Book review: How to Think Like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge

January 3, 2012

By Katherine Bouton / NY Times News Service, New York

You may think you know someone who thinks like a Neanderthal. You may even think you know someone who is a Neanderthal, or at least part one. Chances are you’re right about both. Webster’s definition of Neanderthal is unflattering: “suggesting a caveman in appearance or behavior.” (The definition of caveman: “One who acts in a rough primitive manner, especially toward women.”)

But Thomas Wynn (an anthropologist) and Frederick L. Coolidge (a psychologist), both at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, offer a very different picture in How to Think Like a Neandertal, their engaging reconstruction of Neanderthal life. Using their professional expertise, they go beyond the physical evidence to speculate not just about how Neanderthals lived but also about what they thought. It is, by necessity, pure hypothesis: Neanderthals lived (in Europe) between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago and left no clues in the form of a written record or even any kind of representative art. (As for the spelling, Neanderthal or tal, the authors write, “Take your pick; the terms are pronounced identically.”)

Neanderthals, they posit, were empathetic; possessed at least some language; were companionable; strongly attached to family; able but not skillful at planning ahead; and demonstrated impressive mechanical skills.

On the negative side, they were xenophobic, occupying a small territory from which they rarely strayed. They were not innovative. They may also occasionally have eaten one another, probably when they were hungry enough. Some humans have been known to do the same.

As evidence of Neanderthal mechanical savvy, the authors cite the creation of the spearhead. The early Neanderthals simply chipped away at a rock with a harder rock to create a sharp edge, copying something that usefully appeared in nature. This chipping technique, known as knapping, is simple. “Chimpanzees and orangutans (and college students) have been taught to do it,” the authors write. But the Neanderthals refined the art of knapping to create the Levallois spear head, an intricately faceted point that could effectively maim or kill an animal as large as a mammoth.

 

After figuring out the spear point, they had to determine a method for attaching it to the wooden shaft. “There were unforgiving laws of physics to overcome,” the authors write. Try attaching a rock to a stick, securely enough that it won’t dislodge when you stab a mammoth. Tricky. The Neanderthal solution, involving bitumen and perhaps the intricate lashing together of the two pieces (the lashings do not survive), represents the high point of known Neanderthal innovation. “However they did it, Neandertals solved an important engineering problem, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of their primary weapon,” the authors write.

They were loathe to break from routine, however. Even after they were exposed to the far more effective spears of contemporary Homo sapiens 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, they failed to incorporate that more sophisticated technology into their own. This contributed to their eventual demise.

As for the Neanderthal life of the mind, the evidence is sketchy. The archaeological record provides no symbolic creations comparable to those made by human contemporaries. Did they believe in God? An afterlife? The first Neanderthals were found in graves, according to their discoverers, which gave rise to the belief that Neanderthals shared an emotional and religious similarity to humans.

Later evidence fails to support the existence of graves. In fact Neanderthals’ casual disposal of the dead suggests an absence of belief in a higher power or in an afterlife. They did attend to corpses, if minimally. This, the authors offer, suggests either a way to deal with grief, or a need to separate physically the dead from the living, noting that humans routinely separate corpses from the living, out of fear of spirits or a wish to send the dead to an afterlife. “Perhaps Neandertals did believe that something of an individual continued after death,” the authors write. But the fact that they often simply shoved bones aside suggests a more prosaic explanation — a wish not to have a decaying body in the middle of their living quarters.

Sometimes Wynn and Coolidge can’t resist stating the obvious: “If Neandertals had marriage, it was different from marriage as practiced by modern people.” And sometimes their questions are simply unanswerable: Did Neanderthals tell jokes? What did they dream about? Did they suffer mental illness? (It seems likely that Coolidge, the psychologist half of the writing team, is behind the discussion of “possible” personality traits.)

In the final chapter the authors conduct a thought experiment: comparing how a Neanderthal baby brought up in a modern human family would fare, versus the fate of a human baby brought up as a Neanderthal.

The Neanderthal baby clearly comes out ahead. He’d be a little slow to speak and never very eloquent; he would not be good with money, but he would be a skilled mechanic; he might even, the authors suggest (facetiously, I hope) make a good physician “since most modern doctors are not innovative.”

The human infant — if it survived the rigors of a Neanderthal infancy — would not do well. There would be only one career choice open to him: large mammal hunter-gatherer. He might come up with useful innovations but his Neanderthal family would be reluctant to adopt them. His puny build would make him a less than desirable mate, though if he found a willing partner he would be able to sire a child. Still, it wouldn’t take long for his kind to go extinct.

As for the possibility that you may know someone who is part Neanderthal, you probably do. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens shared Western Europe for thousands of years, though there is little evidence of contact. The two species split from their common ancestor some 600,000 years ago. No human DNA has been found in Neanderthal genes.

But scientists from the Max Planck Institute reconstructing the Neanderthal genome announced in May 2010 that between 1 percent and 4 percent of the genome of non-African humans is derived from Neanderthals. And distant matings may have played a role in human culture. “It is just possible,” the authors write, “that European folk traditions of trolls, Cyclops and even dwarfs have roots in the ancient encounter between Neandertals and Cro-Magnons.”

On the other hand, they might not: “Tales of strange humanlike creatures are common the world over, and Neandertals were not.”

So why did the stronger Neanderthals die out and the weak Homo sapiens prevail? As the ice age pushed the Neanderthals’ prey out of their home territory, they were forced to change their food preferences. This had happened before and they’d been able to adapt. But this time, they had neighbors who were in direct competition for resources. The uneasy balance that had lasted for 10,000 years gave way, and the Neanderthals were forced to retreat, eventually to the Iberian Peninsula, where they died out. Homo sapiens had the gift of innovation, and that proved decisive.

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