ones that look most like us, but perhaps it’s a different form of repulsion? I do agree that the repulsion seems strongest at the two ends of the continuum of resemblance to us.

    But Moira, some insects are generally perceived as cute, such as ladybugs, while others — earwigs, cockroaches — produce revulsion. I suppose we can chalk that up to the power of the human imagination to project neotenic qualities onto small, rounded things even when they are, objectively speaking, quite unlike human infants.

    H. sapiens, neanderthalis, and erectus were all contemporaries, along with maybe one or two other distinct hominid species. H. erectus was, based on current fossil evidence, the most widespread hominid prior to us, getting as far as Australia, so the fact that scientists now believe it was not an ancestor is really quite shocking.

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