What’s our line?

Henry Gee

  • The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind by Eric Trinkaus and Pat Shipman
    Cape, 454 pp, £20.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 224 03648 3
  • In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins by Christopher Stringer and Clive Gamble
    Thames and Hudson, 247 pp, £18.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 500 05070 8
  • Self-Made Man and His Undoing by Jonathan Kingdon
    Simon and Schuster, 369 pp, £20.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 671 71140 7

Up until the mid-19th century, humanity and the animal world were separated by an unbridgeable morphological void – there was no coherent body of evidence to suggest anything other than the standard Biblical story of human origins. Everything changed, however, in 1856, when the first Neanderthal fossils to be recognised as such were unearthed – just three years before the publication of The Origin of Species.

As the first evidence for a link between humanity and an animal past of vertiginous depth, Neanderthal Man quickly became ensnared in the unending effort to square our idealised view of ourselves with our real place in nature, and the search for an ancestor that would best fit with the ideal. That the different interpretations of Neanderthals – as ranging from barely more than simian to almost human – should have been based on the very same bones is revealing: the ways in which a particular age imagines the Neanderthals is a guide to the forms of human self-delusion in vogue at any given moment.

This is the theme that preoccupies Eric Trinkaus and Pat Shipman in their account of how the image of the Neanderthals has evolved over the years since their discovery. The Neandertals is thoroughly readable, in the breathless style native to American science journalism. Inevitably in a book of this scope, compression has made cartoon figures out of even the most important characters:

The Reverend Adam Sedgwick, Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge, was one of the most outspoken critics of Lyell’s work. Sedgwick was to become a confirmed hypochondriac, given to wrapping himself during services in a bizarre combination of visor, respirator and boots, in addition to clerical robes, to guard his health. But in the 1830s, Sedgwick was a well-known geologist and a formidable opponent to a rising young man.

More worrying are the potted hagiographies of people still very much alive, such as Christopher Stringer of the Natural History Museum: ‘born to a Cockney, working-class couple, Stringer was partly raised by foster parents. He had none of the advantages of accent, manner or prestigious schooling enjoyed by most successful academics in England.’

In Search of the Neanderthals, by Clive Gamble and the sainted Christopher Stringer, is more sober and mature, but it, too, has its agenda. Contemporary prehistorians generally agree that humanity can trace its roots back to Africa, about 2.5 million years ago. By 1.8 million years ago, early humans belonging to the species Homo erectus had appeared in Africa and had spread to Europe and Asia. These populations evolved and diversified into distinct regional forms collectively (and uneasily) known as ‘archaic’ Homo sapiens, of which the Neanderthals of Europe were just one. Homo erectus-like skulls with hints of Neanderthal features began to appear around 250,000 years ago. The classic heavily-built, powerful Neanderthals had their heyday around 50,000 years ago, but by 35,000 years ago had become extinct. Such is the extent of the current consensus.

Some prehistorians argue that the racial variation apparent in modern humanity is evidence for a long and distinct ancestry traceable to archaic sapient times. People in Europe and Central Asia carry many Neanderthal genes, whereas the modern inhabitants of China and Africa trace their lineages to the other archaic forms that lived in those regions more than a million years ago. Occasional cross-fertilisations kept humanity as a whole intermarriageable. This is the ‘multi-regional continuity’ or ‘candelabra’ hypothesis.

Other prehistorians think that modern humanity is a much more recent arrival. Modern-looking humans evolved from archaic sapients in Africa around 100,000 years ago, and appeared in the Middle East a few thousand years later. Independent evidence suggests that these Moderns occupied the caves of Mount Carmel in Israel before Neanderthals did (and so could not have evolved from them). The Moderns spread around the world, replacing the indigenous archaic populations by whatever means and the Neanderthals and the other archaic forms died without issue. This is the ‘Out-of-Africa-II’ or ‘Noah’s Ark hypothesis’. Stringer is a leading advocate of this second view, and In Search of the Neanderthals puts the case for it.

Stringer and Gamble everywhere emphasise the physical differences between Neanderthals and Moderns, especially in the skull and face, making it hard to see how one could have ‘morphed’ into the other. But the most persuasive argument comes, oddly enough, from more tenuous archaeological evidence of Neanderthal and Modern behaviour. Homo erectus and his successors, including Neanderthals, made stone tools in a distinctive tradition that lasted with little real change for a million years. This suggests that early stone-working cultures were not cultures in the sense in which we understand the word today, but that Homo erectus, and Neanderthals too, made tools in the pre-patterned, instinctive way that birds make nests.

This is quite different from the more conscious relationship between Modern workmen and their tools. ‘Modern’ tool-making burst onto the scene quite abruptly about 40,000 years ago and diversified rapidly. Crucially, it is accompanied by bold artistic practices that are recognisable as such today, notably cave-painting and the tradition of ‘Venus’ figurative sculptures. Claims that symbolic behaviour existed among Neanderthals (such as the deliberate burial of the dead) seem weak when the evidence is examined critically.

All of which is compelling stuff. But as Trinkaus and Shipman remind us, we need to be aware of Stringer and Gamble’s current preoccupations before we can understand their vision of the past. Political correctness is a preoccupation of modern anthropology, and the history of physical anthropology as told by Trinkaus and Shipman suggests that it is likely to be as distorting a filter as racism once was. For example, there are those – a minority but a persistent one – who believe that humanity experienced a rite of passage in an aquatic environment (a bit like ‘natural’ childbirth), on the grounds that the human body is fatty and hairless, compared with that of apes. Funnily enough, dolphin and seal bodies are also fatty and hairless, so – you can complete the syllogism for yourself. This notion is popular with feminists, perhaps because the bodies of women are fattier and less hairy than those of (more primitive) males. It is of the same order as the idea which sought to interpose negroes between white Europeans (above) and apes (below) on the basis of ‘progressive’ notions of evolutionary change that were propounded as objective, but which concealed a justification of white supremacy.

The fictional depiction of Neanderthals has fallen prey to contemporary prejudice. Older stories took their cue from the reconstruction (now known to be mistaken) of Neanderthals as stooped and shuffling. Thus H.G. Wells cast them, in The Grisly Folk, as troglodytic trollops racially distinct from modern people, who are tall, erect and white. Today Jean Auel’s novel The Clan of the Cave Bear tells the story of a young girl of anatomically ‘Modern’ stock (in other words, just like us) who is raised among Neanderthals (the ‘Clan’ of the title). Although the portrait of Neanderthals is on the whole sympathetic, the enlightened heroine is perpetually thwarted by the brutal oppression of male-dominated Neanderthal society. ‘The lesson from Clan of the Cave Bear’, Stringer and Gamble comment, ‘is that the beneficial qualities of females should be encouraged since they contribute to progress by challenging the existing social order. If anything needs expulsion from human ancestry, it is the qualities of the male.’ But political correctness has done more than allow novelists to rewrite the past: by rooting out ideas perceived as racist it has effectively denied physical anthropologists access to human variation, their primary source of data. Trinkaus and Shipman recount the shameful treatment once meted out to the brilliant but politically naive Carleton Coon. Coon devoted his life to the study of racial variation, and revelled in racial diversity.

‘My Portuguese gardener ...’ he would say, Staring off on some hilarious tale – but the gardener was thoroughly American in manner, culture and language, being Portuguese only by descent. It was a characteristic eccentricity of Coon’s everyday conversation to refer to people in terms of their racial origin, a habit that led many to believe he attached prejudicial judgments of worth or value to these terms.

Coon’s innocent but ill-judged antics were widely and publicly condemned as racist, notably by his younger and more idealistic colleague Sherwood Washburn, who felt that physical anthropology should be made more socially relevant. The unfortunate result was its perversion from a science into a series of excuses to justify a particular moral stance. ‘The public attacks on Coon impressed an entire generation of anthropologists with the notion that any discussion or even acknowledgment of racial differences would call similar censure down on their heads. Washburn ... declared race off-limits, verboten, taboo in the fullest sense of the word for anthropologists. Race was not only not a fit subject to study, it didn’t even exist’ (Trinkaus and Shipman’s emphasis). This fear of censure has emasculated anthropology.

As a result of such accusations, physical anthropology has been stripped not only of the wider concepts of diversity and the statistical tools for its measurement that other branches of evolutionary biology enjoy, but of the very notion that such variation exists. Instead, anthropology has been reduced to a kind of group therapy that finds insight not in hard evidence but in unfalsifiable storytelling. Without the theoretical means necessary to evaluate such matter properly, eccentric notions such as that of the ‘aquatic ape’ can creep unchallenged into mainstream anthropology and debase it still further.

Self-Made Man and His Undoing is as good an example of story-telling as any. Jonathan Kingdon is white, but was brought up in East Africa and considers himself (if anything) African, which is perhaps why his richly imaginative perspective on human ancestry seems to work, despite what one might call either its occasional strategic disregard for the evidence or statements so bold as to break loose into compelling fantasy. His thesis that contemporary Africans originated among the hypothetical ‘Banda strandlopers’ or shore-dwellers of South-East Asia is a good example. Today, ‘Africa’ is synonymous with ‘Black’. Yet the real Africans are the brownish Khoisan folk, once widespread but now confined to marginal areas in the South. Blacker by far are the scattered negrito peoples of South-East Asia, from the Andaman Islands in the south-west to the Philippines in the north-east, not to mention the inhabitants of Australia, New Guinea and parts of southern India. Something about the glare of sea and sky in coastal regions promotes dark skin.

Kingdon suggests that some of the original migrants who left Africa around 100,000 years ago didn’t go the obvious route through Sinai and into western Asia, but skirted the coasts of the Indian Ocean until they reached Indonesia, where they diversified, blackened and invented boats. These people were the Banda strandlopers, and their descendants made their way back to East Africa to become negroes. Little more than clever inference supports this idea. To those brought up in the European tradition of prehistory, which is based on bones and stone tools dug from caves, it seems very wild indeed. But perhaps that is merely an indication of the failure of Western anthropologists to appreciate the character of tropical prehistory.

The majority of prehistorians derive their views from the contemplation of isolated bones and artifacts, divorced from their zoological context, and too scarce to allow any meaningful appreciation of the variability that helps us define the limits of species – hence the endless sterile debates about the ‘species’ in which the various scraps of hone should be pigeonholed. Reared in Africa close to some of the richest, densest conglomerates of large mammals in the world, Kingdon regards Homo sapiens as just another African mammal.

In addition, Kingdon is sensitive as a zoologist, to the variation inherent in his living and abundant subjects. The variation in modern humanity apparent to the most casual observer in a tube train – let alone a well-travelled tropical anthropologist – is sufficient to make nonsense of the static taxonomy of fossil man. Kingdon’s outlook is completely different. For him, humanity has always been fluid. To the somewhat forced simplicity of either the ‘multi-regional continuity’ or the ‘Noah’s Ark’ models he prefers the interplay of migration and settlement, clash and coalescence which is evident from populations of animals as diverse as seagulls and tigers, wapiti and warblers. The same forces still dictate our mongrel heritage – and thus our increasingly desperate efforts to assert our distinctive identity. That our ancestry is largely beyond recovery allows us the freedom to invent one. Given which, to create an ancestry that does no more than echo our present selves is at best unimaginative.