What’s a Neanderthal Got To Do, To Get Some Respect?

We have already established that Neanderthals intermarried with “modern humans.” This seems to suggest that they were, in fact, human. But apparently, the debate rages on.

This Smithsonian article about eagle talon jewelry poses the question,

“Did our extinct cousins engage in symbolic activities, like making art and decorating their bodies, that we’ve long believed were uniquely human?”

“Chatelperronion artifacts, including stone tools and tiny beads, have been linked with Neanderthals in southwestern France and northern Spain.” It seems as if “tiny beads” would be trickier to make than eagle talon jewelry. Yet, the idea that Neanderthals engaged in “symbolic thinking” remains “extremely controversial.” It seems that there is a rather high bar that Neanderthal art will have to vault in order to convince their modern descendants that they were, in fact, people. Their art hasn’t passed that bar yet … at least, not among the tiny number of examples that the millennia have allowed to be preserved.

9 thoughts on “What’s a Neanderthal Got To Do, To Get Some Respect?

  1. Em @ The Geeky Jock

    I’m sure there are probably geneticists wth their opinions out there 🙂 But, presumably, then if two critters can interbreed and create viable and fertile offspring, then it supports the argument that they’re the same species. (One of the reasons that dogs and wolves are sometimes considered sub-species of Canis lupus.) It’ll be interesting to see where this goes in the next few years!

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  2. Benjamin Ledford

    Interesting. I recently listened to a Hugh Ross lecture on human origins and he posits that Neanderthals and other hominoids were non human, and that humans were specially created and not descended from them (though, apparently there was indeed interbreeding).

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    1. Well, I’ll have to watch the video, but based on your summary that doesn’t make any sense. We were specially created, thus not related to them, but then we interbred with them? I tend to go the other way, and give all supposedly non-human “hominids” the benefit of the doubt. I think this whole category of non-human hominid was basically invented to support an evolution-of-man picture of reality … so if you’re going to say that humans were specially created, then you don’t need to exclude other hominids from humanity.

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      1. Benjamin Ledford

        Well, you’ll have to watch and see what you think. I don’t have a particularly strong position either way. Prior to watching Ross’s lecture I would have tended to the same view you seem to have – that these are all just people of various shapes and sizes – but now I would be inclined to adopt his view. This isn’t my field though, so I’m probably easily swayed. I did get really excited about his proposal for the location of Eden though. He convinced me on that one.

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      2. OK, I just watched 1:10 of it. I am partway through the questions.

        Sooo much to say about this video! It is really fascinating. Thank you for embedding it.

        I think he presents a very plausible scenario. Especially about the location of Eden, although his argument is somewhat circular. He assumes a ballpark date for Eden (after continental drift), which allows him to assume that the Gihon and Pishon rivers will still be in the same general part of the world that they were and still relatively near the modern-day Tigris and Euphrates. Then he uses the location of two ancient rivers he’s identified as the Gihon and Pishon, to fix the date of Eden around the end of the last Ice Age. It’s quite possible. It could also be that Eden was well before that, there was a whole mythological age of the world, then a series of disasters associated with end of the last Ice Age, culminating in the Flood. That’s the model my books follow. Of course, it is all 100% speculation.

        I do think there are several areas where his B.S. detector needs a tune-up.

        First, he uncritically accepts dates rendered by carbon dating, even though it is all dead reckoning. He also accepts dates given by anthropologists for when these different hominids lived, even though those dates are dead reckoning based on assumptions about carbon, rates of human evolution, and rates of genetic decay. (Even though later, he debunks some of that with the example of the single pair of sheep yielding much more genetic diversity than predicted.)

        Second, he accepts the assertions in the literature that “we see no evidence of symbolic thinking among Neanderthals.” That is controversial, as the link in this post shows. And how in the world can you prove lack of symbolic thinking? There are plenty of people groups alive today who are not leaving a lot of art or literature or anything that would convince an anthropologist that they were capable of language. He also accepts the baseless assertion that “Neanderthals did not wear clothes.” Huh? How in the world would we know? If Neanderthals are as old as he thinks, it’s unlikely their clothing would have survived, especially in cold damp climates.

        Third, he accepts uncritically the idea that brain shape and size can tell us what kind of thinking a creature was capable of. I’m not sure I buy in to that. Some animals have much bigger brains than we do, and we might conclude they had much more advanced civilizations if all we had to go on were their skulls and ours.

        Finally, there is the idea that the difference between our nucleotides and Neanderthals’ proves that we are different species. Again, not so sure. Alternative theory: the reason modern humans’ nucleotides are all so similar is not just because we are all one species, but because we are all one big family. Neanderthals (and Denisovans, and some of these other “hominids”) could have been just as human as we are, but not members of the one family that survived the Flood. The idea is that there was a lot more genetic diversity in the human population before the bottleneck created by the Flood.

        I really enjoyed the video. It is right up my alley. Thanks.

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      3. Benjamin Ledford

        It’s true that for the location of Eden he assumes that the rivers were in the same place that they are today, and that they’re the same rivers. I have always assumed that they must be referring to different rivers/regions with the same names, because there’s no way to get a river flowing from Cush to join with the Tigris and Euphrates. But that always bothered me because it seems like Moses, in writing Genesis, assumes that his readers know the places he’s talking about, and it would be very strange to use the names of familiar places to describe *other* unfamiliar places, without specifying that you don’t mean what it sounds like you mean. This was the first proposal I’ve heard that actually provided a plausible connection between the Tigris, the Euphrates, and a river flowing from Cush. I do want to know if there is any other indication that the mountains of Havilah refers to central Arabia or if that is just an assumption.

        Regarding human origins, I think it’s probably not fair to describe Ross as “uncritically” accepting various theories or conclusions. He is clearly not afraid to question or reject widely accepted views (as is obvious from his rejection of evolution/common descent), and I don’t know that he’s ever done anything uncritically in his life. 😉

        As far as Neanderthals go, it’s hard to say, as the evidence is just so scant. If they were not humans then clearly they were very advanced and intelligent creatures, much more so than any we can observe today. On the other hand if they were the same as us then they didn’t leave much evidence of the fact. I followed your links (and some links in the links) and tried to get a sense of what is actually found in these studies, and it’s not much.

        The eagle talon jewelry means eagle talons with notable scratch marks. So they could have been scratching them to try shape them into jewelry, I suppose. Or anything else. And I guess I don’t find scratching eagle talons to be all that impressive as a cultural achievement. The burial rituals are that in one burial pit site there are Neanderthal bones and other animal bones in the same layer, but the Neanderthal bones show much less evidence of being chewed on, implying that they were covered more quickly. So maybe they buried their dead. I guess that’s possible. It’s pretty thin as far as “evidence” goes, though. The tiny beads come from the period and in a part of the world where Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted, so it’s possible that they made the beads on their own, but it’s equally possible that they learned it from humans, or that they even got them from humans. It’s possible that all these are faint echos of a much higher level of development that we can’t see, but it’s also possible that they’re nothing at all.

        I agree, there’s no way to prove that they didn’t engage in symbolic thinking, or to ascertain their level of communication, or to say whether or not they wore clothes. We can’t say that they weren’t spiritual beings (“We found a Neanderthal skeleton and it has no soul”). However, if we want to ascribe these characteristics to them, we just have to imagine them. Even the physical evidence requires some imagination to point in that direction.

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      4. Ha ha, yeah, true. It’s unfair to say Hugh Ross is “uncritical” when he’s been thinking about this stuff his entire life. I just don’t get why, if he rejects human evolution, he has to accept the word of experts on all these “sub-human hominids,” when the only reason the concept of sub-human hominid was invented, was to create a progression from apes to humans to prove human evolution. If that framework had never existed, then I think that when people found Neanderthal skeletons they would have just said to themselves, “Well, here’s a weird-looking human.”

        You are very right that when it comes to really ancient archaeology, there are very few signs of anything and even those have to treated with quite a bit of imagination and interpretation. The problem is that, in a field where what has been preserved is pretty much up to chance, too often the absence of something is treated as proof that it never existed. We start with the assumption that ancient people had nothing (no fire, no language, no religion) and we have to find some undeniable physical indication before we’ll admit that they had it. (And this is not just a problem with Neanderthals.) But I don’t see any reason, when we find something that looks like a human, to start with the assumption that it was actually a curiously human-shaped animal.

        For example, If Neanderthals “learned” how to make tiny beads from modern humans, doesn’t that make them human? I mean, what other animal is interested in, or capable of, making tiny beads?

        Anyway. I’ll get off my soapbox. It appears that I am moments away from starting an ACLU for Neanderthals.

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