Neanderthals: so close and yet so far

For me, Neanderthals are a little bit like sabertooth cats: an example of a powerful, superbly adapted organism, from which we could learn a lot, but which disappeared from the Earth just a moment too early (geologically speaking). Like the sabertooths, Neanderthals were considered for many years (by both scientists and the general public) like brutish, inferior creatures which almost deserved to become extinct, their place to be taken by faster, cleverer species (modern cats in the case of the sabertooth, modern humans in the case of Neanderthals). But now as we humans get an ever more acute sense of loss in the face of the vanishing natural world, there is a perception that newer is not always better, and also that sometimes there is as much to learn from the loser as there is from the winner. After all, in the long term all species are destined to extinction and thus no one wins forever.

My depiction of a Mediterranean Neanderthal with some body ornamentation.
retrato neander-anuncio

In this portrait of a Neanderthal in his prime, I incorporated information about body ornaments and self decoration which add to a growing perception of previously unsuspected cultural sophistication in these fossil humans. But besides the scientific data, I am aware that there is a subjective aspect to this rendering, an intention to reflect a sense of dignity. But I am not ashamed of that. Regardless of their cultural or technological sophistication, I see each species of extinct hominid as a finished product of evolution, not as a less perfect attempt at humanity. Just as sabertooths were not failed attempts at being a modern cat. Failed attempts, after all, could never become species.

Another depiction of Neanderthals. Here I incorporated evidence about how they could have cooked vegetal food for consumption.

Posted on 08/02/2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Needless to say, your illustrations are as gorgeus as ever. However I have an objection to the reconstruction. I think it seems too similar to Homo sapiens.
    I agree that Neanderhals were culturally as developed as Middle Stone Age people in Africa, but I would expect two closely related species to show more evident external differences. We know that they coexisted for long periods of times (in the Middle East for instance), yet did mantain reproductive isolation (nevermind the limited hybridization which is supposed by some). We know that males of our species have secundary sexual character, like beard. These characters are often the easiest way to discriminate between closely related species, and to help individuals of one species to find unattractive those of the others and “respect” specific boundaries.
    Female Neanderthals are reconstructed as quite ugly, from our point of view. Your prime male Neanderthal is not different and not less attractive than a regular male Sapiens. How could a Sapiens woman know she’s not supposed to mate with him? I think male Neanderthals should have evident characters (or lack characters present in Sapiens) which would show a Sapiens female that they belong to another species. For example, a different looking beard.

    I would like your opinion very much! Thank you

    • Interesting thoughts, MartiniP! When reconstructing Neanderthals, my primary concern is to be absolutely faithful to osteological information. For external characters such as the beard we have no physical evidence, so any decision we make concerning those attributes in our reconstructions only reflects subjective opinions. For instance, a few years ago the leading opinion among paleoanthropologists was that there had never been any genetic exchange between Neanderthals and modern humans, but now there is more and more evidence that such exchange did occur, so it is possible that members of one group did not see members of the other as so utterly unattractive.
      At any rate, the main reason why I did not invent any external feature that would make the male Neanderthal unattractive is because I feel utterly uncomfortable inventing features for which there is no fossil evidence. Maybe they had a different pattern of facial hair, and if one day there appears some evidence indicating that, I will be happy to incorporate it to my reconstructions. In the meantime, reflecting their osteological features correctly is my main concern.

      • I see, you prefer to take a more conservative approach than what I’m suggesting.
        However the non-osteological characters are not simply subjective opinions, but rather educated guesses. I think that making Neanderthal facial hair somehow different from Sapiens is not less scientific than, say, giving Smilodon a spotted coat or Phlaocyon a facial mask: it may be wrong but there are reasons to think so.
        (About genetic exchange, I am not against the idea, but I’m waiting for an independent confirm from another research group before accepting such strong conclusions, unless I missed it in the last two years. I feel the same about “Denisovans”.)

        Thank you very much for the answer! Keep being the most amazing paleoartist out there!

      • I strongly support the idea of Neanderthals as a subspecies of Homo sapiens and I consider that the representations are very good. European populations show different genetic variants that other Homo sapiens sapiens populations and can be explained by the mixing of the neanderthalensis populations with the sapiens one.

        For example, these pictures are very similar to some Basque people. Stop joking, different scientifics consider that the different hominids are not different species, they are the same chronospecies.

  2. Sheila Collins

    Amazingly realistic, as always! I’ve heard it said that, if a Neandertal human were shaved, dressed in a suit, and put on a city bus, you’d be unlikely to be able to distinguish him from any of the dozens of Homo sapiens commuters. I would think that, living during times of intense cold as they did, Neandertal may have had more body hair, or perhaps even a seasonal shed cycle like many modern mammals. But in the Mediterranean region, especially during warm weather, it’s very reasonable to suppose a hunter would look like your man.

    I had a bit more of a stretch thinking of Neandertal people with cut & sewn clothing; the usual depiction being people with roughly worked hides thrown over their bodies. But on second thought, why wouldn’t they have sewn clothing? We know that they made ornaments for themselves. Surely a couple hundred thousand years of cultural development, during some of the most intense Ice Ages the earth has ever seen, would have been time enough to have developed clothing, as well as body art. Perhaps even tattoos, although we’ll probably never know that for sure.

    In the case of Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples, it often turns out that the more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t know. There’s no reason to suppose that these people, who flourished for many millennia, had not developed many different cultures, much as, say, native Americans, Africans, or Australians did. Perhaps there were even races within the larger population of Neandertal; that would be difficult to ascertain from the relatively few fossils that turn up, though.

    I prefer to imagine Neandertal people as multifaceted people, similar to but somewhat different from our own species. Like these 🙂 .

  3. Great work, Mauricio! I, for one, like your reconstructions a lot, without reservations expressed by others. Foreheads are low. Brow ridges are pronounced–but not too much. No wonder ancient humans found them attractive! Regarding clothing and cooking, you might consider looking into the still-existing cultures of Northwest Native Americans for ideas. One rather astonishing example is the cooking box. Makahs, and others on the Pacific coast, made square cedar boxes in such a way that when they were soaked with water, the seams swelled and did not leak. Very simple and ingenious. Then, they heated fist-sized stones (and still do, sometimes) in the coals of a fire and dropped them into the water with food, to make it boil. Another simple idea was to wrap food in green leaves of ferns and skunk cabbage and place it within the fire’s coals to steam meats and vegetables. These practices still exist at Neah Bay (which I researched for my novel, The Neah Virus) although most of their cooking now happens on a stove. Other tribes simply made a “bowl” shape from an animal hide set in a pit, added water, and then food and hot stones. Most amazing, are the cooking pots at Kettle Falls. They used no wood, no hide at all. There were round holes in the bedrock near the waterfalls where they caught salmon. They simply put food, water, and hot stones into the natural kettles that existed there. Nowadays, a hydroelectric dam has submerged them.

  1. Pingback: Lots ‘o’ Links: Thesis and Spring Break Edition February 7-March 14 2014 | Scientia and Veritas

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