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Burying the view that Neanderthals were half-wits

“It seems we have all been guilty of defaming Neanderthal man” declared a recent Editorial in The Guardian. This comment was triggered by a report documenting evidence for the use of pigments and decorative shells by Neanderthals. This is claimed to have occurred many years before any direct contact with modern humans, thereby undermining any thought that the artefacts did not really represent Neanderthal culture. Personal adornment, using a variety of colours, implies an aesthetic sense and an appreciation of symbolism. Since Neanderthals have often been presented as lacking these “modern” traits, the new research demands a reappraisal.

For an overview of the finds plus reaction, go here.

Here’s the take-home message:

We have had a long-sustained exposure to the idea that Neanderthals were sub-human. They have been presented as slow, lumbering, dim-witted and brutish! Most people are likely to think that Neanderthals could not use words to speak. Will the new research change perceptions?

“It’s very difficult to dislodge the brutish image from popular thinking,” Professor Stringer told BBC News. “When football fans behave badly, or politicians advocate reactionary views, they are invariably called ‘Neanderthal’, and I can’t see the tabloids changing their headlines any time soon.”

The situation we find ourselves in has come about because the Darwinist explanation of human origins has been adopted by our culture. The Darwin origins myth requires a gradual evolution of both anatomy and culture – from ape to man. Neanderthal Man has been part of this story – he is the archetypal intermediary. Despite many evidences to the contrary, little has been done to remove the myth. Indications of cultural sophistication were interpreted as Neanderthals trading artefacts with modern humans, or imitating without understanding. This is a good example of ‘saving the paradigm’ in a Kuhnian sense, whereby the old paradigm clings on by force-fitting contrary evidences into the accepted theoretical model. It is time to discard the Darwinian mindset that presupposes gradual evolution. Let researchers be free to approach the evidence with multiple working hypotheses and engage in a more rigorous programme of hypothesis testing and analysis.

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32 Responses to Burying the view that Neanderthals were half-wits

  1. Also in support of this view is a draft genome that is very similar to our own, even having the ‘human’ Fox2p language genes:

    Krause J, Lalueza-Fox C, Orlando L, et al. (November 2007). “The derived FOXP2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neandertals”. Curr. Biol. 17 (21): 1908–12.

  2. Now that many paleo-anthropologists are rehabilitating the Neanderthal people, I wonder when the Homo erectus people will get the same consideration.

  3. Isn’t it true that Neandertals had larger cranial capacity?

  4. Collin,
    It is. I think it has also been suggested that they had a slow life history, so I suppose there is plenty of time for development. It also suggests they had long life spans, and late developing mothers.

    The data in this paper is good (though of course squeezed into a Darwinist perspective).

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pu.....dinalpos=3

    Personally, I don’t see why iterations of the same design, or highly similar designs would present a problem in conceiving of an Intelligent Designer. Of course, one might wonder about the intentions of the designer in this case, but that is neither here nor there.

  5. Personally, I don’t see why iterations of the same design, or highly similar designs would present a problem in conceiving of an Intelligent Designer.

    This really doesn’t have anything to do with ID. But it does underline the tendency of evolutionists to wrongly interpret findings or to report them before adequately investigating.

    David,

    Can I post your article to my own website, The Mountain Daily News? I will place a link back to Uncommon Descent.

  6. It’s almost like something out of a Geico commercial.

  7. Mr. Tyler, you seem to be admitting the fact that Neanderthals were indeed not brutish animals and were actually in many ways very similar to modern humans, at least in terms of intelligence.

    What is ID’s explanation for this?

  8. Dr Tyler,

    Why Not Accept the Fossil Record at Face Value Instead of Imposing a Theory on it?

    Just asking…

  9. My understanding is that the popular image of Neanderthals as being slow-witted knuckle-draggers came not from science but from the way they were represented in the media and the Guardian editorial seems to suggest as much.

    Far from “Darwinists” promoting such an image it is research by archeologists and paleo-anthropologists that has given us a better understanding of how close they were to our own ancestors, so close, in fact, that there is some debate about whether they should be considered a separate species or a sub-species of Homo sapiens. If anything it is the Paleyists who have a stronger motive for demeaning the Neanderthals since allowing that they are close to modern humans would threaten Mankind’s status as God’s special and favored creation.

    Either way, the Neanderthal’s image is just another example of the way science is represented or misrepresented by the media. Most scientists who have had any experience of having their work reported in the popular media can tell horror-stories of how it was almost caricatured in the interests of producing what the journalists considered better copy.

    If people have got the wrong impression of what Neanderthals were really like, perhaps they should remember where they got that impression from in the first place and take it up, not with the scientists, but with the journalists.

  10. Seversky,

    Good point. We can thank publications like National Geographic for the artistic renderings. But, I believe, the idea that Neanderthal was unintelligent comes from the idea that he was proto-human with a lesser brain. There never has been a serious basis for this other than the skull difference and primitive implements found in cave dwellings and elsewhere.

    The problem with that circumstantial evidence is that the neanderthal skull has a larger brain cavity and modern humans likewise have had, some still, similar primitive implements and animal skin clothing.

    Tyler says:

    Indications of cultural sophistication were interpreted as Neanderthals trading artefacts with modern humans, or imitating without understanding.

    This view has been held by many anthropologists and is the source for the “knuckle-dragging” caricature. I don’t think the fault lies entirely with the press.

  11. bb, odd that you bring up National Geographic. A quick google search shows that National Geographic has a slew of articles on the Neanderthal. Just looking at the first one we find:

    Yet behind its bulging browridges, a Neanderthal’s low-domed skull housed a brain with a volume slightly larger on average than our own today. And while their tools and weapons were more primitive than those of the modern humans who supplanted them in Europe, they were no less sophisticated than the implements made by their modern human contemporaries living in Africa and the Middle East.

    So while Nat Geo did artistic renderings, they did not promote the “knuckle dragging” caricature.

    So the question remains: Who ACTUALLY promoted the view of the sub-human, brutish Neanderthal and who is ACTUALLY attempting to reverse this view?

  12. hrun0815,

    That is, I’m guessing, a much more recent edition. Look back another 30-40 years.

  13. Do you suppose the Neanderthal was a product of a rival designer? And that “our” designer won out because, presumably, he had a better design?

    It’s a possibility, right?

  14. Some creation groups believe that neanderthal isn’t even a subspecies of human but well within the boundaries of racial differences.

  15. I tend to agree with the creationist claim in this case. That the differences are so trivial that neanderthal was really a modern man with pronounced brows.

  16. hrun0815,

    That is, I’m guessing, a much more recent edition. Look back another 30-40 years.

    Indeed, this was a recent article. I honestly don’t care enough to research the whole history of how Neanderthals were displayed in both the scientific and common press.

    One thing is certain though, both scientists and the scientific literature are full of people working hard to uncover the true nature of Neanderthals. Is there any evidence at all that this view of Neanderthals indeed comes about “because the Darwinist explanation of human origins has been adopted by our culture”?

    It actually seems to be the case, that the scientific or “Darwinist” view is that Neanderthals were actually at least as intelligent as many or their modern human contemporaries.

  17. Some creation groups believe that neanderthal isn’t even a subspecies of human but well within the boundaries of racial differences.

    AND

    I tend to agree with the creationist claim in this case. That the differences are so trivial that neanderthal was really a modern man with pronounced brows.

    Have you looked at the relatively recent research performed by sequencing Neanderthal DNA and comparing it to human DNA? Such research might actually give you a foundation for your ‘belief’.

  18. Is there any evidence at all that this view of Neanderthals indeed comes about “because the Darwinist explanation of human origins has been adopted by our culture”?

    Well it certainly wasn’t brought about by the “anti-science” Christians that have long maintained what is now empirically coming to light now that the evidence, including much that has been there all along, is finally dealt with honestly. The idea that Neanderthal was sub-human was a necessity for evolution in its early days.

  19. I believe it was the French guy who got everyone to believe Neanderthals were brutish and practically sub-human — even though T. Huxley did not regard Neanderthal as a missing link.

  20. bb,

    I would think given the genomic data, that creationists have had to accept Neanderthals as a distinct species, or at least a very distinct subspecies.

    See here for example:
    http://www.answersincreation.org/neanderthal.htm

    If they are concerned with the implications of Neanderthals on the special creation of humans, perhaps they should argue the opposite. Of course, as I mentioned before, ID does not suffer from this issue. Repeated or shared design is acceptable, and potentially the hallmark of a designer.

  21. Well it certainly wasn’t brought about by the “anti-science” Christians that have long maintained what is now empirically coming to light now that the evidence, including much that has been there all along, is finally dealt with honestly. The idea that Neanderthal was sub-human was a necessity for evolution in its early days.

    As far as I can tell, young-earth creationists have claimed that Neanderthals are essentially modern humans. This view is most certainly false, as can be seen from the sequenced Neanderthal DNA. So to claim that the view of ‘Christians’ has been vindicated is a stretch.

    Secondly, do you have any evidence to support your assertion that a subhuman Neanderthal was a necessity for evolution in its early days? If indeed it is so, why is it not a necessity anymore? How has the theory of evolution changed so it used to be a necessity but is not anymore?

  22. hrun0815,

    First let me preface my reply by saying that, except for historical vindication, I think this topic is moot for both ID and evolution. BUT, it is one I find interesting, so I have read a lot on.

    Evolutionists recognize Neanderthals as a distinct species, or very distinct subspecies, based on genomics and physiology.

    ID acknowledges, and enjoys conservation of design. Many ID advocates, including myself, Behe, and many this blog, acknowledge common descent to some extent. In fact, one could argue the common traits of the two most recent Homo species are evidence of front-loading: common traits emerging from common potentials.

    That said, I would say errors were made by evolutionists and creationists.

    Creationists need hominids to either be apes, or humans. My reading of the literature suggests they see even-human chimpanzee commonalities as a threat to their understanding of the creator. The recognition of others, with even more similarity to humans is a threat. That is why they originally defined Neanderthals as fully human, and other Hominids as fully ape. Again, ID does not suffer this issue.

    See for example here:
    http://www.creationbiology.org.....e_id=36954

    Darwinists may have gone too far in characterizing Neanderthals as an intermediate. Of course, they are not, but rather an extinct Homo lineage. The tendency (particularly in popular culture-I blame HG Wells) was then, to render them half way between human and chimp. One could forgive this in 1864, when there was 1 extinct species found. With the discoveries of some dozen or some Homo species, and several other Genera, DNA sequencing, and artifact discovery, the “modern” Neanderthal has been posited.

    I would argue, based on popular culture, particularly science fiction (where the writers often communicated with anthropologists), that the idea of a primitive Neanderthal comes and goes.

    Foe example, the work of Issac Asimov depicts Neanderthal culture as advanced, Poul Anderson depicts them as intelligent and emotional, and Phillip K Dick has them hanging out in Kansas, waiting to take over the world. These are all 1930-1970.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N.....ar_culture

  23. #21 Your claim that young earth creationists view Neanderthals as “essentially modern humans” is false. They certainly do recognize morphological differences between archaic humans and modern humans.

    They just believe h. erectus to Cro-Magnon were all HUMAN beings — descendants of Noah — and capable of interbreeding.

    This does not require them to deny the recognizable distinctions between what might be called ortho-sapiens (“modern” humans) and hetero-sapiens (“archaic” humans).

    They would simply point to a greater genetic potential in the earliest descendants of Noah — allowing for greater adaptability to harsh post-Flood environments.

    Thus the issue of eccentric morphologies is compatible with YE creationism, whereas the idea of universal plasticity is not.

  24. Vern,

    Again, the genomic data suggests Neanderthals are a distinct species or sub-species that didn’t contribute to the genetics of modern humans.

    Would it be more correct to say creationists then, place H. erectus to modern human as “human” of some form, and the other pre-Homo genera as “ape” of some form.

    As for the flood, Noah, and the like, I think I lack the theological background to debate in a YEC construct.

  25. Re #23: Vern, I simply went by the first link that came up when googling ‘christian view neanderthal’. The source is the website of Evolution and Creation Science. In addition, I took bb’s accounts in #14 and #15 at face value.

    A lot of the rest of your post didn’t really make much sense to me. I mean, I do understand the words you typed, but somehow couldn’t make heads or tails of what you wanted to say. Sorry!

  26. Re #22: REC, interesting account of the facts. So if I read your post correctly, you do not believe that it was the scientists who predominantly promoted the view of the subhuman, brutish Neanderthal, but rather pop-culture.

  27. hrun,

    To be specific, pop-culture more distant from the facts. Sci-fi writers with attachments to science (e.g. Asimov, a biochemist) present Neanderthals as quite advanced, often the heros of the story…..sometimes implying a lack of inherent duplicity and violence as the cause of their loss to modern man……

  28. REC, so then you agree that the premise of the OP is simply not true. I wonder if there is anybody who agrees with the OP, who can maybe provide some facts in support of the assertions made.

  29. hrun,

    I did say EARLY anthropologists (prior to the discovery of remains of other species and genera) and the discovery of worked tools, went too far in describing Neanderthals as mid-way between humans and apes.

    Elliot Smith in 1915 described an “uncouth and repellant Neanderthal man”….”His short, thick-set, and coarsely built body was carried in a half-stooping slouch upon short, powerful, and half-flexed legs of peculiarly ungraceful form.”

    Maybe a bit too much poetic license….

    But 1930 on…..I really can’t think of a great reference for the defense of the post…..

  30. #24, I agree REC that Neanderthals did not contribute to our current genetic makeup. I see no reason to disagree with those Darwnists who say the Neanderthals were isolationists, and for that reason did not survive in competition with h. sapiens.

    Young earth creationism could agree that “modern” humans and Neanderthals did NOT interbreed. But it would hold that they COULD have, if such factors as geographical or environmental factors had not prevented it.

    I think some creationists claim that there was interaction and interbreeding between Neanderthal and “modern” humans. They adopt this view because they believe Paleolithic men were post-Babel, and were part of the Dispersion.

    However, creationism per se does not REQUIRE Paleolithic men to be post-Babel. In fact, my own view is that Babel took place at the end of the Late Uruk period, which is actually long after the Paleolithic period.

    So there is disagreement among creationists about the placement of Paleolithic within biblical history, and about the interaction of Neanderthals with “modern” humans.

    But there is nothing in YE creationism itself that is incompatible with Neanderthal-homo sapien non-interaction.

  31. bb @ 5
    Yes, you may repost and link, as you request.

    Leviathan @ 7
    ID’s explanation goes as far as recognising design and probing the influence of presuppositions on the way scientific thinking develops. It is possible to build on design inferences in various ways. My personal judgment is that Neanderthals were a fully human sub-species. (I say the same thing in the case of Homo erectus).

    Seversky @ 9
    My reading of history is that the media has followed the lead of scientists. For an insight into this, go here. However, having popularised the original consensus, the media is not as quick as it should be to recognise the significance of a whole stream of finds that have demonstrated Neanderthals are not so primitive.

  32. David Tyler @ 31

    Seversky @ 9
    My reading of history is that the media has followed the lead of scientists. For an insight into this, go here. However, having popularised the original consensus, the media is not as quick as it should be to recognise the significance of a whole stream of finds that have demonstrated Neanderthals are not so primitive.

    You are citing one mural as evidence that religious scientists adopted a more enlightened view of the Neanderthals than their secular colleagues?

    You seem to be offering Henry Osborn as an example of those religious scientists who took the lead in revising our view of Neanderthals. Yet this piece by Douglas Vakoch on the SETI Institute website suggests otherwise. He writes:

    A few years earlier, Henry Fairfield Osborn included illustrations of stooped Neanderthals in various editions of his book Men of the Old Stone Age, where he said that Neanderthals had “knees habitually bent forward without the power of straightening the joint or of standing fully erect,” and that their hands were deficient in fine motor control, lacking “the delicate play between the thumb and fingers characteristic of modern races.”

    and dates the turning-point to the 1957 article “Pathology and Posture of Neanderthal Man” by anatomists William Strauss and A J E Cave. Unless you can show that Strauss and Cave were inspired by their faith to re-evaluate the Neanderthals it is still reasonable to assume that their rehabilitation has emerged from the normal scientific procedures of methodological naturalism.

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