In this Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014 file photo, visitors take pictures of models representing Flores, human and Neanderthal women in the "Musee des Confluences", a museum in Lyon, France.
( Laurent Cipriani
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 about 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.