JOHN HAWKS You wouldn't usually say that stupid congressman is a Neander-TAL, you'd probably say Neander-THAL.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's the right way to pronounce everybody's favorite paleozoic insult. From WNYC in New York, this is on the media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, we spelunk into the real story of our cave dwelling cousins,
CLIVE FINLAYSON The animals that lived across Europe and Asia from 2- 300,000 years, very successfully. We have another 200,000 years to go before we catch up with the Neanderthals.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And expose the worldview behind the scientific racism that seems to know no limits of time or place.
ANGELA SAINI So there was this belief that white Europeans were at the top of this hierarchy and other races were slotted below. And also that those at the bottom of this hierarchy were like Neanderthals doomed to die out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Join us as we reckon with our family history,,,after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone...
ANNALEE NEWITZ ...and I'm Annalee Newitz.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's – THE Annalee Newitz, joining me this hour are science journalist and science fiction writer. Their most recent book is Four Lost Cities A Secret History of the Urban Age and co-host of the podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct.
ANNALEE NEWITZ We're going to be talking about a speech from last March where President Joe Biden made a disturbing comment...
PRESIDENT BIDEN The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything's fine. Take off your mask. Forget it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE We both heard it. Of course, we were both appalled.
ANNALEE NEWITZ I mean, it's just not true. There's no evidence that Neanderthals couldn't understand existential risks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, right!
ANNALEE NEWITZ Why are Homo sapiens always insulting Neanderthals?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Turns out we're both obsessed with Neanderthals
ANNALEE NEWITZ and how they've been maligning Neanderthals for over 100 years. You may be wondering why that matters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, when Annalee and I met, we found that we both shared the view that to understand who you are and where you're going, you cannot go too far back. In fact, there is no back too far.
ANNALEE NEWITZ So we're going to explore the prism through which we have long viewed Neanderthals and what that says about us and how our view of them is changing and what that says about us, too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're going back to the Paleolithic and it's going to blow your mind because it wasn't like this...
[COMMUNICATIVE, VISCERAL GRUNTING; GROWLING ]
ANNALEE NEWITZ Or this...
[FRED FLINSTONE, YABBA-DABBA-DOOING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or this.
UNFROZEN CAVEMAN LAWYER I really don't understand your Congress or your system of checks and balances because I'm just a caveman. I fell in some ice and later got thawed out by scientists. But there is one thing I do know. We must do everything in our power to lower the capital gains tax. Thank you! [END CLIP]
ANNALEE NEWITZ It was more like... this:
JOHN HAWKS The Neanderthals conquered challenges with cooperation. They collected pigments, red ocher and manganese dioxide, and they colored things.
ANNALEE NEWITZ That's John Hawks, anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison – who knows his Neanderthals.
JOHN HAWKS To me, studying Neanderthals is like trying to study an alien intelligence. I don't understand the language that they might have spoken, but I can tell from the patterns that there was sophisticated behavior there.
ANNALEE NEWITZ We got started on this whole thing by talking about the word that Joe Biden used to describe people who refuse to wear masks. I say Neander-TAL,
BROOKE GLADSTONE I say Neander-THAL.
ANNALEE NEWITZ The difference is academic, but it also has to do with pop culture.
JOHN HAWKS You wouldn't usually say that stupid congressman is a Neander-TAL. You'd probably say Neander-THAL, and that kind of is the popular culture versus really scientific point of view is encapsulated in that,
ANNALEE NEWITZ Hawks says, there are really two versions of the Neanderthal, the one from pop culture who exists on The Flintstones and in the mind of Joe Biden, and the one who scientists understand as an early human who has gone extinct. They're kind of our sisters and kind of our mothers. What I mean is that they share a common ancestor with Homosapiens and...how to put this delicately? They also exchanged genetic material with our fathers. Hawks says that Africa was once teeming with different types of early humans, and all of them were interacting with each other. They were also migrating out of Africa into Europe and Asia. Homosapiens were not the first humans to leave Africa and colonize Europe.
JOHN HAWKS Neanderthals emerged as a different population from our African ancestors. Around 700,000 years ago, and when they first split off from those African populations, they were a population that joined together with another group that we today know is the Denisovans. The Neanderthals ultimately lived in the western half of Eurasia, the Denisovans, we think in the east and southeast part
ANNALEE NEWITZ and elsewhere in the world. There was a diminutive human called Homo floresiensis, nicknamed The Hobbit people. All of them were human with complicated social lives and art and culture. But there were also early humans that Hawks says probably weren't like us
JOHN HAWKS Homo naledi, a species that I have been working on for the last decade. In South Africa, three different species lived in the Middle Pleistocene as Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans in Africa were diversifying. There's this other species in South Africa, Homo floresiensis that you mentioned. Many of these groups represent deeper branches that connect earlier in our evolutionary history and are very different from us. Some of them, like Homo naledi, I would really hesitate to call human. They had brains, a third the size of ours.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Our scientific. Understanding of who counts as human and who our closest ancestors are has changed a lot over the past half century. And this brings us back to terminology. In 1950, you'd call a human like me, a hominid.
JOHN HAWKS And the reason is that "-id" is this suffix in taxonomy that means family. The great apes living today, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas are close relatives and chimps and bonobos are our closest living relatives. So the tree of relationships doesn't separate the living great apes from us. It puts us within them. For taxonomists, what that means is that our family is a family that includes the other great apes. They're the hominids.
ANNALEE NEWITZ But in the past few decades, taxonomists have started using a new category – hominin – that is just for humans and our direct ancestors. And thus, with a change in suffix, we have a new way of separating ourselves from the apes and firmly putting us in the same tribe as Denisovans. The Hobbits, small brained Homo naledi, and, yes, the Neanderthals. And given that we were all in the same tribe, it's not a surprise that a lot of you know, love was flowing between all these groups. Or, as the scientists say, there was a lot of genetic ad mixing.
JOHN HAWKS It's certainly true that we all belong to populations that have mixed with each other, that have mixed repeatedly, and that mixture is fundamental to our nature as a species. It's accelerating, if anything, with long distance movement between different populations. But it was true prehistorically. One perspective that ancient DNA has given us all of these skeletons from different times in the past is that we can see that, hey, the people that lived in this place 3,000 years ago weren't the same as the people that lived there earlier because there was immigration, there was mixture. And that's true at every time stage that we can observe.
ANNALEE NEWITZ So that means that most of us are a little bit Neanderthal. In fact, Brooke did a genetic test, and she was a little disappointed that she was only two and a half percent Neanderthal at most.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hey, rub it in.
ANNALEE NEWITZ The path from hominid to hominin was pretty recent, and it's also pretty significant. Science has now acknowledged that Neanderthals, among other early hominins, were human like us. Of course, we're still having arguments about the relative humanity of Republicans and Democrats, so...you know?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Up next, how after more than 100 years, we came to understand what we didn't understand about Neanderthals, like how they lived, what they ate, what they wore and how they died.
ANNALEE NEWITZ This is On the Media.
ANNALEE NEWITZ This is On the Media, I'm Annalee Newitz.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Our kinship with Neanderthals is at the heart of Rebecca Wragg Sykes' book Kindred, in which the archeologist and science writer explores Neanderthal life, love, death and art. But historically, the study of Neanderthals has been guided not by a sense of kin, but rather, otherness. A search for Neanderthals defects to account for their supposed inferiority and their disappearance from the Earth. But in recent years, we've learned a lot more about how they lived, and it isn't so other at all.
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES They were living in caves or rock shelters, but also we know that they were living in the open air as well because we could find those sites. And they fit in with what we know from ethnographic research on living and historical hunting and gathering cultures all over the world. Most of the time, the people that you actually live with, that's a small number, maybe twenty five maximum. The way that a Neanderthal home might appear to you, you would probably see maybe two halves active at the same time, some that were blazing really hot temperatures, much more, perhaps a cooking half versus other ones towards the back of a rock shelter, which looked like they were smoldering, which matches what we see from the way hunter gathering peoples live, where you have like little sleeping fires to keep you warm at night. So they were using different parts of the site in a different way, and we can see that also reflected in other kinds of material evidence, for example, animal bones. We can see different animals being prepared in different parts of the cave, and there's even an Italian site called Grotta di Fumane where it looks as if different body parts of birds that Neanderthals were hunting there were being processed in different areas like the wings or seems to be discarded in one area. We can even see, in some cases there are like little mittens where they're cleaning the house out and then they dump the ash somewhere else on that site.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that there's evidence of furnishings made from plant material. That they were picky about the wood they used.
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES Yeah, we can see really impressive wooden spears. They're selecting the wood, not only the species, but the parts of the tree, the lower part of the trunk or the base of the branch for the tip of the spear because it's the strongest wood. They also are carving it away from the grain, so it's not going to shatter on impact.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Talk to me about glue. How hard is it to make?
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES So we know that Neanderthals were using stone. It's the basis of their technology, but they also are able to understand the concept of joining different parts together to make a multi-component tool. So this is what we call hafting, basically sort of sticking a handle on something. Sometimes they might be using plant twine or maybe sinews to do this, but in other cases, we have direct evidence that they were using adhesives. In the Middle East, in the Near East, we can see that they're using natural asphalt, but elsewhere they're making their own glue. So in the European context, we can see that they knew how to make birch bark tar. So in the states, you have very rich indigenous cultural traditions that use birch for all sorts of stuff, including glue. You have to cook this black tar out of the bark under controlled conditions. That's quite a sophisticated process to understand how to control the fire. Less air is better because if you allow too much air and it just burns. Also recently we found new evidence from an Italian site that suggests that they are making glue recipes. Mixing together pine or conifer resin with beeswax. When you mix those two things together, it really improves the properties and actually becomes more like Birch tar. It's part of their technological repertoire.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's talk about culture now. You write a bout the Bruniquel cave, the quote strangest Neanderthal site. What makes it so?
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES People always want to know were Neanderthals making anything that we can call art? And there are an awful lot of different forms of evidence like color and pigments and engravings. But this site, Bruniquel, is in southeast France, and it was only discovered quite recently. You know, when it was reported in the media, it was like, Oh, Neanderthal Stonehenge. And that's totally overblown. It doesn't look like Stonehenge, but parts of it have that same balancing pieces on top of each other. And it's basically a massive underground construction of two rings formed of snapped off pieces of stalagmite, the natural formations that you get growing in caves – sort of like finger sticking up from the ground. And in a chamber 300 meters deep into a hill – would have been totally in the dark – Neanderthals took hours snapping these pieces off and arranged them in two large circles with piles inside them. And then this burning around on the edges and on these central piles as well, for a purpose that's not really clear to us because it doesn't really look like a living site. Is too deep inside. You'd have to have lighting all the time, it'd be very smoky. And this was during a cold period as well, when there just wouldn't be huge amounts of trees around to provide you with all the fuel. But it gets even more interesting because these piles and these rings, when you look at the detail of them, you can see it's not something that you could just accidentally produce. So what is it about?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You suggest it's a large art project.
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES Well, I mean, we don't like archeologists to use the word mysterious because it's overused so much. But in this case, if there's no practical explanation that we can see at the moment, then perhaps it is something to do with aesthetic structures and productions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, the Shanidar cave in northern Iraq. There were graves created there 65,000 years ago with the bones of adults and infants. Fossilized flower pollen surrounding one of them. May be a burial ritual or or maybe even a mythology about life after death. And in the cave, the remains of people who were clearly cared for and in a hard life, a difficult kind of care to provide.
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES There's two threads to what you're talking about. One is the question of the treatment of the dead, and the other thread is looking for evidence of care. Shanidar is a classic site for that because one individual, an old man, just had a catalog of severe traumatic damage to his body that would have really impacted how he could live.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A blind eye, a missing, possibly amputated lower arm, two broken legs.
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES Some really awful thing happened to him where one of sides of his body was really crushed. Both his arms, a well-developed people still using them. An individual like that would have had many different things to offer the group, but they may have had to have support in terms of providing food, for example, if they were not able to hunt themselves and things like that. So Shanidar is one among a number of different cases that are usually discussed when we're talking about evidence for care. Then there's also some others where there's a really severe injury and you can see that it has healed, but it would be so severe that they just wouldn't be mobile. For example, like a break in the top of your thigh bone. People are going back to these classic sites and reinvestigating them. So there's a new team working now at Shanidar, looking at the excavated sediments that they have found more remains and we can use all of our 21st century whizzy scientific methods to actually really look at this question of, 'are these bodies intentionally deposited?' What is going in with those bodies? If anything. Can we actually see remains of plants?
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are a couple of reasons why I'm obsessed with Neanderthals. I've always had a passion for science fiction, and the idea that there were other kinds of humans was fascinating to me. But then doing this job, I was really interested in how the interpretations of Neanderthals, one replacing another, replacing another, seemed to be a wonderful lens through which to examine how we look at each other.
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES The Neanderthals were the first other form of humanity that we encountered. So I think because they were the first found. They have played this role as the 'other' for us. And I mean, I'm a big science fiction fan as well, and Neanderthals are like the original alien encounter. You know, they weren't from another planet. They're from another time. And we rediscovered them during a time when people's interest in the concept of aliens was really kicking off. This notion that time was much deeper because of the geological understanding is there. And it's also the same time people are turning big telescopes and looking at the sky and realizing that space is much bigger than we thought. Challenging our position in the universe of the cosmos. You know, where do we fit if there was another way of being human on this planet? They really fulfill that role of a mirror.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Among the many pop culture images of Neanderthals, I take it You're partial to William Golding's novel The Inheritors, right? He is the author of Lord of the Flies.
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES I actually quote from the novel The Inheritors, and that book is really interesting. It's written in the 1950s after the war. He basically tries to imagine and see the world. Through the eyes of some Neanderthal people, as they encounter for the first time Homosapiens. You kind of have access to the thoughts of this Neanderthal, although he doesn't use like a formal language or anything, and it's very much about imagery and impressions. It's absolutely remarkable writing, but also it's very interesting that the Homo sapiens people are framed, not just dominant in terms of sort of being socially aggressive, but coming in altering the environment. There's a quote in my book from that that I really like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Would you read it?
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES Yeah, yeah, sure. He's talking about the people coming in, and he says they're like a famished wolf in the hollow of a tree. They're like the river and the fall. Nothing stands against them. For me that I don't know a really great way to describe the way that we have overwhelmed the Earth. And the idea that that's been there, potentially in us for a very long time is a really intriguing one to consider the way that we want to live as a global species, which we are now. And we have to learn how to use our ability to manipulate materials, which I think Neanderthals would have loved to see the stuff that we can make. We have to use that capacity that we have in a way that is not a maladaptive in scientific parlance. If you trash your own environment, your survival is not guaranteed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rebecca, thank you very much.
REBECCA WRAGG SYKES It's been an absolute pleasure to speak with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rebecca Wragg Sykes is an archeologist, author and honorary fellow in the School of Archeology Classics in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool. She's the author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.
At the base of The Rock of Gibraltar, off the south coast of Spain are the great Goram and Vanguard Caves more akin to cathedrals than your average grottoes. Rising sea levels have encroached on the caves, submerging some of the landscape where the Neanderthals once ranged. But Clive Finlayson, director, chief scientist and curator of the Gibraltar National Museum, has committed himself to quote 'underdrowning' of lost world those caves contain. His team has uncovered stone tools, the first Neanderthal etching ever found, and even their footprints. But equally important were the bones not just of Neanderthals, but of birds. 161 species, 33 percent of all birds in Europe at the time. Those bones refuted the notion that Neanderthals were neither clever nor nimble enough to catch fast flying prey. Welcome to the show, Clive.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Hi, it's a pleasure to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You didn't just examine the birds. As a biologist, you examined the behavior of the descendants of those birds. The golden eagle. The snowy owl – vultures also feature in your story.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Yes, indeed. There are four different species of vultures in Europe still today, and we find all four of them in the caves. One of our trips, we went up to the Pyrenees in northern Spain. There's a guy there who spent the last 30 years putting food out for vultures. You start going up a slope and the vultures start flying around you because they've seen him. You have to shoo them with your hands. Wild vultures. And when they come to feed, they feed from your hand. Now, Neanderthals were probably much better naturalists than any of us are today because their lives depended on it. I'm sure they could do very similar things and catch birds in a diversity of ways that we can't imagine. For me, the most exciting one of the four vultures is the one we call the bearded vulture that comes in at the end of the feast and eats bone. It's a bone breaker. But the interesting story with that one is the bearded vulture is the animal that invented cosmetics.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Oh yes. Hear me out. Bearded vultures. When you look at them, are orange underneath. Some of them are white. Some of them are less white. We know they go to streams rich in iron and they paint themselves orange. There is a lot of data now that shows that the more orange the males and the females look, the more successful they are producing baby bearded vultures. If you go to the island of Crete in the Mediterranean, where there are no iron ponds or streams, the bearded vultures are all white because they can't paint themselves. Now what do humans do? They paint themselves with ochre. They do what bearded vultures do. Where Neanderthals somehow watching these bearded vultures, which were living in the same environments as they were. And did we pick up that particular habit of using ochre as paint from those vultures?
BROOKE GLADSTONE What would you say were the greatest discoveries and the biggest correctives that the caves at Gibraltar revealed to you?
CLIVE FINLAYSON The biggest one was popularly known as the hashtag.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Describe the hashtag.
CLIVE FINLAYSON The hashtag is a series of criss lines dug with stone tools by the Neanderthals onto the side of the cave, onto rock. To find an engraving made by a Neanderthal, the first in the world, was a big claim, so we had to be really, really sure of what we were doing. We got similar rocks and reproduced the engraving. We did one stroke of the groove and another one until we reached the depth of the groove, and one group took 60 strokes and we were not very good at it. We kept breaking the stone tool. We couldn't keep to a straight line.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're using the equivalent tools that you found in the cave.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Correct. And on the same rock surface type. So we knew already that whoever done this had done it before because it wasn't an easy thing to do to keep 60 strokes, the straight line rock and rock. Not that easy, anyway. So we calculated the whole thing, and we reckon the whole design took two hours to do so. This wasn't a doodle. This wasn't casual. So the next question was, OK, maybe that just marks left as they're butchering the meat. Right next experiment, we sent somebody to the butchers and we got cuts of meat. We put them on the rock surface. First thing you realize you can't keep a straight line. It wasn't Butchery marks. So is it art? Well, I've seen worse things today called that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or it could have another meaning it could. It could be a calculation of some sort.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Exactly. So the significance of this was that it showed that somebody, a Neanderthal, was abstracting something from their world and trying to represent it on those rocks, whether it was art, whether it was a map, whether it was a Klan symbol. We can speculate at length and it's fun to do that. But the point was it was revealing these higher cognitive abilities that had previously only been attributed to modern humans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Could you take me into the cave preserved under a layer of sand? You found a moment in time. An abandoned dinner.
CLIVE FINLAYSON One archeological level in the cave, which goes back to about 45,000 years. There, the Neanderthals had come in. They'd made a campfire that butchered a wild goat, an ibex, and they ate it and they walked away. The fire was put out and the remains of the butchered animal were left there. We found all that and even the embers of the charcoal as it was spitting from the fire. It's all there. But then interestingly, just above. If it's above, it happened just after the Neanderthals left, we found a lot of hyena poop. We'll call them coprolites. What happened, obviously, was the hyenas came in to scavenge the remains of the Neanderthal barbecue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm-Hmm.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Well, the hyenas eat a lot of bone. So the coprolites are quite solid and hard and preserved. Now, why should that be interesting? Because if you take that to the lab and you dissect it, look it under hyper microscope. We find residues of pollen. Now, how does pollen get into hyena poop when hyenas are carnivore? Well, when ingesting the intestines of the herbivores, they're ingesting the meal of the herbivore and the pollen. So this is really like ultra forensic research, but we can then look at the pollen that was in the hyena poop from 45,000 years ago. We can identify the pollen and therefore we can reconstruct the landscape outside in terms of what plants were growing there because they're hyenas are telling us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The hyena poop helped you reconstruct what life outside the cave may have looked like. Our popular image of the Neanderthals, if they aren't running around grunting, is they're shivering in freezing temperatures all the time.
CLIVE FINLAYSON These people were living in a Mediterranean environment, with a wonderful view out of the cave into a landscape of olive trees and stone pine trees interspersed by freshwater lakes and herds of animals. And then all these birds on the cliffs singing. And in the woodland.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're finding of the snowy owl helped you understand the climate better, too.
CLIVE FINLAYSON And there's a paradox there, because you could easily then ask me, Well, how come there were snowy owls there, if it was that mild and warm? Well, when you look at the levels where you find snowy owls and other Arctic birds in those levels, you still have olive trees and other Mediterranean plants and animals. What we think is happening is that conditions are so inhospitable in the north, England is covered by a kilometer of ice that nothing's living up there. So all of these Arctic birds are pushed southwards. They have no choice. So the presence of snowy owls in these Arctic birds where we are, is not necessarily indication the conditions were that cold here, but they have no room to go. You had to come south or go extinct. So we find these incredible combinations of species that you wouldn't find anywhere in the world today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me about Nana and Flint. You're the director of the Gibraltar National Museum. You commissioned forensic artists, artists who are used to reconstructing, you know, murder victims from their bones to create statues of Neanderthals. Why did you do it?
CLIVE FINLAYSON We had this Gibraltar skull that was been found in 1848, and we then had the fragments of a child's skull that had been excavated in 1926. We wanted to know what these people looked like. Now we were at a time when we had a much better picture of, if you like, the soft parts of the tissues of Neanderthals because the genome had been sequenced. So we knew this skin was pale. We knew the range of eye color. We knew the range of hair color similar to us, including red haired brown and so on. So we had a pretty good idea. We thought from these two skulls, let's reconstruct these two individuals. The Kennis brothers from the Netherlands are fantastic. They're artists, but scientists at the same time doing these incredible forensic reconstructions. We work with our friends in Zurich who are anthropologists, and they could apply the metrics to reconstruct the whole body from that. So we used a bit of poetic license in putting it together and suggesting that Nana was the grandmother of the child Flint. We knew by then that Nana was female and we knew that the boy was a boy. All that was accurate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But they lived eons apart, presumably.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Presumably they did. So that was where we used a bit of poetic license. We wanted to break the mold from the stereotype. Traditionally, the Neanderthal is hairy, bent forwards, grumpy looking. But when you look at Nana now she's got a glint in her and she's smiling and looking at you and the boy is hanging on to granny almost a bit scared. You're looking at humans. Skulls named with a lot of originality by anthropologists Gibraltar one and Gibraltar two, no matter how many books I can write, how many papers I can write – when you put flesh to them and you call them Nana and Flint, a lot of people empathize with them. You see those people there in the museum and suddenly you go, Wow, I understand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE you regard Neanderthals, you've said, as my species. As human.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Indeed, there were differences, but we're not all the same in this planet today, either. We're all part of one human family.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We know now that Neanderthals didn't have fatal flaws like stupidity or bad hunting abilities or physical weakness or a lack of innovation. But what do we know about why they vanished?
CLIVE FINLAYSON We don't give enough importance to contingency to chance. Chance events do sometimes matter, especially when you have small populations. Neanderthals had lived across Europe and Asia for two or hundred thousand years, at least very successfully.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Their species lasted far longer than ours has.
CLIVE FINLAYSON Yeah, we have another 200,000 years to go before we catch up with the Neanderthals. They were living very successfully in these woodland environments, being omnivores, eating plants, catching animals largely by ambush hunting. And they developed this incredible muscular physique for dealing with animals at close quarters. And if we wanted to compare an Neandethal with a modern human in very broad terms. Than the Neandethal's, a wrestler and the modern human is a long distance runner. Completely different physiques. And these long distance runners were used to open environments where they could catch animals using projectile technology, and they enter Eurasia at a time when the climate is actually hitting hard and the woodland is been overrun by Steppe-Tundra. Steppe-Tundra with animals like reindeer. The world is changing completely, and my view is that the long distance runner could handle that well much better than the wrestler. If instead of getting cold at that moment, the climate had got warmer, more humid, the woodland would have expanded at the expense of tundra. Perhaps you and I today, and I say this with the greatest respect would be Neanderthals discussing the disappearance of those others who turned up in Europe and couldn't make it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Clive, thank you very much.
CLIVE FINLAYSON It's my pleasure, and you're always welcome to come and visit us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I will. Clive Finlayson is Director, Chief Scientist and curator of the Gibraltar National Museum. He's also author of the book The Smart Neanderthal. Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Coming up, what are evolving notions of our long vanished kin say about us?
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone
ANNALEE NEWITZ and I'm Annalee Newitz. As we've heard earlier this hour, pop culture depictions of Neanderthals are just full of foolishness.
GEICO COMMERCIAL It's so easy to use Geico dot com a caveman could do it. [END CLIP]
ANNALEE NEWITZ which were followed by a whole cycle of Geico ads where the Neanderthals protested their negative portrayals, which led to a whole new round of jokes about how funny it was when Caveman tried to sound smart. Like this one featuring the so-called stupid caveman from Adult Swim:.
PRESIDENT BIDEN There, me was, beating boulder into powder because me couldn't eat it, and magic ball land in lapt. Naturally me think 'All right, free egg!' Because me stupid and me caveman. So... [END CLIP]
ANNALEE NEWITZ But something else lurks beneath the surface of these stories. To see it, let's go back to 1953, when the civil rights movement was heating up and some states were striking down laws that banned marriage between people of different races. That year, audiences at the drive in watched a monster movie called Neanderthal Man, in which a mad scientist uses an experimental drug to turn himself into a Neanderthal for...reasons. He becomes a swarthy, violent brute who, of course, conks his girlfriend on the head and brings her back to his cave. That's when a mob of white guys with guns tracked them down and...
SHERIFF Figure on trying to smoke him out, and trust the luck that she'll get away.
DR HARKNESS It's too dangerous.
SHERIFF Well, the only other solution is to get the state police down with tear gas.
DR HARKNESS That's just as bad. [END CLIP]
ANNALEE NEWITZ So is this mob of randos with guns gets ready to storm the cave. Miss Marshall and her Neanderthal boyfriend emerge.
SHERIFF Get him.
MISS MARSHALL No! Don't shoot!
SHERIFF Flatten out quick. We'll fire over your head!
MISS MARSHALL No don't! [END CLIP]
ANNALEE NEWITZ Yeah, sure. It's just a monster movie. But to anyone familiar with the history of lynching in the United States up to that point, this scene probably felt a little too on the nose. Then in 1968, we got another story about our hominid cousins that was a thinly veiled allegory for racial politics. In Planet of the Apes, a group of astronauts led by Charlton Heston have gone way off course and found themselves landing on Earth in the distant future. Talking apes have replaced Homosapiens and relegated the planet's former rulers to the status of animals. They assume Charlton Heston is an animal, too. But when they lasso him like a stray cow, he shouts the movie's most famous line,.
GEORGE TAYLOR Take you're stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape. [END CLIP]
ANNALEE NEWITZ Today, this memorable line isn't just a nerdy reference, it's a racist dog whistle. In 2014, New York politician Jim Coughlin brought this usage into the mainstream when he called, then-MSNBC anchor, and now host of The Takeaway, Melissa Harris-Perry, a damn dirty ape. And in 2018, ABC fired Roseanne Barr from her own show after a nasty tweet linking former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to Planet of the Apes. And it's this aspect of the Neanderthal myth that fascinates science journalist Angela Saini, who writes about the ways that science can perpetuate racism.
ANGELA SAINI Very quickly, after Neanderthal bones were discovered, they were recruited into existing ideas about how people thought about race in the 19th century. The bones were discovered in Germany, but one of the first things scientists did was to compare those bones to the bones of living Aboriginal Australians in the 19th century. There was this very widespread belief in the scientific community and this idea of a racial hierarchy. That white Europeans were at the top, and other races were slotted below. And also that those at the bottom of this hierarchy were like Neanderthals doomed to die out.
ANNALEE NEWITZ I wonder if we can blame all of this on Linnaeus, because I'm thinking about how back in the 18th century, this botanist, Carl Linnaeus. he created a bunch of the taxonomic categories of animals and plants that we use today. He also developed a hierarchy of humans, though, based on racial categories, and he always put Homo Africanness at the bottom right alongside Homo monstrous and homo ferriz what he considered to be feral and monstrous people. So do you think it goes back to Linnaeus?
ANGELA SAINI Because there were these existing racialized ideas about the world because of colonialism and slavery that became woven into this taxonomic project. So when Linnaeus was creating these quite arbitrary categories in his head because as we know, the human species is one human species, there were no natural subdivisions between us. He was working within what was already a wider project.
ANNALEE NEWITZ So you've written about how scientists and journalists began to talk about Neanderthals in a different way when genetic analysis revealed that they were probably fair skinned with red hair?
ANGELA SAINI Of course, we all all know that the word Neanderthal is not something we purely associate with another species of human. We also use it to describe kind of oafish, stupid man. So there was this widespread assumption that Neanderthals went extinct because they were too stupid. They were like thugs, almost. Even those comparisons that were made between Aboriginal Australians and Neanderthal remains in the 19th century. I think point to this idea that European scientists, North American scientists at that time thought about races in that deeply offensive, destructive way. In the 19th century, one of the very first laws that was passed in Australia was a white Australia policy, and this was about essentially breeding the color out of Australia. Brutally tearing children away from their parents, putting them in care homes where they were often abused or horrible, disgusting things happen to them. This was all justified under this racialized policy that said that this is a group of people that don't have a right to be here, that they're going extinct anyway, and science became part of that project. Now it's become quite clear over the last couple of decades that modern humans mated with Neanderthals, Europeans in particular. When you look at the way in which Neanderthals are now being described in the media. So over the last 10 years or so, suddenly we hear them being rehabilitated. You know, Neanderthals were actually much smarter than we thought they were. They didn't go extinct because they weren't clever enough. It was some other reason. Look how similar to us they are. And that's what I find particularly galling. Is that only, you know, a hundred or so years ago, the supposed similarity between Neanderthals and Aboriginal Australians was used as a justification to draw living modern humans out of the circle of humanity. And now, because we see that Neanderthals have some relationship to modern day Europeans, Neanderthals themselves an extinct species has been thrown into that circle of humanity.
ANNALEE NEWITZ I wonder if you could talk more about the implications of this discovery that in a sense, a lot of us are a hybrid of humans and Neanderthals who were once viewed as as not human.
ANGELA SAINI So there was this quite popular theory, 30-40 years ago, and it's very much discredited, called the multiregional hypothesis, which posited that different races evolved separately on the continents on which they're found. It sounds very 19th century, and it is, and as we know quite categorically, you know, we are all products of the out of Africa expansion. We all evolved into modernity in Africa. But that multi regional hypothesis has to some extent or some degree, I think, been revived with this idea that once we arrived in these various places around the world, that we interbred with other human species that were already there. And maybe that's what gives rise to our racial differences, which I think is nonsensical. But you do see in the literature and in the media, people trying to make those kind of distinctions, which to me smacks sometimes of 19th century pseudoscientific racism.
ANNALEE NEWITZ It really does. And I mean, you've talked about how a lot of the scientific theories ascribed to Neanderthals are basically just reckless speculation. Why do we keep doing this? Why does this keep happening? Why do we keep going back to these 19th century models?
ANGELA SAINI So many of the power structures around us were built from slavery and colonialism, and these beliefs have become so internalized and embedded in the way that we think about each other that we believe them to be biological. We mistake it for nature. We keep coming back to it because we just cannot convince ourselves that it isn't real.
ANNALEE NEWITZ So you've talked about the multi regional hypothesis, and I wonder if there are any other examples of the scientific speculation about Neanderthals that you consider to be equally absurd.
ANGELA SAINI You know, one thing I did find really interesting was during the COVID-19 pandemic, which for me was just chock full of very weird racial speculation. You know, as soon as we saw ethnic minority disparities in health – people, even experts, you know, people who should know better began immediately entering into racialized speculation about what they were seeing. We saw a number of scientists looking into the possibility that Neanderthal genes, and I put that in quotation marks. You can't see me doing that because I can is somehow responsible for why some people were more kind of protected to the virus than others. And it was suspect even at the time, because there were so many complex reasons why people are exposed to a virus and why they catch it. Within families, you see such differences in how people respond. And yet that did look to me again as an attempt to reinforce this theory that there are some fundamental genetic differences between big population groups. Now, since then, what further study has shown that these so-called Neanderthal genes, which people talked about conferring special protection on certain people, they're not necessarily Neanderthal genes and that galaxy of protection that people have is actually quite well distributed everywhere. It's not as though some continents have been spared, everyone's been hit.
ANNALEE NEWITZ So where do you see Neanderthals showing up in contemporary debates and conflicts over race? It seems like an odd figure to be showing up. And yet we see it happening.
ANGELA SAINI I've spent quite a few years now doing what I do not recommend anyone else does, which is spending a lot of time online looking at what scientific racists say and do. And reading their publications. They are always on the hunt for whatever within the sciences will support their racialised theories. And what they're essentially trying to do is prove that race is biologically real, that there are fundamental psychological, behavioral intellectual differences between racial groups that can explain racial inequality in a society like the United States.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Fringey groups are arguing that Neanderthals are kind of the great white ancestor.
ANGELA SAINI Not, no, not in those terms, but they're always on the lookout for scientific proof of white superiority and difference. There's very little genetic evidence to support this idea. That race is biologically real. We are one of the most homogeneous species on the planet. I mean, we are more homogeneous than chimpanzees. There's more genetic diversity among chimpanzees than there is among humans. More than 90 percent of the differences between people are not between population groups that between one person to the next. So what they're trying to do is find something that will support this idea that Europeans are somehow genetically exceptional. You know, the genes associated with lactose intolerance are distributed unevenly around the world. Europeans in some regions and again, this goes up and down because there are many Europeans are intolerant to milk. But far right wingers have leapt upon this idea that tolerance to milk is one of their special racial qualities that they have. They're really reaching. I mean, you have to work very hard these days to be a scientific racist, but they will look for absolutely anything.
ANNALEE NEWITZ I wonder if you could leave us with some guidelines. How would you like scientists to be talking about Neanderthals so that they don't feed into these racial myths?
ANGELA SAINI What I would really love is for scientists to be educated about the history of the sciences, more so that they understand the mistakes that were made in the past around race science, eugenics, the ways in which scientists entered into speculation that was completely illegitimate and pseudoscientific, and the risks of doing that again now. One of the things that I think is a tragedy really is that when you're trained in the sciences or engineering and I studied engineering myself, we get very little exposure to the politics that is embedded within scientific history. Less mistakes would be made if scientists had a much broader understanding of their own fields.
ANNALEE NEWITZ What does that sound like as someone who is listening to a scientist or say, reading something that a scientist has written? How would you want them to explain it so that I, as the naive reader, don't come away from what they've said, thinking, Oh, so it turns out there's different subspecies of humanity.
ANGELA SAINI But when we explain things and put them in context, I think that's much better. And also hold their hands up to the racist assumptions of past. I don't think there's any doubt that the way scientists talk about Neanderthals now is sometimes also tinged with race and racism. Is there enough introspection about that? I would say no, because it's only in hindsight in my experience that researchers of the hold up their hands and say, Yes, we were biased.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Thank you so much for joining us today, Angela.
ANGELA SAINI It's been my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Angela Saini is the science journalist and author. Her latest book Is Superior: The Return of Race Science.
ANNALEE NEWITZ The most pernicious myth about Neanderthals is actually something you hear all the time about humans. The idea that some groups of us are destined to die out because we're inferior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It comes back to that question of why the Neanderthals disappeared. There's lots of theories. First, of course, is that we just killed them all. Or maybe the rapidly changing climate killed them. Or maybe their social groups were so small they couldn't get enough genetic variety, which weakened them? Or maybe we simply absorbed them.
ANNALEE NEWITZ If you look at how long they lived, and how they lived, it's impossible to say that they failed. In fact, they live on in our DNA, in your DNA.
BROOKE GLADSTONE My two and a half percent!
ANNALEE NEWITZ Yes. Long live the Neanderthals and all our hominin sisters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Eli Cohen. Thanks for all your help, Eli – this is his last week. With help from Aki Camargo. Xandra Ellin writes our fabulous newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Thank you. Annalee Newitz!
ANNALEE NEWITZ Thank you so much, Brooke. It's always great to hang out with a fellow hominin.