Friday 28 February 2014

Those Awesome Neanderthals

How many ways can I express these thoughts without you, Dear Reader, getting totally tired of hearing them? 

I have no choice, since the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in for a great many Very Important Palaeoanthropologists. If you’re one of those readers, read on and be joyful.

I've had an epiphany. I’ve come to realize that the oft-maligned Neanderthals were really truly brilliant bipedal apes. Let me count the ways.


had bigger brains than us;

made stone tools using a technique that most contemporary human flint-knappers find difficult, if not impossible, to emulate, and which was so awesome that they and their predecessors did it the same way for upwards of 250,000 years, and produced more stone tool types than the Midas Muffler Man has Craftsman wrenches;  

knew how to dry-distill birch bark to produce a very sticky substance that they used to glue an incredibly-difficult-to-produce pointed piece of stone to a piece of wood with which to thrust into or hurl at prey animals, large and small. In a pinch [one presumes] they used asphalt for the same purpose;

made pointed sticks that are like javelins;

buried their dead;

made and used fire, with which to cook food and, as foreshadowed above, to dry-distill birch bark to make birch tar;

were able to copy the artifacts of us skinny bipedal apes;

knew about the medicinal qualities of various plants in their environment;

were smart enough to rule the world and all its creatures for more than 50,000 years;

made dugout canoes, but strangely, not birch-bark canoes;

lived in the Holy Land, but without all the wars and shit;

buried their dead;

made useful items out of animal skin, such as clothing and ditty bags;

turned naturally occurring objects into works of art;

talked like you and I;

built amazing structures inside caves and rock shelters, and even more amazing ones out in the open that they made out of mammoth bones;

had dentists and social security;

charmed the skinny newcomers to Europe, and made babies galore, from which you and I are descended.

were so attractive that they bred so often with us as to water down their genome such that no modern people have big faces, retro-molar gaps, huge noses and eyes, big fat cortical bone in their legs, and so many other traits that distinguished them from us for their entire existence up ’til about 40,000 years ago;

and they buried their dead;

collected dark-coloured feathers, probably to make capes for the important Neanderthals;

dismembered birds of prey to acquire their talons, prob’ly to use as symbols of power, or to guard against evil spirits or, Bush-like, Evil-doers;

liked shiny, colourful things, like seashells and red ochre;

sometimes ate each other, like the Donner Party, when there was nary an edible anything in their environment;

wouldn’t have looked out of place on a New York subway train;

were really, really strong. So strong that they’d have kicked ass as wrestlers, boxers, or football players (whichever way your culture construes the term football);

Oh, yeah, they buried their dead, often in invisible graves, and sometimes used natural depressions to save time and energy for more important stuff, like . . .  everything else;

I can prob’ly stop there. As I said, there’s no longer any doubt in my mind that the Neanderthals and their contemporaries were excellent at everything we are, and better than us in so many ways that it’s almost embarrassing at the species level.


  1. Hello,

    I just stumbled upon your blog on linked in today and have reading "blurt" after "blurt" all morning. I'm beginning to understand your position on what Neanderthals were NOT like, but as a recently graduated undergrad with little experience in paleoanthropology, I was hoping you could enlighten me as to what you believe Neanderthals WERE like.

    Awesome blog btw.

    1. Hi, Blair. Thanks for the compliment. I do, on occasion, muse on the N's capabilities. But, you're quite right, it ain't often. I should be more charitable. There's no question that they would have been very, very, very clever bipedal apes. Way cleverer than the extant great apes, and according to the last estimates, they managed to survive almost as long as AmHS, and in my judgement way longer, even, than us really smart AmHses. It's so difficult for me to imagine a life without being able to do what you and I are doing right now, i.e. interacting using arbitrarily chosen sounds or signs to make meaning, that it would be useless to try even to speculate on how clever they were. I'll stop there. But thanks to you, I think I'll start to be more emphatic about their abilities and achievements.


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