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Will there be mammoths at Longleat?

Neanderthals, so myth has it, were the archetypal cave-men. They were rough, tough brutes with lowering brows, plenty of brawn but no foresight, who lived in Europe from about 300,000 years ago until they were casually and very properly swept aside by our own direct ancestors—the Cro-Magnon people, who arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago.

Channel 4 promised to correct the myth with its two-part series (the second was last night)—and to some extent it did. Notably, newly-discovered bones from the throat now suggest that Neanderthals had a perfectly good language—that they didn't just communicate like chimps as has commonly been assumed, in nasal squeals and grunts. Overall, though, the Neanderthals on Channel 4's programmes, engaging though they were, were just as uncouth, unkempt, and generally inept as we have always been led to believe. Apparently they hunted deer by running after them, and caught fish by flailing their arms. No wonder they died out, and the smooth and handsome Cro-Magnons who began to hang around the set, looked on so superciliously.

But the Neanderthals surely deserve a better press. If we take the basic, accepted data—which really means the fossil bones—and add what we know from modern evolutionary and anthropology, then we could just as soon envisage them as super-heroes. Science has presented them as scruffs and degenerates simply because scientists are not so detached and objective as they would have us believe. In fact, Neanderthals owe their brutish image to nothing more nor less than racial prejudice. The power of prejudice to transform the magnificent into the hideous is truly chilling.

Some physical details are beyond dispute. The fossil bones of Neanderthals are massive by modern human standards, with thick walls and huge areas for the attachment of muscles—so these were very powerful people indeed. They clearly had big noses—the bones of the face show this. Theory has it that huge nasal chambers serve to warm the icy air before it reaches the lungs—as in the modern saiga antelope of the Russian steppes. Neanderthals also had huge ridges of bone above the eyes, and sloping foreheads and chins: features that we associate with apishness.

But their apparently ape-like features grew more exaggerated with time, not less—the most 'Neanderthal'-looking Neanderthals were the ones who lived most recently—and brow-ridges are associated largely with strength of jaw muscles. Their brains if anything were bigger than a modern human's—whereas apes' are only a third of the size. There is no reason at all to doubt that Neanderthals could think.

Most spectacularly, the Neanderthals survived in Europe for a quarter of a million years, which means they lived through several, bitter ice ages: a feat indeed. Fossil remains of Neanderthal faeces show that they survived mainly on meat—there aren't many succulent veggies around in ice ages—and you can't catch deer and mammoths without strategy (while competing along the way with bears and cave lions). Clearly they suffered for their craft, for most fossil Neanderthals skeletons show signs of healed injuries. Yet this suggests that they knew how to co-operate: the wounded must have been nursed through times of need. And they did not die out soon as the Cro-Magnons arrived. The two kinds of human clearly lived side by side for at least 10,000 years—as long as the whole known period of modern civilisation. Whatever caused the Neanderthals' extinction, they were not simply brushed aside.

All this is shown in the fossil bones. It's when we put on the flesh that the speculation really begins—and the Neanderthals, traditionally, are done down.

Why, for a start, are they invariably shown with swarthy skins and black hair? Because, I suggest, in the mythological prejudice of Northern Europe, swarthy and dark are the stereotyped hues of degeneracy. But since no Neanderthal skin or hair has ever come to light, this is just a guess.

Yet Neanderthals flourished in the north—or at least, they lived in southern Europe in times of Ice Age, when the climate was decidedly northern. Northern people are not swarthy. They have fair skins, and their hair is either blond or red—and for good evolutionary reasons. Human beings synthesise much of their own vitamin D by exposure to sunlight, and synthesis is reduced if the skin is heavily pigmented. Natural selection, in short, would surely have favoured Neanderthals who were blonds or red-heads—so why are they invariably depicted otherwise?

What of their scruffiness—their dark straight hair always greasy and lank; the chins of the males always black with designer stubble? This is prejudice at its most flagrant, flouting both common sense and modern biological theory.

Of course we don't know whether Neanderthals had beards at all—but they were very closely related to us, so they probably did. But how would they have acquired the five-o-clock shadows that they are invariably credited with? Fossil safety razors have never come to light—nor any stone artifact that could have done the job. If they had beards at all (as they probably did) then these would surely have been worthy of Methusalah.

For why do men have beards? Darwin suggested that they are a sexual attractant. You may not personally like beards but, like the antlers of a stag or the tail of a peacock, they show that their possessor is properly endowed with testosterone, and so is at least a plausible mate.

But it isn't enough for a stag, or a peacock, or a human male merely to demonstrate sexual maturity. To attract a worthy partner, he must also demonstrate health and status. Peacocks with scruffy tails do not attract mates (as has been demonstrated experimentally). Unkempt feathers suggest disease or general fecklessness. In fact, males of all species are dandies: they bear the various symbols of their masculinity proudly, for to be dull or droopy is to be second-rate. When did you ever see a wild animal who was scruffy? Was there ever a boss of a primate troop—silverback gorilla, woolly monkey, baboon—whose hair did not gleam, every one in place? They are shabby only when they are ill.

Studies of human beings tell the same story. What hunter-gatherer is ever unkempt? What guardsman is grander than a New Guinea Highlander? Who in the history of humanity has ever been more beautifully turned out than a Masai warrior? The grooming is part of the sexual message. A man who grooms himself shows he has leisure to do so. A man who is groomed by others signifies his status. What reason is there, other than prejudice, for thinking that Neanderthals did not follow the universal rules that are so evident in other species, and in every tribe of our own species that we know about?

So let's put all these thoughts together. The Neanderthals were big people—not tall, particularly, but extremely muscular: with big heads, housing enormous brains, prominent brows and big, wide noses. That much we can all agree.

But now let's apply a little real biology, without the usual prejudice. Their big sloping heads were surely crowned with glorious coiffeured manes, blond(e) or red, conscientiously groomed by their mates and subordinates. The men sported huge gleaming beards, reaching down to their massive, hairy chests. They wore furs to keep out the cold—but they were decorated, too, with paint and feathers, like all human beings that we know about, from New Guinea to Time Square.

But is there any good reason apart from a desire to replace prejudice with science, to believe such a picture? Well, here we may appeal to myth again—but this time to the great folk stories that fired the literature and the pagan religions of northern Europe. For the Gods of Germany and Scandinavia—Wotan, Thor, and all the rest—are fierce, blond giants of unbelievable strength, watching from afar, appearing out of the mist and fading back into it again.

And is this a folk memory of the Neanderthals—who once dominated Europe, and disappeared, no-one knows how or why, some 30,000 years ago? Folk memories can certainly last that long, for if they are carefully passed on there is no reason for them ever to die out. Were the Neanderthals, in reality, a people greater than us?

And is this why we have been so anxious to deny them their proper place in human history?