British physicist David Tyler on today’s kinder, gentler Neanderthal

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(Neanderthals then and now, and Tyler's comments:)

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]."

The first paper is concerned with the role of emotions in social relationships and re-appraises the archaeological record of Neanderthals and other Palaeolithic peoples. A summary is provided by Penny Spikins in an interview with Wired. "We look in the archaeological record for evidence of individuals who were sick, and not able to care for themselves. We see that in early Homo, and by the time we get to Neanderthals, that kind of record becomes much more extensive. Take the "Old Man of Shanidar". He had had degenerative deformities in the base of his legs, would have had difficulty walking, and had a crushing injury to his cranium, so he was probably blind in his left eye. The bones show those injuries occurred when he was adolescent, and he lived to 40. He was probably looked after for 25 to 30 years, which implies that it wasn't just one person looking after him, but several. Most of our Neanderthal skeletons show some evidence of having been looked after for their injuries. And in the age of Neanderthals, you also start to see evidence of deliberate burials and funerary rites. That means a shared feeling."

If you ask me, the conveniently dead Neanderthal supports whatever political correctness is going down. In reality, you'd find Neanderthals who cared and ones who didn't, Neanderthals who talked and ones who just grunted and pointed, Neanderthals who made useful tools and ones who snitched them from sleeping neighbours. If they weren't like that, they weren't human after all. Rigid behaviour belongs to ant colonies, not human ones. Read more here. Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.