Some    thoughts    on    Neandertals    and    human    evolution

The subject of human evolution often arouses great passion. Scientists often heatedly debate the path humans took on the way to becoming what we are today. On the other hand, many lay people, especially in the United States, claim not to believe in evolution at all.

The "Neandertal" people(so named for the earliest find in Neander Tal, Germany, near Dusseldorf), are especially controversial. What is their place in human evolution? Are they closely related to us? Are we descendants of Neandertals? At the present time, none of these questions have really been answered, and continue to be debated in various venues, both popular and academic. In part, Neandertals are controversial, if this is the right word, because they were the first non-modern fossil humans ever discovered. This happened in 1856, three years before Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace announced the theory of evolution.

At the time, no one seemed to know what to "do" with these finds: Rudolf Virchow, one of the most eminent scientists of his time, declared that the partial skeleton which workmen had discovered at the Neander Tal(German for valley)was the remains of a Mongolian Cossack who had somehow climbed up the cliff and died in the cave. Others declared the fossil was an example of some sort of pathological specimen of low intelligence.

Such statements were standard throughout the nineteenth century, and on into the twentieth. When further obvious Neandertal remains were discovered by Gorjanovic-Kranberger in Croatia early in this century, considerable speculation ensued about the possibility of cannibalistic feasts. Did Neandertals eat one another?

But it was left to Marcellin Boule, in the years 1909-1911, to paint the stereotypical picture of of Neandertals so familiar to many people today.

He painted quite a picture. He wrote that when alive, the fossil couldn't walk upright, but had to lumber around with knees slightly bent. His brow was low and sloped back, so he had little in the way of frontal lobes(Boule thought), therefore could probably not think on a very high level, let alone talk. Some months later, a French newspaper calle L'Illustration completed the picture when an artist drew a hairy, mean, muscular individual glaring out at the reader. He bared his teeth in a snarl and carried a crude wooden club. This was hardly the sort of person people then wantted as a possible ancestor, so many people agreed with Boule's judgment that Neandertals were an inferior dead end in evolutionary history. But there was only one problem. Boule's description of the fossil was wrong.

In the first place, Boule chose to ignore the fact that the fossil at La Chapelle aux Saintes had been deliberately buried. A pair of brothers, who were also priests, had discovered the fossil while on vacation in the South of France, and had described the fossil as buried, even drawing sketches of the fossil at the site. Second, Boule also chose to ignore the fact that the fossil was extremely arthritic. This would explain why he appeared to have walked around bent kneed. The "Old Man" as he was later called, had also lost most of his teeth.

For years, many people accepted the idea of Neandertals as brutal and stupid, who were totally unworthy as ancestors, particularly of Europeans. However, almost fifty years after the discovery of La Chapelle aux Saintes, two anatomists named Straus and Cave reexamined this fossil. One thing they discovered was that the "Old Man" was arthritic. This easily explained his bent-legged, apparently shuffling gait. They also discovered that anatomically, he was perfectly capable of walking upright on his two feet, so to speak. At this point, the picture of Neandertals slowly began to change. Now it was thought that Neandertals in the subways of New York could probably pass as inhabitants of that city.

Further discoveries in other place, most notably Shanidar, seemed to confirm this view. At Shanidar, Neandertals regularly buried their dead, often adding flowers to the grave. Also at Shanidar, as at La Chapelle aux Saintes, at least one member of the tribe or clan was spectacularly injured. He had lost part of one arm, he limped in one leg, and some injury had happened to one side of his head, affecting the eye on that side. It was obvious that he could not hunt with the rest of the tribe; still, just as at La Chapelle aux Saintes, someone took care of him. If Neandertals could walk upright, bury their dead, and take care of one another, how could they possibly be the inhuman creatures that they had been previously portrayed?