“Neanderthal Doodles hint at Abstract Thought!”, is the subtitle of a recent piece in New Scientist (2985). But, it is an amazingly uninformed quip!
Neanderthals were not apes but the closest relations to Homo Sapiens (ourselves) among the hominid group, who arose from the same crucially defining stock as we did, typified not only by a bipedal gait, but also significantly by a tool using and tool making ancestor, which became the major reason for the vast development in hominid brains, and their consequent mental abilities. Indeed, these abilities are millions of years old, originally emerging in the Homo Habilis ancestor of BOTH ourselves and the Neanderthals. So, to even ask such a question of these hominids is an example of debasing by “damning with faint praise”, and should not be the stance of serious investigators.
Perhaps indeed, such a definition moves the discussion away from whether it is our species that caused their demise. For, if they were a sub-human and evolutionary incapable species, they could well have become extinct due to their inadequate ability to cope with external changes to their environment, rather than being wiped out by the lauded “Homo sapiens”.
Of course, Neanderthals could think!
How could they make tools, if they didn’t use abstract thinking? The attempt to equate such superior mental abilities with “art” puts the cart before the horse. Before we arrived upon the European scene the Neanderthals had be there for hundreds of thousands of years, and were able hunter/gatherers – the SAME as we were when we arrived! To even conceive of a tool, then make it out of a shatter-able hard rock like flint, and to envisage what it would have to be like, would undoubtedly involve abstract thought. Bringing in Abstract Art is amazing! Could it be because we did that?
The insisted-upon step-change between pre-human species and ourselves is the usual way of considering development, and is homocentric! So, the finding of a definitely Neanderthal carving on rock of a simple “cross” design has re-invigorated the assessment of just how good they were at Thinking(?).
NOTE: It is an excellent example of how theories are always predicated upon the current level of Knowledge and understanding of those who put forward such ideas. They can NEVER be the Absolute Truth, but only, at best, the furthest that the thinker could go given his current assumptions and principles. What survives in a theory is due to an increased measure of Objective Content and NOT Absolute Truth!
Indeed, the usual set of clichés, such as Art, is frequently raised, based upon the belief that Homo sapiens is unique, and the epitome of all development!
“Were they advanced enough to make real Art?”, or alternatively, “Could they think abstractly as we certainly can?”, are the usual type of threshold-passing markers of Human superiority! And, the discussion, as is usual, gets stuck in the fabricated mire of homocentrism, with the conclusion, “These inadequate people died out due to Natural Selection! They just couldn’t cope with the changes that were happening in their World!”
This strain of hominid had the same roots as we did.
Early hominids such as Homo habilis were their ancestors too. They had the important crucial changes, while they were the very same species as we were. They even left Africa long before we did and successfully moved into Europe a hundred thousand years before we managed to get there, and survived many significant changes in climate successfully.
They were indeed our closest cousins, and DNA evidence proves conclusively that they interbred with Homo sapiens successfully with offspring that were viable. What more proof is necessary, that they were NOT fatally inferior to us?
So, are the usual legends true?
The Novel The Inheritors by William Golding didn’t see it that way. Two species found themselves in the same areas – both as hunter/gatherers – needing enormous areas to support such a lifestyle. They would inevitably be competitors!
And the historical record of Homo sapiens, when they have come across other branches of the homo group is not good! In Asia (Indonesia) a small-statured branch was most certainly wiped out by members of our species, and even very much later in America, the English colonists in the East wiped out several native American tribes, who grew crops, and were genetically identical as ourselves.
They did it to get their land.
So, all this homocentric discussion avoids the real questions.
Did we wipe out the Neanderthals? In spite of proved inter-breeding, the newcomers could only relax when they were gone! So, those scratches made by Neanderthals, and found in Gibraltar have been dated at 39,000 years ago, and Neanderthals lived for many millennia after that date.
And, here is another relevant question, “If homo sapiens did wipe them out, what were they be likely to do with any found remains and signs of the people they had removed? What would they have done with their artefacts and remains?
Would they have kept them and cherished them?
And, we know what allowed the development of Art in humans, even while they were still hunter/gatherers. It was only possible in highly conducive conditions of life. The Lascaux Cave Paintings were at a place where the migrating herds of wild animals could be counted upon to pass that way, and Men could remain in one place, and not only survive, but actually flourish.
And later, after the Neolithic Revolution, which caused a mammoth change in lifestyles with farming and animal husbandry, which had a very similar effect upon those humans involved – staying in one place and having time to do other things apart from just surviving.
If you wanted to really to really address this question, there would have to be a looking for those enabling conditions in undisturbed Neanderthal remains and sites.
The present-day investigators using today’s morality and prohibitions, will unavoidably mis-interpret how “God’s People” reacted to an alternative and competing species.