“It seems we have all been guilty of defaming Neanderthal man” declared a recent Editorial in The Guardian. This comment was triggered by a report documenting evidence for the use of pigments and decorative shells by Neanderthals. This is claimed to have occurred many years before any direct contact with modern humans, thereby undermining any thought that the artefacts did not really represent Neanderthal culture. Personal adornment, using a variety of colours, implies an aesthetic sense and an appreciation of symbolism. Since Neanderthals have often been presented as lacking these “modern” traits, the new research demands a reappraisal.
For an overview of the finds plus reaction, go here.
Here’s the take-home message:
We have had a long-sustained exposure to the idea that Neanderthals were sub-human. They have been presented as slow, lumbering, dim-witted and brutish! Most people are likely to think that Neanderthals could not use words to speak. Will the new research change perceptions?
“It’s very difficult to dislodge the brutish image from popular thinking,” Professor Stringer told BBC News. “When football fans behave badly, or politicians advocate reactionary views, they are invariably called ‘Neanderthal’, and I can’t see the tabloids changing their headlines any time soon.”
The situation we find ourselves in has come about because the Darwinist explanation of human origins has been adopted by our culture. The Darwin origins myth requires a gradual evolution of both anatomy and culture – from ape to man. Neanderthal Man has been part of this story – he is the archetypal intermediary. Despite many evidences to the contrary, little has been done to remove the myth. Indications of cultural sophistication were interpreted as Neanderthals trading artefacts with modern humans, or imitating without understanding. This is a good example of ‘saving the paradigm’ in a Kuhnian sense, whereby the old paradigm clings on by force-fitting contrary evidences into the accepted theoretical model. It is time to discard the Darwinian mindset that presupposes gradual evolution. Let researchers be free to approach the evidence with multiple working hypotheses and engage in a more rigorous programme of hypothesis testing and analysis.