Essays - Spring 2011

Interview with a Neandertal


What I always wanted to ask our distant cousins about love and death and sorrow and dinner

By Priscilla Long

March 2, 2011


1. You Neandertals became extinct 28,000 years ago. Still, your time on Earth lasted several to many millenniums longer than our time has lasted so far. If you could speak to us now, could you teach us anything about survival?

2. We evolved in Africa about 160,000 years ago. About 140,000 years ago, some catastrophic event wiped out most of the founding population of Homo sapiens. This calamity, whatever it was, decimated a population of 12,800 individuals down to a remnant of 600. We today—all of us—descend from those 600 survivors. Now, as for you Neandertals, we are constantly inquiring as to how (not whether) we were cognitively superior to you, given that we survived and you didn’t. But is that really different from asking how our 600 surviving ancestors were cognitively superior to their kin who perished so long ago? What is it about that question?

3. You Homo neanderthalensis and we Homo sapiens had a common ancestor, a humbler hominid, that spread a long way out of Africa a long time ago. This predecessor hominid lived maybe 440,000 years ago. You Neandertals evolved out of those folks in Europe at some poorly understood time, say about 300,000 years ago. Our people evolved out of the African version of those same folks. Gradually you spread south and some of you ended up in the Near East. Gradually we spread north and some of us also ended up in the Near East. And there we met, perhaps 40,000 years ago. We occupied the same region for about 10,000 years before you vanished. Did one of yours ever get it on with one of ours?

4. Strike that question. That was last year’s question. In May 2010 researchers announced that: Yes! some of yours did get it on with some of ours. This Homo Neanderthalensis/Homo sapiens hoochie-coochie occurred after some of us arrived in the Near East and before we moved off in different directions. We all, except for pure Africans whose ancestors remained in Africa, carry a few of your genes. Okay then. Was it love or was it rape? Or was it some of each? Did we have any Romeo and Juliet–type situations?

5. So, did we find each other attractive? Repulsive? Some of each? You had stockier bodies, thicker bones, bigger muscles, a bigger brain. You had a massive eyebrow ridge, that supraorbital ridge. You had positively huge noses with wide nostrils. Did you laugh about us and call us the noseless know-it-alls? Did we laugh about you and call you the chinless bone-chewers of the North?

6. Once upon a time, a Neandertal man (Shanidar 3) was murdered with a spear. The time: between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. His spear-impaled remains were discovered in Iraq in 1959. If the younger age is correct, it is likely that one of ours killed one of yours. Because you, allegedly, had no spear to throw. But if the older age is correct, we were not there and so could not have thrown the spear. What happened? Who threw the spear? Why?

7. Many of you had upper-body injuries akin to those of modern-day rodeo performers. Did you fight mammoths at close quarters? And you female Neandertals had powerful wrists and powerful hands, and you sustained upper-body injuries, just as your men did. Did you hunt right along with them? If so, who did the cooking? And since we think your children had lengthy childhoods, even if with moderately different developmental patterns, who cared for the children?

8. This is a question about love and death and sorrow and dinner. Upon occasion, you dined upon your own kind. And, upon occasion, we served Neandertal for dinner. (Did you disappear, as some suggest, because we ate you up?) We, of course, have also dined upon our own kind. Did you, also, bury your dead in grief and sorrow? Could it be that in your 250,000 years of existence among a widely spread out population, there were cultural differences among you?

9. Fact: Within caves, Homo sapiens artifacts and remains are consistently found above Neandertal artifacts and remains. Interpretation No. 1: We wiped you out. Interpretation No. 2: We couldn’t enter your living quarters until you had already quit them. Which is it?

10. We have found, in Iraq, some old bones, the bones of an ancient Neandertal we call Shanidar 1, who was decrepit, who was arthritic, who lived with a fractured eye socket, a withered arm, a crippled leg, a broken foot. But before his death perhaps 40,000 years ago, his injuries had healed. No way could he have lived in this condition without protection, without care. Did you, then, cherish your elders?

11. None of your buried remains have lower-body injuries. Were you nomadic? If an injury immobilized you, what happened to you? Were you abandoned outdoors, where bones don’t keep? Where hungry hyenas hunt for hurt humans?

12. You had a hyoid bone—required, along with the tongue, for human speech. You had the FOXP2 gene, the language gene, the same as we do. A mutation of this gene causes a Homo sapiens individual to face difficulty articulating words with his mouth and tongue and difficulty in language comprehension. Your brain had a Broca’s area and a Wernicke’s area, essential for speech and for language comprehension. But your larynx was differently configured, and you had a larger tongue. Did you communicate in language? If so, what did you talk about?

13. If you indeed communicated in language, which seems likely, in how many tongues did your people speak, considering that you lived for 250,000 years across a territory ranging from Siberia to southern Spain to the Near East? Were any of you bilingual? Did you have creation stories?

14. Until recently we superior beings thought that you did not have the mental goods for abstract thought, that you did not make symbols. We thought that, to the extent you made jewelry (an index of symbolic thought), you got it from us. Until a Neandertal shell necklace was found—a necklace fabricated before we came along. Along with pigments used for body paint, the earliest ever found. So if these finds were trustworthy, if you did have symbolic thought, what then were your thoughts?

15. We know that you were fair skinned (your genome includes the gene for redheads), whereas we, in Africa and recently out of Africa, were darker skinned. We were thinner and taller, narrower hipped. We had smaller brains, although we were equal in intelligence. Did we look down on you because of your pale, sickly looking skin?

16. You hunted, you scavenged, you survived the shocks of ice ages, you survived extreme climate change, you fought woolly mammoths, you fought woolly rhinoceroses, you competed with hyenas for caves, you got hurt, you broke bones, you butchered, you built fires, you cooked, you built bone huts, you sewed mammoth furs with bone awls, you used your teeth as a third hand, you crafted stone tools, you cared for your old, you walked miles per day, you made jewelry, you wore jewelry, you painted your bodies, you spread throughout Europe, you spread into the Mediterranean, you had babies, you killed, you buried your dead, you grieved. But did you tell stories around the fire? Did you relate to your children the tale of all that had happened before?

17. Did you sing? Did you dance? Did you rock your toddler to sleep with a lullaby? What games did your children play? Did they play Ride the Mammoth? Did they play Hyenas and Humans? Did they play tag?

18. At the height of your time on Earth there lived perhaps 15,000 Neandertal individuals. This is close to the number of people who today reside in Tillmans Corner, Alabama. Or Brookings, South Dakota. Or Easely, South Carolina. And your clans lived widely throughout Euroasia. You, in Europe, had to deal with severe cold and worse, with sudden climate shifts. We, in Africa, had it warmer and maybe not easy, but certainly easier. Clive Finlayson argues that climate curtailed your numbers. Friedemann Schrenk and Stephanie Muller note how common extinction is, more likely than not. They think you died out due to a simple failure of reproduction.  Fifteen individuals produce seven individuals produce three individuals? Another idea is that the volcanoes wiped you out. What happened? Did you foresee the end of your own kind?

19. I used to call persons I considered backward, ignorant, small-minded, bigoted, and stupid “Neanderthals.” Will you, brainy being of another time, dreamer of the ice ages, fair-skinned human being of Pleistocene Europe, accept my apology?

20. What did you long for? Did you fear death? Did you love and were you loved in return? Did you name your children? Did you propitiate spirits, imagine your ancestors, keen your dead? If you could speak to us now, what would you say?

Priscilla Long is the author of Crossing Over: Poems. Her two new books, both published in 2016, are a collection of essays, Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? and Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.

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