The changing image of Neanderthals makes me laugh. You see, we have yet another prejudice called Presentism-the conviction that we are the epitome of humankind and our ancestors were ugly, dirty, and to paraphrase a certain philosopher, “nasty, brutish and short.”
Years ago, Neanderthals were depicted by scientists as hairy and apelike, with scraggly hair and dirty faces. Even as a kid I wondered how they knew from skeletons how much hair they had and what their personal hygiene was like. This is an example of Presentism in action. Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago, the natural victims of the more advanced modern humans. They thought.
As it turns out, they live on in the DNA of some Europeans, so while there is evidence that they made love, there is none that they made war. Why assume they were conquered and exterminated? Well, it fit with the justification for imperialism. Less evolved humanoids will naturally be exterminated by more advanced humanoids-can’t be helped so tally ho, let’s get on with it.
Why assume they were dirty, hairy brutes? For one thing, creating disgust for the “more primitive” is a cautionary tale. If you don’t 1) work hard 2) honor the king 3) breed within your race/class humanity will descend to the level of the dirty, hairy primitives. As it turns out, Neanderthals had larger brains than we do, some had red hair and at least some had blue eyes!
Having spent years as a portrait artist, I scan faces without thinking much about it; skull shape, bridge of nose, brow line. I wonder if plastic surgeons do this; walk through the mall and think “tummy tuck, breast implants, face lift.”
I was watching a documentary on paleolithic humans and the woman scientist said, “Eeeow, I could never mate with a Neanderthal.” Today I saw this model, scanned his face and thought, “Neanderthal!” I most certainly do not mean this as an insult. I always thought some Neanderthals must be hotties.
The archaeologists themselves claim that it took 4,500 calories a day for a Neanderthal to survive, that means he weighed about 400 lbs. About 5’5″, his rib cage tapered outward toward his midsection. If he ever wore pants, his belt size would be 75in. His eyes were in the middle of his forehead, and his skull jutted over his neck like a balcony overhanging the entrance of a building. Oh one more thing-in 5 of the 7 largest Neanderthal finds, we see evidence of cannibalism. Yep, they were real charmers.
And other scientists have found other things about them. During the golden age of imperialism, the idea that northern Europeans were the epitome of evolution and others were primitive and stupid and needed the imperialist’s “help,” Neanderthals were portrayed as gorilla-like. This has been greatly revised. The cannibalism thing is flimsy evidence, but it seems a certain jihadi madman in 2013 ate the heart of his victim on camera-so there you go. We’ve come a long way, baby.