There’s a Neandertal living on my street…

It’s amazing how ideas for stories drift in. Back when I was a teenager, every girl at my high school seemed to have acquired a boyfriend with a monolithic face-spanning eyebrow who spoke in grunts and was capable of inflicting atomic wedgies on any passing geek in 3 milliseconds.

Proof that Ugh Ugh the Neandertal hadn’t gone extinct during the Younger Dryas, but was alive and well and living somewhere on my street.

Wright_NeanderthalSince then geeks have won the war for cool. Check out the ratings for The Big Bang Theory.

And we’ve learned that Neandertals weren’t an all-male species of  testosterone drenched apes who grunted, randomly smashed bus stops and stole attractive women.

Actually, we knew that anyway, though the science has changed since I did an undergrad degree in anthropology, way back when. Even the spelling has changed, at least in English – they’re Neandertals, not Neanderthals, though the taxonomy remains H. neanderthalis.

We think Neandertals emerged 600,000 years ago – check out the Smithsonian human origins site for a brief online summary. Neandertals were  bigger brained than us (about ten percent, on average), had better eyesight, and were stronger. They shared the gene we have for speech, though their different larynx and tongue mean their languages would have been different. If you’re looking for attitudes of care you’d be hard pressed to go past the ways Neandertals looked after each other.

The best description I have seen is that Neandertals were human ‘in a different way’.

A diagram I made of where we think everybody was, mostly, using my trusty Celestia installation and some painting tools.
A diagram I made of where paleontologists think everybody was during the last ice age, and how we moved in on the others, using my trusty Celestia installation and some painting tools.

Which brings me back to stories. I’ve just finished reading a book called How To Think Like A Neandertal, by a couple of academics – Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge – from the University of Colorado. And they paint a picture of what Neandertals could have been like. Speculative, but with solid science behind it.

You can see what I’m getting at. There’s scope for some fabulous fiction. Stories better founded than Jean Auel’s. With dialogue. And Neandertals didn’t go ‘ugh ugh’. Not with the Neandertal larynx. Grunting is a feature of our species, and of those mono-brows I went to high school with. All H. sapiens, the lot of them.

Embarrassing, isn’t it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


2 thoughts on “There’s a Neandertal living on my street…

  1. Could it have been that the wrong species flourished? Perhaps there’s a parallel plane where they adapted and flourished enough to drive H. Sapiens back to the plains?

    1. Clive Findlayson, one of the world’s experts on Neanderthals, suggests that it was only chance it didn’t happen anyway, here – chance that they’re not alive today. Today there is but one species of human – but that’s unusual, it seems, against the span of time. We’ve also found the Denisovians in Siberia, a third species living at the same time. And the time since they went extinct is an eye-blink in geological terms. Beggars the imagination – and the question, I guess, isn’t why our cousin species died out – it’s why we survived, alone. Another novel…🙂

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