Thursday, February 23, 2017

My Public Apology to the Neanderthals

I have also posted a YouTube video on this subject here.

If there are any Neanderthals reading this blog, I must ask, can you possibly forgive me? I had you all wrong. My voice joined in with the scientific establishment, led by such great scholars as Chris Stringer, in claiming that Neanderthals had no culture. This is very much the image that I presented in my Encyclopedia of Evolution. Apparently we were wrong.

Of course, my dear Neanderthals, I could not believe that a hominin with a brain as large as yours could be stupid. I never said you were stupid—put down that club, I’m trying to explain myself here—but just that you used your intelligence for something other than culture. Like maybe figuring out better ways of hitting each other over the head with clubs—oops, I think I went a little too far right then. But I wrote a novel manuscript (as yet unpublished) in which the heroine was an intelligent Neanderthal woman who lived in Minnesota in the late twentieth century. I can prove that I wrote this! I have a notarized copy of the manuscript from [date]. I’ve been defending your dignity, after a fashion, for many years now. But, you gotta admit, Neanderthals left no cave paintings or artifacts that might suggest art and religion, in stark contrast to the thousands of artifacts and massive painted caves of the Cro-Magnon modern humans.

But the accuracy of the non-cultural view of Neanderthals depends to a large extent on the interpretation of a set of artifacts that are not exactly part of American discourse, not even of intellectual snobs like me—the Châtelperronian artifacts. These artifacts, found in France, date to about forty thousand years ago, right about the time that dark modern humans came up from Africa and encountered the light-skinned, red-haired Neanderthals. The artifacts were found in a deposit that appeared to be of Neanderthal origin. They included some really well-made stone tools and, most fascinating, various bones and shells with holes drilled in them, which were apparently used in necklaces. Most of us scientists preferred to believe that such decorations could not possibly be Neanderthal. We wanted to think that the deposit was actually of modern Homo sapiens origin. Or, if the deposit was from Homo neanderthalensis, we speculated that you Neanderthals stole them from modern humans, or if you made them you were just imitating modern humans.

If we could get DNA from the human bones at this site, we could maybe settle the question. Svante Pääbo has elucidated the Neanderthal genome. But apparently thirty thousand years is about the limit to get DNA from old bones. To get enough DNA from the Châtelperronian bones, it would be necessary to almost completely destroy them. But it turns out that collagen (the protein in cartilage) does not decompose as readily. It was collagen that Mary Higby Schweitzer found in 70-million-year-old T. rex bones. Geneticists Matthew Collins and Frido Welker were able to get enough collagen from the Châtelperronian bones to analyze (Science, 23 September 2016, page 1350). Previous studies have shown that human collagen is rich in the amino acid aspartate, while Neanderthal collagen is rich in asparagine. The Châtelperronian bones had asparagine-rich collagen, identifying them as Neanderthal.

Of course, errors are possible in the reasoning used above. But the most straightforward interpretation, according to Jean-Jacques Hublin, Collins’s and Welker’s collaborator, is to say that Neanderthals made the artifacts.

Please forward a link to this essay to any Neanderthals you know.

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