What Makes Us Human

And one percent Neanderthal

Neanderthal Rorschach Test

Once again, debate breaks out over whether Neanderthals used symbols.

The designs are described by media as a tic-tac-toe grid. Others see them as a "#stoneagehashtag".

Maybe those images, used to familiarize and make a little less distant newly published marks on the walls of a cave in southern Spain, explain why some media describe the size of the marked area using a novel unit of measurement: the Frisbee. Quoting the online post by Archaeology magazine,

The marks, which were covered with sediments that contained stone tools typical of those made by Neanderthals between 30,000 and 39,000 years ago, are up to a few millimeters deep and cover an area about the size of a Frisbee.

Whether the imagery came from thinking of these crossing lines in terms of a modern game, or simply was intended to humanize the scale of the marked zone, the net effect of all these articles is to take something that is far distant from contemporary experience and bring it closer to us.

And for once, that is a relatively accurate reflection of the intention of the scientist leading the team. In remarks published by Nature online, Clive Finlayson says

“Is it art? I don’t know. I can’t get into the minds of these people. It looks geometric. It looks like criss-cross patterning,” and perhaps it represents some kind of map, says Finlayson. “What is clear is that it’s abstract, it’s deliberate, and it speaks to their cognition in a way that brings Neanderthals, once again, closer to us.”

In some ways, it is long past the time that "closer to us" should not be necessary. The research community set aside misleading images of Neanderthals as brutish, subhuman, and undeveloped a long time ago. Also speaking to Nature, archaeologist Alistair Pike notes that this adds to an existing inventory of possible symbolic media used by Neanderthals that includings red pigment and shell beads:

“It adds permanent rock engraving to the sparse but significant evidence for Neanderthal symbolic behaviour.”

But the new study isn't universally accepted in the scientific community. A US archaeologist, Harold Dibble, is quoted in the Nature article in the now familiar point/counterpoint format that tends to imply that in every issue, there are two sides between which we cannot choose. Dibble's comments, though, have some intriguing implications.

First, the quote:

“It takes more than a few scratches — deliberate or not — to identify symbolic behaviour on the part of Neanderthals.”

That seems pretty definite. "A few scratches"-- which Nature notes are known not just from this cave wall, but also from animal bones recovered in some Neanderthal sites.

But wait: if these are just "a few scratches" why are so many people seeing them as tic-tac-toe grids, or even hashtags?

In fact, as the New Scientist notes, the research team found that to replicate exactly these marks, using the same kinds of stone tools, required purposeful, repeated actions:

Francesco d'Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France carried out experiments to determine if the scratches could have been made by accident... He needed to make in excess of 100 strokes to reproduce the pattern exactly.

Idly scratching the rock in a to-and-fro motion only scratched the surface. To get the deep, linear grooves d'Errico had to focus on the line and put his weight into the stylus. He also had to shift his body position to make the perpendicular lines. "This was not doodling," says d'Errico. "It required a lot of effort."

So. Not "a few scratches". In fact, Dibble seems to be taking two slightly different positions on these marks in his comments to Nature. The writer reports that Dibble

has misgivings about the engraving, as well as the identity of its maker. Sediments tend to shift around a cave, and it is possible that humans made the etchings, only for them to be later covered up by older sediments from prior Neanderthal occupations.

In other words, Dibble thinks the marks might have been made by early modern humans. What is unclear is if the identity of the makers of the marks would change his assessment of them as evidence of deliberate creation of abstract symbols.

If so, then art doesn't just lie in the eyes of the beholder; it lies in our understanding of the identity of the makers of marks.

Neanderthals serve as a Rorschach Test for our comfort level with the complexity of our human heritage. An array of researchers working on everything from genetics to stone tool production, and yes, potential symbolic expression, offer a revision of the idea that Neanderthals lacked a variety of characteristics common in modern human populations. Spoken language and symbolic thought become the central battlefield for maintaining that we are not them.

Why is that boundary-- which genetic researchers have pretty soundly taken apart-- so important for so many people? why do media reports continue to include the claim that it is surprising that Neanderthals are not brutish, mute, cognitive inferiors?

We know that early modern humans and Neanderthals shared territory in what became Europe for thousands of years. And that raises the question: why are they gone, and we remain?

Oxford professor Tom Higham, commenting on the new precision reached in dating the overlap of the two groups in Europe, was clear about his conclusion:

"I think most of my colleagues would agree that having modern humans around played some role in the disappearance of the Neanderthals."

Acknowledging this role in the displacement of another human population requires all of us to understand that our modern dominance came at the cost of other lives. Perhaps it is the case that, if those lives had all the same potential for thought, imagination, creativity, and its expression, then for an anthropocentric species, what was lost would be more valuable.

For me, it isn't necessary for Neanderthals to have been more like us for their extinction to be worth grieving. In this symbolic Rorschach test, I cannot imagine that the effort our human cousins expended in working steadily to create these marks was devoid of significance.

There was human effort in the works of Neanderthals. So we should care that they are gone, even if they would not have seen a game, or a symbolic statement, in these marks.

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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