By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 15/09/06):
The remains of a neanderthal settlement have been found on the Rock of Gibraltar, carbon-dated to just 24,000 years ago. This is 10,000 years later than the last known remains and, according to the rampant neanderthal lobby, brings these lovable people almost to the present day. It proves to those who have championed their cause that every discovery about neanderthals has them surviving longer than was previously thought.
The latest issue of Nature describes primitive stone tools and wood fires in Gorham’s cave on the side of the Rock. The wonders of modern archaeology reveal roughly a dozen people living in a cave near a stream three miles inland from the sea. This being the ice age, the sea level was then 100 metres lower and hunting grounds were plentiful. The Gibraltar Museum’s Clive Finlayson speaks of a “Mediterranean Serengeti” of leopards, hyenas and deer. In the cave were stone spears, knifes and scrapers. One was so sharp, said Finlayson, that “it drew blood”. (He should have that seen to, given Lord Carnarvon’s fate after cutting himself when he opened Tutankhamun’s tomb.)
Neanderthals were the original Europeans, occupying the continent for what now appears to have been 300,000 years. They take their name from the Neander valley in Germany, where remains were first discovered in 1856. They used to be regarded as the missing link between chimps and Homo sapiens, but are now recognised as one of many genetic blind alleys, stretching far back over half a million years yet surviving some 10,000 years after the arrival in northern climes of Homo sapiens from its African homeland. The reason for their eventual disappearance remains obscure, especially as other proto-humans, for instance in the far east, may have bred with Homo sapiens.
The usual explanation is that the neanderthal could not handle climate change and competition for food with the more intelligent and better armed cro-magnon man, as European Homo sapiens is known. Other suggestions are conquest or disease, as when the early settlers of America clashed with Europeans in the 16th century. The neanderthal pundit Chris Stringer, of the National History Museum, concludes only that they vanished because “different things happened in different regions”.
As for why neanderthals did not breed with the cleverer newcomers, given their common ancestry, I like the explanation given by Jared Diamond in The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee. Diamond is a stickler for the aesthetics of evolution. Any self-respecting cro-magnon, he suggests, on taking one look at a neanderthal woman, would have run straight back to Africa. As proof he adds: “Although humans and chimps continue to coexist, I am not aware of any matings.” Neanderthals are also said to have lacked a talent for innovation and grammatical speech, though that has never seemed an insuperable obstacle to sex.
Last month’s conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science amounted to a neanderthal love-in. Speaker after speaker trumpeted the achievements of these people. They were clearly well adapted to the great ice age and survived subsequent warming. They manufactured axes, made jewellery, used red body paint and chose the best cuts of mammoth meat. They are thought to have carried their babies for a year rather than nine months, thus giving them a racing start at playschool. They could fashion tools and use fire. They did not waste time on art or politics but could turn out a delicious tortoise with mussels in pistachio sauce (a dish doubtless to be replicated in an Islington eaterie).
There is also increasing evidence of the coexistence of neanderthals and cro-magnons. In many sites there is evidence that the two groups may have cohabited, and, despite what Diamond says, a recent child skeleton found in Lagar Velho, in Portugal, is believed to be a hybrid. In other words, old jokes about neanderthals surviving in the British Museum reading room, the Harlequins back row and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, are plausible – and need not be abusive.
The one element in yesterday’s news with which a layman might quarrel is the statement by the Guardian’s science correspondent that it “marks more clearly than ever before the time of death of our closest relative and completes one of the most dramatic chapters in human evolution”. Such finality seems to me a denial of the scientific enterprise. Writing 15 years ago, Diamond declared that “the end was abrupt: the last neanderthals died around 40,000 years ago”. Already they have been shown to exist 15,000 years later. Who knows what discoveries are yet to come? While I accept that primitive life enjoys a strange longevity in the region of the Costa del Sol, someone will find later remains elsewhere and again “rewrite the story of our ancestors”.
Two sciences are now racing neck and neck across this landscape, anthropology and genetics. The extraction of 150,000-year-old DNA from a neanderthal bone, as Richard Dawkins points out in his Ancestor’s Tale, allows a reading but not a cloning of these people. But the absence of known neanderthal DNA in humans does not mean that none will be found. “If only one neanderthal male bred into a sapiens population,” said Dawkins, “that gave him a reasonable chance of being a common ancestor to all Europeans alive today”. As DNA is retrieved in ever greater quantities, geneticists will delve deeper into these mysteries and neanderthals will start cropping up all over the place.
Nothing in the wonder of science is as intriguing as this. The archaeologist Martin Jones concludes in The Molecule Hunt that from the jumble of false starts at humankind half a million years ago, the neanderthals emerged, as did we, as “finite components of a natural world that is changing and ephemeral”. They were adapted to the frozen north and ceded to Homo sapiens only when the latter brought new skills relevant to new conditions. Those conditions may change again.
The difference is that Homo sapiens has bred scientists, who know how to destroy the planet and collapse civilisation and, by association, know how to prevent it. One day they may yet find in the remains of the neanderthals some genetic fragment that can be put to good use in enabling Homo sapiens to resist the fate that attended them. There is nothing about the past, however distant, that is without lessons. When Europe ceases to be temperate and when heating and air conditioning again become luxuries, we may find new comforts in those Gibraltar caves.
Change is unceasing. I am told that the thumbs of modern children are evolving into ordinary fingers. As their speech reverts to grammar-free neanderthal grunts, their preferred form of communication is the text message, requiring a new digital dexterity. As we slither back down the evolutionary chain we would do well to know where we are heading.