Are We the Last Neanderthals?

I admit that prior to this event, I knew very little about Neanderthals. I suppose I had a few of the preconceived notions about them that John Hawks referred to: Neanderthals are stupid, Neanderthals are savages. But I also thought that they would have primitive tools and a somewhat organized way of living. Apparently that view is relatively new on the scene. What surprised me most about Hawks’ talk was how much our superiority complex as human beings seemed to factor into people’s early opinions of Neanderthals. Granted, it wasn’t until fairly recently that scientists found evidence of the more sophisticated aspects of Neanderthal life. It still seems that for a while, whenever humans studied an organism that could potentially have intelligence similar to their own, they automatically assume it must have been stupid because how could anything be as advanced as humans. Hawks spoke about a German scientist, a contemporary of Darwin, who placed Neanderthals just below Homo sapiens and called them Homo stupidus, also implying that they did not have the power of speech. Early scientists also seemed to take the fact that Neanderthals no longer existed as proof that they must not have been that great or they would have survived. While clearly the characteristics of Neanderthals had become less advantageous as they began to die out, Hawks presented findings that supported the idea that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than was commonly believed. While the fossil record of the vocal tract is vague, scientists believe that Neanderthals had a least some ability to vocalize. There is also record of string made from plant fibers, shells colored with pigment, rudimentary weapons, and bird bones that the feathers were systematically removed from in sites where Neanderthal groups had settled. In the calcified substances on Neanderthal teeth, scientists found starch and evidence that Neanderthals had been steaming grains before eating them. Clearly this supports the idea that Neanderthals were not nearly as idiotic as society used to believe. It is intriguing to think about a time when early humans and Neanderthals were encountering each other. We are linked to them by portions of our DNA, primitive habits, and physical similarities. It is appropriate, then, that scientists like Hawks are giving Neanderthals the attention they deserve instead of ignoring them for being a potential threat to humans’ coveted status as organisms of superior intelligence.

 

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