Scientists Try to Read Neandertal Minds
If dead men tell no tales, living ones certainly do. Most of us have trouble reading one another’s minds when staring face to face, but some paleoanthropologists, with nothing but skeletons and a few stone tools and burial sites to look at, have no hesitation in reading the Neandertal mind. Bruce Bower writes in Science News1 about a new controversial tale by Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge from the University of Colorado. Their only critics are other paleoanthropologists, because the Neandertals are no longer present to say what really happened.
To begin with, they lay to rest any claims the Neandertals were dumb brutes. “Forget the stereotype of these extinct human predecessors, Wynn and Coolidge assert; for tens of thousands of years, Neandertals were as smart as the ancient humans that lived alongside them.”
The “expert Neandertal mind” fostered impressive toolmaking and social skills that made survival possible for at least 100,000 years in some of the harshest environments ever inhabited by members of the human evolutionary family, Wynn and Coolidge concluded in the April Journal of Human Evolution.
Beginning approximately 140,000 years ago, Neandertal groups mastered the art of living in relatively small regions of Europe and western Asia, each no more than perhaps 30 to 40 miles wide, the researchers say. In such familiar habitats, Neandertals operated at least as well as, and often better than, Homo sapiens that had migrated from Africa into the same territory. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)
The new twist on the story is that the true Homo sapiens got a lucky mutation that rearranged their gray matter and gave rise to the List of Things To Do Today:
Around 50,000 years ago, however, the evolutionary tide turned in a subtle, but ultimately crucial, direction. Members of H. sapiens experienced a slight boost in the amount of information that they could hold in mind at any one time, probably because of a genetic mutation that triggered a modest brain reorganization, Wynn and Coolidge propose. The capacity to remember and mentally manipulate a few more bits of related knowledge led to a series of breakthroughs: innovations in toolmaking, long-range planning for seasonal hunting expeditions, storytelling, and symbolic expression through artwork and personal ornaments.
This even gave them the ability to tell jokes and express racism, according to the new theory. The poor Neandertals, stuck with real-life expert knowledge in survival, just couldn’t keep up. Bowers does present some alternative views. One view says it was not genetics, but a change in social skills and information sharing that gave modern humans the edge. Others are less tolerant of Wynn and Coolidge’s hypothesis:
Researchers who regard Neandertals as having been no more different from Stone Age H. sapiens than today’s Eskimos are from African herders take a skeptical view of Wynn and Coolidge’s paper.
“We’re a long way from knowing whether there were significant interactions between Neandertals and Homo sapiens,” remarks Fred H. Smith of Loyola University in Chicago. “Attempts to reconstruct the cognitive abilities of those groups are speculative.” No one can say for sure which group was most responsible for cultural advances in Stone Age Europe, Smith says.
For support, Smith points to the recent reinterpretation of finds at Vogelherd Cave (see 07/08/2004 headline). A German anthropologist agrees that “The identity of ancestral groups that achieved late-Stone Age cultural advances throughout Europe is currently up for grabs.” Another researcher says that cultural advances throughout Europe were gradual among all the groups, “rather than bursting onto the scene solely among late-Stone Age humans, as presumed by Wynn and Coolidge.” Bowers gives them the last response: “The two Colorado researchers remain unfazed by such skepticism. Amid the din of scientific debate, they continue to ponder ways to peer further into the minds of our ancestors.”
1Bruce Bower, “In the Neandertal Mind,” Science News Week of Sept. 18, 2004; Vol. 166, No. 12, p. 183.
This is all going to sound so silly some day, if not evil, much the way we view the phrenological and racist views of Haeckel and the social Darwinists. Why does Bruce Bower give these guys two pages of good press in Science News? Thank goodness for a few halfway clear heads like Smith. Are we supposed to be impressed that Wynn and Coolidge “remain unfazed” by their critics? These mythmakers need a change of faze. Their “speculative” silly tale would make a reasonable person blush.
Notice again that everything you were taught about Neandertals is wrong. No longer is there any clear identity between them and their supposed superior out-of-Africa brethren, any more than there is between Eskimo hunters and lazy professors wasting government grant money. Since the story is “up for grabs,” Bowers should publish our alternative view: Darwinites evolved from ancient Homo sapiens when a mutation turned them into storytellers. This is at least as sensible as any other fable going around in the halls of anthropological academia. We think it makes much better sense, too: instead of doing real work like respectable Neandertals, the pre-Darwinites just sat around the campfire telling racist jokes and inventing tales about how superior they were to their skilled, smart, fit, hard-working brethren who had no time for such nonsense.