The archetypal image of Neanderthals has been one that reinforced the Darwinian story of human evolution. A Washington Post story puts it like this: “Early study of Neanderthals described them as very hairy, brutish, unable to talk or walk like more-modern humans.” Although things have changed slowly, media presentations have continued to create an impression that does not differ much from this description. However, the evidence for their humanity has accumulated rather rapidly in recent years, and the past month has seen two significant additions to the literature. A Wired Science report introduces one of these studies like this:
“For decades, Neanderthal was cultural shorthand for primitive. Our closest non-living relatives were caricatured as lumbering, slope-browed simpletons unable to keep pace with nimble, quick-witted Homo sapiens. However, anthropologists have found evidence in recent years suggesting considerable Neanderthal sophistication, and not only in tool-making and hunting, but in their ability to feel [i.e. to show compassion].”
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