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.

Buzz Off! Can’t You See I’m Up to My Ears in the Organic Chemistry of El Sidrón’s Dental Calculus???

Hmmm. I’ve been struggling with Stephen Bradley’s comments on my recent post about Neanderthal oral hygiene at El Sidrón. Throughout he has maintained that the most likely source for the chemical constituents revealed by sophisticated mass spectrometry is wood smoke and cooked food. I have tried to suggest alternative natural sources of some of the compounds that he and his co-authors have identified.
     I would be dead in the water after his protracted comments on my earlier efforts were it not for my determination both to overcome my substantial ignorance of organic chemistry and to extend my argument beyond Stephen’s assertions and, indeed, his conclusions. I’m having some success, I think. Take, for example, his insistence that alkenes and alkanes are plant waxes: 

The thermal desorption-GC-MS (TIC) (Fig. 1 inset) is dominated by a series of n-alkanes (carbon numbers C22 to C35), suggesting a higher plant source (Eglinton et al. 1962), most probably derived from plant waxes in the original food consumed.

I’ll ask Stephen or some other organic chemist to adjudicate whether or not I’ve discovered another natural source of these chemicals–insects. Here is a snippet regarding the Dufour gland of a wasp, Habrobracon hebetor (Say) (Hymenoptera: Braconidae). 

The hydrocarbons consist of a homologous series of n-alkanes (n-C21 to n-C31), a trace amount of 3-methyl C23, a homologous series of internally methyl-branched alkanes (11-methyl C23 to 13-methyl C35), one dimethylalkane (13,17-dimethyl C33), a homologous series of monoenes (C(25:1) to C(37:1)) with the double bonds located at Delta9, Delta13 and Delta15 for alkenes of carbon number 25 to 31 and at Delta13 and Delta15 for carbon numbers 33 to 37 and three homologous dienes in very low amounts with carbon numbers of 31, 32, and 33. [emphasis added]*

I realize that eating insects isn’t as sexy as eating cooked plants, specially not wasps. But it’s not just wasps. A quick check suggests that hydrocarbons of all kinds are naturally occurring substances in insects. And it wouldn’t be the first time that a primate was ‘caught’ eating insects. I’ve eaten crickets many times at sushi bars.
     I don’t think I’ll continue in this vein, trying to ferret out alternatives to Hardy et al.’s inferences. At this point I’d just like to chill on my veranda with a cold one.
     But not quite yet. This business with the El Sidrón Neanderthals’ dental calculus has made me think about the assumptions that Stephen Bradley owned up to–that as far as he knows the Neanderthals made fires and cooked food and did numerous other things that you and I might do. I think otherwise.

     I don’t know which is worse: me, having lived with the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record for going-on 30 years and spending all my time trying to pierce the inferential balloons that my colleagues set free to ascend to the scholarly firmament, or earnest peers like Stephen Buckley having taken breath from those same balloons as a matter of course in their intellectual upbringing, spending all their time inadvertently adding to the cloud of colourful spheres floating above our heads. Whadda you think? I know what I think. I think this calls for me to touch on a subject near and dear to my heart in the near future–the context of discovery versus the context of justification (or verification). I’ve often been accused of being ‘unscientific’ because I start from the assumption that the Neanderthals were dummkopfs. So, stay tuned.

Arch Insect Biochem Physiol. 2003 Nov;54(3):95-109. Novel diterpenoids and hydrocarbons in the Dufour gland of the ectoparasitoid Habrobracon hebetor (Say) (Hymenoptera: Braconidae). Howard RW, Baker JE, Morgan ED.

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