Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How Neanderthals Go Extinct

It came like this: sapiens had domesticated animals around the time of Neanderthal extinction. There is not a shred of evidence suggesting Neanderthals had any animal husbandry, but there's plenty which attests how they excelled in close combat and could use their overwhelming strength to take down 1000+-lb. animals by themselves if necessary. It doesn’t take much to imagine them grabbing a sheep or a goat under each arm and carrying them off with increasing frequency as smooth-browed herders grazed them further and further up into the high country. The resulting conflicts sealed their doom when they were trailed back to their caves by overwhelming numbers until finally dwindling to a last incomprehensible haven under an overhang just above a beach in south Gibraltar.

Experts love being experts so they have this way of missing obviousnesses watching down on them as they scrabble around in the dirt over their pet details. First they said Neandertals died out because they were dumber, then they said it's because they weren't as loving or close-knit, didn't have language, weren't as facile at tool-making. All these theories and their common thread of arrogance have been steadily disproven and the emerging facts indicate the Neanderthals were every bit as human as us. I have long suspected it was them of whom the Bible says:

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Genesis 6:4

The picture above (note: will add soon) is of a Neanderthal tool a farmer found in the Dordognes and it's a regular prehistoric Swiss army knife. It's got a tip for drilling holes in bones and skulls on one side and an edge for cutting meat on the other. It's made of jasper which was coveted as a gemstone all over the ancient world because of its beauty and diamond-like hardness. It lays in my hand like it was made for me and it's still so sharp after 30,000 years it has cut my steaks. If they could make this thing of patient angle and precision, they easily could have made the jasper bow-drills found at Mehrgahr starting 7,000 BCE. They could make art. When you hold this stone in your hand, this eloquent marvel which I myself am not capable of making, you can feel just how obvious it is that they were artists. Maybe some of it remains and will be found.

Another conceit is bruited when it's said they were too gentle or weren't warlike enough to compete with us. I'd put my money on the precisely opposing proposition. Our thinner bones snapped against theirs in many an unrecorded mismatch, many disputes over herds and ancestral hunting grounds which we lost hands-down. Man for man it wouldn't have even been close. Some have recently drawn an extinction analogy using the Native American disease pattern after their population was collapsed by European-bred germs. That may well have happened or played a part, but existing evidence doesn't support the population densities, collections, and rapid interchanges so characteristic of the rise of deadly plagues.

There’s at least one simple sapien macro-advantage which definitively drove Neanderthal withdrawal. We ate less. Neanderthal caloric requirements were about twice those of our sapiens, which would mean twice as many of us could be supported per a given hunting ground. Those extra numbers surely provided for enhanced defense of those grounds, and would have favored steady and gradual expansion. To make matters worse for our near-forgotten friends, overwhelming evidence in both historic times and those before shows our collective humanity was usually just a step ahead or behind of famine.

I try to imagine how the human arc would have altered if our baseline requirement had been 4,000 calories a day. Both sapiens and Neanderthals were opportunistic cannibals, but a double-eating individual would suffer a much-increased caloric deficit during periods of food scarcity and would have to resort to survival cannibalism far more quickly. The image that comes with wondering "what if we had to come up with 4,000 calories a day," is that we'd still be roasting each other on spits.

Thoughts of Neanderthals keep on coming back to me. I'm always thinking about them, really, because they were so close to us, may be partially preserved in us, and were in some ways definitely better. It may just be that they were the Nephilim, once celebrated as men of renown, respected for their power and wisdom, and it's quite possible we picked some of our tool-making up from them. For our tools held no technical advantages over theirs. And they were at least as smart as we are right now. It was our bodies which turned out to be more sustainable during times of resource scarcity, so we survived being thrown out of the garden and they stayed. Does that not provide a sweet irony right now as we wrestle with our unsustainabilities and struggle to understand the natures of our multiplexed doom.

1 comment:

Vincent said...

This seems to be another thing we have in common, Marc - a fellow-feeling for our Nanderthal cousins. I had a friend at school who used to draw me unflatteringly as one, with the caption, "Darwin was right!"