What doomed the Neanderthal?

A new book investigates how our ancestors beat out their subdued rivals -- and won the battle for survival

Published June 4, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

"Cro-Magnon," by Brian Fagan
"Cro-Magnon," by Brian Fagan

Surely one of the greatest of great stories is mankind's own story, from its remote and far-distant beginnings to the last hundred thousand years or so, during which modern humans emerged from the broiling mists of hominid evolution and began their conquest of earth.

If the story of human origins is epic, so too is the study of them, for it constitutes an amazingly ingenious science in which molecular biology, palaeoclimatology, comparative anatomy, anthropology, geology, and physics combine into a remarkable detective endeavour whose practitioners can read whole books of information in chipped flints, fragments of skeletons, and fossilized faeces. Despite this, it remains true that the history of human origins is a mountain of theory constructed out of a small pile of bones and stones, with the result that everything one reads on the subject is vulnerable to sudden confusions and doubts as soon as new bones and stones -- or genetic data -- come to light.

Barnes & Noble ReviewJust such an overtaking-by-events affects Brian Fagan's otherwise highly entertaining and instructive "Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans." While his book was in press, discoveries occurred which at least complicate the picture Fagan paints. That picture is the until-lately familiar one in which Europe was, for at least a hundred and thirty thousand years, the home of Neanderthal Man, a human type which vanished around thirty thousand years ago, less than twenty thousand years after the arrival from Africa of modern human beings -- variously known as "anatomically modern humans," "homo sapiens sapiens," and "Cro-Magnon Man" (this latter after an archaeological site where definitive examples of the type were found). There is no conclusive evidence that Cro-Magnons displaced Neanderthals by violent means, and received wisdom has hitherto been that the two populations did not much interact and certainly did not mingle. The puzzling question therefore is why Neanderthals died out so quickly after Cro-Magnons  arrived, leaving Cro-Magnons to flourish ever since in unrivalled mastery of the planet.

One of the aims of Fagan's book is to examine this mystery, and his basic thesis is that Cro-Magnons, whose tools and cave art show that they were far smarter and vastly more adaptable than Neanderthals, were able to withstand the Ice Age then engulfing Europe, whereas the developmental stasis of the Neanderthals made them unable to cope.

The very terms of the debate as addressed by Fagan have, however, been changed by the discoveries announced while his pages were in press. One is the finding of a little finger bone in a cave in southern Siberia, whose DNA is that of a female hominid neither Neanderthal nor Cro-Magnon, and whose owner lived between thirty and fifty thousand years ago. That long-ago female of an apparently third human type is now known as X-woman.

An equally significant discovery, made this year by Svante Pääbo's team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, is that between one and four per cent of modern human DNA is Neanderthal. Modern Africans share no DNA with Neanderthals. This is a preliminary result from the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, about sixty per cent of which, at time of this writing, has been described. If the finding is correct it means Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals indulged in a certain amount of interbreeding after the former's arrival in the latter's territory. (Pääbo was among those who earlier showed that Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans diverged genetically about half a million years ago.)

There might be mathematical reasons why the Pääbo observations are incorrect, adding to scepticism about whether they overturn earlier comparisons of mitochondrial DNA apparently confirming that Neanderthals and modern humans kept strictly to themselves. But other bits of evidence are coming to the Pääbo team's aid: for example, the thirty thousand-year-old teeth of a modern human child found at Abrigo do Lagar Velho in Portugal which have Neanderthal characteristics.

Add the discovery made in 2003 of Flores Man, the pygmy humans of Indonesia who seem to have lived until about thirteen thousand years ago, and the picture of human evolution becomes a much more complicated one. It might be that a mere twenty thousand years before the agricultural revolution in the Middle East, at least four types of humans co-existed and occasionally mingled, suggesting an exciting possibility: that the agricultural revolution and the solo inheritance of the earth by modern humans have a related cause. Recent examples of meetings between long-separated human groups -- between Europeans and the populations of America and Africa over the last five centuries -- suggest a further and, to me, very persuasive possibility: that Neanderthals, X-woman people and "homo floresiensis" vanished because they were not immune to diseases carried by modern humans.

Nothing is straightforward in this debate: some studies show that the Neanderthal population of Europe was always tiny, containing a maximum of only 3,500 females in the whole of the continent at any one time between thirty-five thousand and seventy thousand years ago, thus making it a very fragile group already on the brink of extinction. The arrival of modern man might therefore have had little or nothing to do with their disappearance -- or conversely might indeed have been the final straw, if the groups competed for resources or if the disease hypothesis stands. On the other hand, there is suggestive evidence, published in the Journal of Anthropological Science in May 2009, that modern humans butchered Neanderthals and made necklaces from their teeth; modern human flint tool marks on Neanderthal bones provoke chilling speculations.

In essentials the story Fagan tells is the until-lately orthodox one of non-mingling between Neanderthals and moderns, and part of his account of the former's disappearance is premised on the claim that while modern humans had a powerful and flexible symbol-using intelligence, Neanderthals remained culturally inert, scarcely changing their tools or way of life over the hundred thousand years plus of their possession of Europe; and that this inflexibility doomed them when new environmental challenges arose, perhaps including competition from the moderns.

In his graphic and imaginative reconstructions of life in Ice Age Europe around thirty-five thousand years ago, Fagan portrays Neanderthals as quiet, watchful folk observing the more extroverted moderns from afar, encounters between the two populations being at most intermittent and distant. Both this scenario and the book's argument are announced together on the first page: "A weathered, hirsute face with heavy brows stares out quietly from the undergrowth," Fagan writes, imagining a group of moderns sighting a Neanderthal on the other side of a river; "Expressionless, yet watchful, its Neanderthal owner stands motionless, seemingly oblivious to the cold. The [modern] father looks across, waves his spear, and shrugs. The face vanishes as silently as it appeared."

As it happens, the idea that Neanderthals were culturally inert and had little symbolic imagination has been called into question lately, too; in Spanish caves occupied fifty thousand years ago (ten thousand years before modern man arrived in Europe) paleoanthropolgists in a team led by Joao Zilhao found shells and bones symmetrically perforated and painted, implying use as ornaments. But though this enriches speculation about Neanderthals, it does not subvert this aspect of Fagan's thesis, because the distance of Cro-Magnon cultural superiority over painted shells is measurable in light-years. The implication of Fagan's thesis is that Cro-Magnons flourished in climatic conditions that extinguished Neanderthals precisely because of their sophistication, and this remains plausible even if there were encounters between some Cro-Magnons and some Neanderthals that were culinary, sexual, or both.

Though the recent discoveries mentioned complicate matters for Fagan's account, he does an admirable job in bringing vividly to life the Europe of between eighty and ten thousand years ago. His reconstructions are eloquent in  their inventiveness:

Western Europe, early summer, seventy thousand years ago. The bison graze peacefully in a forest clearing, knee-deep in the lush grass of the water meadow…Two young Neanderthals watch the solitary bison from close down-wind, hugging the ground under the trees. They carry stout wooden spears with stone points and are naked, so that they can move quickly and in stealth…

Fagan's imaginative leaps on the question of contact and avoidance between moderns and Neanderthals are aided by studies of relations between surviving hunter-gatherer communities such as the San of Southern Africa, and their neighbours the farming Lala. The San and Lala distrust each other, do not understand each other's language, and generally keep to their own ways of life; but they use signs and gestures to trade at times. In Fagan's view this could be a model for occasional Neanderthal-modern encounters. It is just this picture, though, that recent discoveries apparently upset.

What they do not upset is the key to Fagan's thesis about what explains the modern human superiority to the Neanderthals, namely, the "heightened consciousness" that he believes led them to conceive of "supernatural realms." The cave art of Lascaux, the ivory Hohle Fels flutes dating to thirty-five thousand years ago, the voluptuous female figurines from the same place, the beautiful Lion Man sculpture that forms a high point of Aurignacian art, testify to an advanced sensibility, and Fagan is surely right to attribute to it "the fundamental difference between the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals, and one that probably caused [the Cro-Magnons] to perceive their neighbours as inferior, probably as little more than animals." And this superiority lay in the Cro-Magnon's "ability to conjure up mental images and manipulate [them]." Of course for survival -- a matter somewhat more important than snobbery -- the Cro-Magnon's social, organizational, and communicative complexity was surely the truly crucial thing; it is in organisation that a species whose chief adaptation is intelligence rather than fangs and furs finds its best chance of survival.

Fagan follows a distinguished tradition in just assuming that the art and artifacts of the Cro-Magnons imply religion. He talks of Cro-Magnons "conceiving a supernatural realm." I think the unhappy turn in human affairs that involves such conceiving is a late phenomenon. It is far more likely that for the Cro-Magnons, the forces and agencies which need to be engaged with, communicated with, represented, mimicked, feared, or used, were entirely natural -- part of nature, not beyond or above it -- and their view of it was most likely a projection from their own felt capacity as agents, together with anthropomorphizing projections of their own needs and interests. That this is almost certainly so is inferable from the known "religions" of those who predate the supernaturalistic religions of the last three thousand years -- successively Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- with their monarchical and tribal conceptions of deity as something that inhabits realms outside the natural world. The earlier "religion" was animistic, meaning that people saw trees, streams, and rocks as living things like themselves, but of different habits and outlooks, some of whom needed to be cajoled or propitiated -- such cajoling being a form, therefore, of technology -- to get them to (say) yield the rain or avoid the flood, come into fruit, help cure disease, and so usefully on.

Some of the art of Cro-Magnon peoples is indeed breathtaking -- those cave paintings especially -- and the effort of producing them, together with their mysterious location deep in cave systems, makes it easy to imagine that they had highly significant mystical meaning. But perhaps they did not: perhaps caves were secure places safe from the art-eroding action of weather, and were chosen to serve rather as art galleries now do, as places of repository for works worth preserving, to be enjoyed by firelight away from beasts and cold, as visual aids for storytelling perhaps -- the figures seeming to move as the firelight flickers: proto-television. Is that harder to imagine than that our ancestors saw the rock-face as the membrane separating profane and sacred worlds?

In any case, it is hard to see why a propensity to religion would protect the Cro-Magnons against the Ice Age better than it protected the Neanderthals. Complex social organisation, foresight, skill, and language would certainly do this, and the Cro-Magnons had more of all these things than the Neanderthals did. The virtual lack of development in Neanderthal technology over a hundred thousand years suggests poor communication and poor imitation skills; to go extinct rather than to change in the face of new challenges even more potently denotes lack of both imagination and cognitive power. Manifestly, the Cro-Magnons lacked neither; and they are here -- for we are they -- today.

So: Fagan's book has been overtaken by the onward progress of his science -- this happens to lots of such books -- and there are aspects of his case that invite debate. But it is an admirable book nevertheless; the re-imagining of the past is entertainingly done, and a great deal of science, especially climate science, is accessibly introduced on the way. The reconstructions, like the remarks about religion, sometimes smack of retrospective "reading-in," as when we are given a strangely familiar picture of a modern nuclear family in an unexpected place: "Moravia, late winter, twenty-nine thousand years ago. The twelve-year-old boy sits listlessly by the hearth…he has spent the day setting fox traps with his father…the boy's mother takes a practised look at him, and reaches for her precious cache of reindeer fat [which she melts as a treat for him to eat]…" Cue music. But one learns a great deal of pre-history in the process. Fagan takes us from Mount Toba's massive volcanic eruption, which nearly wiped out modern man seventy thousand years ago, to the arrival and spread of agriculture ten thousand years ago, and does it both entertainingly and educatively. I look forward to the updated edition when it appears.

By A. C. Grayling

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