Primitive Passions

Neanderthal man

He is short, stocky and Portuguese. When the “hybrid child” was unearthed in 1998, the researchers in charge of studying his bones deemed him to be the ‘living’ proof of Neanderthal and Human admixture. Despite being met with much skepticism, Trinkaus and Zilhao have gone on to see signs of hybridization in other bones around Europe.

Neanderthals have proved to be the perfect ‘repository’ for all our human projections – they are the embodiment of our darkest, most violent impulses: Neanderthals are primitive brutes who do not use language, they are socially simple and technologically unsophisticated. And they are hairy. A psychoanalyst might even see in these projections signs of sexually repressed fears or desires on our part: these men are big and tall, physically very strong, they use force rather than language to get what they need, and when hunting they use their hands more than their tools (their stone tools, I mean).

Neanderthals have undergone some re-branding in the past few decades, largely due to increase information about their genes and their lifestyles (through archaeology), which has allowed some insight into who ‘Neanderthal’ really is, as opposed to what we want him to be. We now know, for example, that he speaks, due to the presence of the FOXP2 gene; we also know he is socially sapient (he buries his dead, for example); and we also know that he is highly skilled (the Neanderthal stone-tool technology – the Mousterian – was at one point a shared skill with Homo sapiens). All of this evidence has softened our hearts to our hominoid fellow – we’ve even learned to look beyond his ginger hair colour, and have stopped demonizing him to instead humanizing him – he also sings now, and we compose orchestral masterpieces in his honour. We are, at last, coming to terms with the Neanderthal side of us.

After so many years of unjustified discrimination, we seem to have finally accepted Neanderthal man as our brethren… But as our lover too?

Scientifically speaking, proving that hybridization did in fact occur between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals is difficult, if not impossible. For starters, because hybridization as a process in itself is not well understood, we have no idea what such a cross between a human and a Neanderthal would look like. Then there is the question of whether such hybrids could themselves reproduce; if they could, would traits passed on from both parent species get ‘diluted’ as generations went by? And how would these subsequent generations look like? Would we be able to recognize them? What traits are diagnostic of processes of hybridization?

This gap in the scientific knowledge is the perfect hideout for all our psychological hang-ups. If, indeed, we accept this admixture, then we are abdicating from being the exclusive authors of our species’ accomplishments – since Neanderthal would have also contributed in some way. We’ve tried so hard to separate ourselves from ‘them’, that transitioning to viewing Neanderthals as one of us, has forced us to redifine ourselves, inasmuch as identities are created by oposition to the identity of ‘the other’. Namely, this means recognizing in us what has been previously relegated to the Nanderthal realm. We were supposed to be the better, more intelligent and sofisticated ones, who because of our ingenuity, prevailed over all others, and now it seems that we may have somehow merged – us and the savage Neanderthal as one?

Much of the mysticism created around the Neanderthal man came from him being the only other kind of human sharing the planet with us (or at least Europe). The discovery of the ‘hobbit’ in Indonesia has broken with this maniqueist vision of recent human evolution and we now have to come to terms with the fact that we were merely one species, among possibly many others, who somehow managed to thrive in detriment of all others.

These new scientific discoveries have also led to a reshuffling of our collective psyche’s values, after all, there are only two places in the ying yang orb, if the Neanderthal has ceased to occupy one half of this bubble in our heads, this means we are forced to recognize all the evil primitive drives we had associated with him, within us.

In the archaeological record, appart from a few French, Spanish and Portuguese sites, where there are arguable signs of cultural influence, it is clear that there are two very different peoples living side by side (quite literally in some cases). Were we keeping each other at bay because of weariness towards the other? Were they hostile to us? Or did we just not speak the same language? Or did fear make us drive them to their end? Alternatively, did we secretly wonder about each other’s habits, smells, grunts, games? Did we secretly desire our other human version? And did we give in to these desires?

If Trinkaus and Zilhao are right, they may have done so under the Portuguese moon.

In the natural world, hybridization is a lot more frequent than we think: James Mallet (2005) shows that 75% of british ducks, 25% of american warblers, 25% of UK vascular plants, 12% of European butterflies, 10% of the world’s birds,  and 6% of European mammals hybridize in the wild. As for primates, there are well documented cases of hybrid zones for baboons (Ackermann et al, 2006; Gabow, 1975; Jolly et al, 1997), Sulawesi macaques (Schillaci et al, 2005; Bynum, 2002), and Saddle-ack Tamarins (Kohn et al, 2001; Hutchison and Cheverud, 1995) in the wild.

Although I don’t think the case for Homo-Neanderthal hybridization is solid enough as it stands today – nor do I think that bones can ever answer this question – my human imagination very much hopes it happened. I am waiting in anticipation for the results of the new genetic mapping project currently under way. I do strongly suspect that this will show that we kept mostly to ourselves – intercourse-wise – but in our psyche, however, I believe we’ve blended the Neanderthal with ourselves, permanently.

And whether his genes are within us or not, there is most definitely a little bit of Neanderthal within us all…