When we think of the Ice Age, we think of desolate, glacier filled landscapes. But geologists consider even the present day to be part of this Ice Age, which is characterized by long eras of cold climate (glacials), in which glaciers expanded, punctuated by shorter warm period (interglacials), like the Halocene we currently enjoy.
– from The Neanderthals Rediscovered – How Modern Science is Rewriting Their Story, by Dimitra Papagianni, Paleolithic archaeologist, and Michael A. Morse, science historian
Sometime during my misspent youth I developed a fascination with the field of paleoarchaeology, the study of hominid fossils and artifacts that date from mankind’s earliest ancestors some 15 million years ago to our closest human relatives that walked the earth as recently as 30 thousand years ago. When I insist on sharing in hunting camp my limited knowledge about prehistoric man, his social organizations, and most of all his wondrous ability to cope with Earth’s pre-civilization wilderness environments, several members of the Over the Hill Gang have commented that my obsession with the subject is linked to my Neanderthal roots, a lineage (they say) that is apparent in my physical appearance and mannerisms.
While I grudgingly admit to a certain phenotype resemblance to Homo neanderthalensis I am unwilling to concede that my behaviors are any less barbaric and noisome than those of my companions, and except for my cigar-smoking habit I contend I am as civilized and cultured as they are. (Although, looking over this fraternity of old coots, that is not much of an achievement in terms of sophistication and comportment in social situations.)
Fortunately, recent discoveries and revelations about Neanderthals and their level of intelligence and way of life have vindicated my belief that my direct genetic connection to them is not a bad thing. Not at all.
We Neanderthals, modern science is proving, were smart and capable people, not the loutish brutes that anthropologists have portrayed us since the first discoveries of our fossilized remains in the 1800s. If contending with and surviving harsh environments is evidence of human intelligence, it could be argued that Neanderthal was smarter than modern man. For more than 200,000 years, from about 250,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals were the dominant hominin in Europe, a span of time greater than Homo sapiens have been the preeminent species of human.
The Neanderthal era includes two European glacial periods, the Saalian which began about 200,000 years ago and ended about 130,000 years ago, and the Weichselian which began about 70,000 years ago and ended about 12,000 years ago. Neanderthals also thrived during the interglacial period, the Eemian, that separated those two ice-bound segments of the Pleistocene epoch. Their Homo sapiens contemporaries evolved in and later emigrated from the far milder environments of Africa.
The range of Homo neanderthalensis emerging from Europe and that of Homo sapiens emerging from Africa overlapped for some tens of thousands of years, most frequently in what is now the Middle East (although that land’s geologic and climatic character and environment was much different a hundred thousand years in the past). Then, not much more than 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals disappeared from the face of the Earth, went extinct.
There are various theories as to the cause of this extinction, the most prevalent being that Homo sapiens “out-competed” Homo neanderthalensis. My interpretation of this archaeological term is that modern man wiped out Neanderthal man. Even a cursory reading of our contacts with aboriginal peoples in the 15th-20th centuries will show that we have a great propensity and proclivity for this.
Genetic evidence shows that there was significant interbreeding of the two species of hominini during the time of their coexistence, however. Most of us (perhaps all of us) have a trace of Neanderthal lineage in our genetic structure. Some of us more than others, as my friends point out. I hope so, because I like to think there is some genetic memory as well as genetic physiology of my Neanderthal past in my make-up. It is the “wild” in me, the basic animal in me. The man I would have been before all this advanced civilization baggage distorted me.
We do not really know much about how Neanderthals perceived their world, how they thought, interacted, existed. So I have the freedom to create my own vision of them. I want to see them as the ultimate nomadic hunter-gathers of the many-branched human tree, each Neanderthal tribal family a sort of human wolf pack with lives and behaviors shaped half by instinct and half by the clever mental powers of observation, analysis, prediction, and presumption. Fitted by ten thousand generations of evolution to survive and thrive in the environment of European savannas and forests of the Pleistocene Ice Age.
Homo sapiens’ advantage over the numerous other (and now extinct) species of humans is the capacity for symbolic thought, anthropologists tell us. Modern man could envision, imagine, project, represent, and communicate his perceptions and understanding of the physical realities of the world in ways that others could not. Since we cannot truly comprehend the workings of the brain of the Neanderthal people (or the Cro-Magnon, Skhul, Qafzeh, Denisovan, Heidelbergensis, Georgicus…) we can only guess at their mental functions through their artifacts and other traces of their lives that they left behind.
Using my powers of imagination, I imagine Neanderthal was the wolf of the homo genera and modern man is the dog. Domesticated dogs, when they mature out of the “puppy-dog” stage of their lives, still exhibit many of the traits of playfulness and recklessness that are characteristic of the behaviors of wolf pups. Wolves shed these puppy behaviors when they reach adulthood. They seldom play; their mental and physical activity is all business.
Each species of human had to adapt to the environment into which it was thrust. The wolf, Homo neanderthalensis, was the best-fitted adaptation for the Pleistocene epoch; the dog, Homo sapiens, is the best-fitted for the Holocene.
About 650,000 years ago the Northern Hemisphere was ice-locked in the first of the Earth’s eight major glaciations. Each was characterized by Arctic cold and massive accumulations of ice and snow on the land masses and seas covered by the glaciers and by the onset of drier conditions around the rest of the globe; forests became savannas, savannas became deserts.
For the final 250,000 years of glacial cycles the Neanderthals had the mental and physical prowess to survive. The Ice Ages have not ended; for the past 12,000 years we have been in an interglacial period. Another glacial period is coming. We shall see if we, modern Homo sapiens, are capable of surviving it. We are clever dogs, but we are not wolves.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Amazon.com Jerry Johnson Author Page