Neanderthal man

1856 Neanderthal man

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Hermann Schaaffhausen primatology Neanderthal man

Neanderthal man

Homo neanderthalensis

The disappearance

We know now that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred, which means that they were not a different species from us; nevertheless, they keep a different species name, Homo neanderthalensis.

At the time, scientists were worried about how to reconcile them with our notions of superiority. No one wanted to claim them as human ancestors. Even though the bones were about 350,000 years old, no one wanted to admit that the fossils were ancient. Rudolf Virchow claimed that they were only bones of a modern man deformed by rickets, arthritis, and heavy blows to the head. When Marcellin Boule studied the nearly complete Neanderthal bones that were discovered starting in 1908 in the Dordogne, he misconstrued everything, ignoring the large cranial capacity and the fine hands. He arranged the big toes like an ape’s, the knees so they could not straighten, and the spines so they could not walk upright. Boule declared that the Neanderthal were mentally retarded and physically like apes.

I have resisted the idea that our own kind is special in the capabilities of our hearts or minds. Other animals also have hearts and minds and it is narrow-minded to assume that they do not use them in the same ways we use ours. Our record of intelligence is not matched by our ability to control and to manufacture; other animals have better histories of survival without killing others or destroying the environment that their survival depends on.

Cro-Magnon lived in the same Europe as the Neanderthals for about 10,000 years. The fact that the Neanderthals are gone today does not show that they were incapable of surviving. Cro-Magnons might have peacefully coexisted with Neanderthals, or competed with them for resources, or assimilated them, or murdered them.

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