The Neanderthal renaissance


Who were the Neanderthals? Even for archaeologists working at the trowel’s edge of contemporary science, it can be hard to see Neanderthals as anything more than intriguing abstractions, mixed up with the likes of mammoths, woolly rhinos and sabre-toothed cats. But they were certainly here: squinting against sunrises, sucking lungfuls of air, leaving footprints behind in the mud, sand and snow. Crouching to dig in a cave or rock-shelter, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to watch history rewind, and see the empty spaces leap with shifting, living shadows: to collapse time, reach out, and allow my skin to graze the warmth of a Neanderthal body, squatting right there beside me.  

The business of archaeology is about summoning wraiths from the graveyards of millennia, after the vagaries of decay and erosion have done their work. Everything begins as fragments. Yet in recent years, poring over these shards has produced a revolution in our understanding of Neanderthals. Contrary to what we once thought, they were far from brutish, ‘lesser’ beings, or mere evolutionary losers on a withered branch of our family tree. Rather, the invention of new dating techniques, analysis of thousands more fossils and artefacts, and advances in ancient DNA research have collectively revealed the extent to which the lives of Neanderthals are braided together with our own.

When Western science first encountered the Neanderthals in 1856, they were a jumble of bones – one of which was a broken skull dome. Blasted out of the rock by a pair of Italian miners in the Kleine Feldhofer cave in Germany’s Neander Valley (‘Neandertal’), enough remained of the weirdly flat skull with colossal brow ridges to hint at something alien yet human-like. The upper face bespoke a prodigious nose between cavernous eye sockets; there were also limb bones, bulkier than any known human’s. From the beginning, Neanderthals, dubbed Homo neanderthalensis, were tantalising in their incompleteness.

Shortly after, an entire skull emerged at the other end of Europe: in Gibraltar (on British soil, no less, to the delight of the London intelligentsia). The Forbes’ Quarry skull had actually been found some years earlier, in 1848, but had gone mostly unremarked in a museum collection. The bone itself was hidden by a coating of hardened sediment, and its nature obscured by the fact that nobody was primed to ‘see’ extinct hominins (the group of primates that includes humans, our immediate ancestors and other vanished human species). But in December 1863, Thomas Hodgkin, a visiting physician with experience in ethnography and anatomy, recognised the skull’s significance. He suggested it be sent to his friend George Busk, who had translated the analysis of the Feldhofer bones from German. When the skull arrived in London in July 1864, it removed any uncertainty about the Neanderthals’ link to us: lacking a primitive ape-like muzzle, these apparitions from an unknown aeon were decidedly and disturbingly human-like.

In the wake of this first flurry of discoveries, further Neanderthal specimens sprang up across Europe – until in 1908, a nearly complete skeleton of an adult male was disinterred from the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave in France. The publication of the find included illustrations made with cutting-edge Edwardian technology, in the form of 3D ‘stereo’ photographs. Reconstructions of the ‘Old Man’ of La Chapelle varied widely from hairy ‘ape man’ to a tidy-bearded – albeit shirtless – member of the bourgeoisie. But anatomically, at least, it was no longer possible to argue that he and his kind were closer to nonhuman animals than to living people. Now scholars began asking the deeper question: so Neanderthals looked the part, but were they truly ‘people’, like us?

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