Fri
Aug 10 2012 10:00am

They Were a Lot Like Us: How to Think Like a Neandertal

I have a thing for Neanderthals. The idea that there were these actual Others out there once, living side by side with Homo sapiens, people but not humans… it just floors me with how crazy that is. I guess it should come as no surprise that I am equally peeved by depictions of Neanderthals as brutish and stupid. They had bigger brains than Homo sapiens, by about 10%, after all. Now, while the size of your brain doesn’t correlate to intelligence when you compare individuals, it is a fast and loose rule you can use between species. That said, Neanderthals also had bigger bodies than humans, so that 10% might just be running the physical side of things. Fair enough. The point is, they had big, developed brains. So what were they like? How were they different than humans?

How To Think Like a Neandertal has at its heart an assumption that answers both issues: as they put it, “Neandertals were so similar to us anatomically and genetically that we believe the default position… should be that Neandertals were no different.” I appreciate that a lot; I’ve read a fair share of books that discounted Neanderthal speech on whatever scientific fad was popular at the moment, on the basis of hyoid bones or Broca’s area or FOXP2 or whatever; only to find that new evidence debunked the hyoid bone issues or showed that Neanderthals had a developed Broca’s area and FOXP2. How To Think Like a Neandertal tries not to let assumptions or dogma influence their conclusions. From this “null hypothesis,” Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge use the actual evidence to speculate on how Neanderthals might be different—how they deviate from that default position. From us.

As I alluded to in my “Ecce Orcus” post, Neanderthals fill the role of a “fantasy race” in my roleplaying campaign. I actually think that is the best paradigm to approach the science of hominins like sapiens and neanderthalis. Don’t scoff! I think that the difference between a human and an elf really are comparable to the difference between a Neanderthal and a human. There are some minor morphological differences—elves have pointed ears, Neanderthals have heavy brow ridges—and some actual physical differences—like an elf having greater physical dexterity than a human and a Neanderthal having more muscle mass. All of that is secondary to the small tweaks in how they behave, because those small deviations from how humans tend to behave will compound on each other and result in psychological and cultural differences. Of course, those are the things that are hardest to nail down, hardest to discover, leaving modern archeologists in the position of guessing… but I think How To Think Like a Neandertal makes some good guesses.

If you are the sort who follows Neanderthal research, you’ll have heard many of the pieces of evidence that the book discusses before; what is novel here is that How To Think Like a Neandertal attempts to put those pieces into context. Neanderthals usually have evidence of repeated injuries in their skeletons; the bones stressed, cracked and re-healed, in a pattern most reminiscent of human rodeo cowboys. That, coupled with the chemical analysis of their bones and the remains of animals found associated with them, leads to a conclusion that Neanderthals used thrusting spears to hunt large animals—large as in reindeer, as well as large, as in mammoths and wooly rhinos—in mixed gender groups. Wynn and Coolidge look at the ramifications of that diet, and how those group structures might work. Then to that mix they add the lack of Neanderthal innovation; their spear technology got to “stone tips,” but stopped, even when they were confronting humans using superior weapons, like atlatls. With no social strata, with very few old people—hunting wooly mammoths being a high risk occupation, apparently—Wynn and Coolige posit that Neanderthals had a strong tribal unit but lacked the ability to spin out abstract social structures like humans can.

The real crux of the book is the question of symbolic thinking. Neanderthals seem to have buried their dead—some dispute that, but I’m not convinced by their doubts—but the burials were shallow and don’t show evidence of grave goods or special ceremonies; perhaps Neanderthals experienced grief but lacked the symbolic understanding of ritual that leads humans to create rituals and afterlives for the dead. While we have evidence of human art in the archeological record, Neanderthal art is much more dubious; absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but Coolidge and Wynn are writing a book speculating about Neanderthals, so I can’t fault them for speculating. It looks like Neanderthals probably painted their bodies and there are collections of crystals found in Neanderthal sites, so they may have understood beauty, but—well, consider toys. A human child can pick up a wooden figure of a dog and play with it, pretending it is a dog. Neanderthals don’t have any toys at their sites. Similarly, the authors think Neanderthals could probably laugh at humor—slapstick, clowning—but wouldn’t understand jokes. The juxtaposition of absurdities just wouldn’t click.

In the end, the book comes up with the following personality traits for Neanderthals. Pragmatism, based primarily on the evidence for gastronomic cannibalism. Stoicism and Bravery, based on the danger of their lifestyle and the evidence of persistent injuries. Sympathy, based on the fact that there are Neanderthal skeletons that appear to have lived long after being seriously injured to the point of disability, implying that they were cared for by loved ones. Callousness, however, was in their nature as well; while there are upper body injuries in people who were looked after, there aren’t any lower body injuries that had healed, and the authors suggest that if you couldn’t move with the tribe then you weren’t cared for. Conservatism; as I mentioned in regards to their spears, they didn’t seem compelled to experiment with new tools or innovate new ways of doing things. A “Lack of Autonoetic Thought” is a mouthful for a trait, but this is part of their inability to use symbolic reasoning, to visualize counterfactual situations. Xenophobia ties to “conservatism,” with the smaller group sizes of Neanderthals leading to a hostility towards outsiders—it is worth mentioning that humans of European or Asian descent have 1-4% of their genes from Neanderthals from cross-species breeding, but Neanderthals don’t show any drift in reverse. None of these traits would be out of place in a modern human; in fact, How To Think Like a Neanderthal has a thought experiment about how a Neanderthal baby raised today would get along. They think they would make a good fisherman or soldier, or even a doctor, though negotiating college would be difficult, with the layers of bureaucracy. A Homo sapien in the reverse situation, raised among Neanderthals, would have a much rougher time.

For follow-up reading, I’ve got a few suggestions, many of which Wynn and Coolidge touch on or cite in How To Think Like a Neandertal. Lone Survivors by Chris Stringer is a good look at why Homo sapiens are the species to crawl out of the evolutionary dogpile, and why everyone else went extinct. Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet has a similar premise but he is far more conservative than Wynn and Coolidge; his null hypothesis isn’t “like humans” but “like apes,” if you take my meaning. The Artificial Ape is a book about humanity’s use of symbolic culture and technology by Timothy Taylor, which might just be the thing that let humans thrive where Neanderthals died. Both Derek Bickerton’s Adam’s Tongue and Bastard Tongues are about language; the first about how language might have evolved, from an evolutionary perspective and the second about how language may have evolved, from a linguistic perspective. Catching Fire—no relation to the Hunger Games sequel—by Richard Wrangham is a study on fire, cooking, calories and more; a really great study of the biological realities of being a hominin, of being an ape with fire. Last but certainly not least, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has had a lot to say about the unexamined assumptions of gender relationships in primates; her book The Woman That Never Evolved deals with non-human primates, but Mother Nature and Mothers and Others deal with humans, and are important works, especially when considering the apparent lack of gender specialization in Neanderthals.


Mordicai Knode probably surprises no one by comparing roleplaying games to anthropology, since those two things are his biggest hobbies. His other hobbies include Twitter and Tumblr. He took the photos in this post at the American Natural History Museum.

33 comments
Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
Oo. This is going on my to-read list. And those Sarah Blaffer books all sound good; which would you recommend starting with?
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
I would start with Mother Nature; I really credit that book for opening my eyes regarding a lot of the implicit & unquestioned assumptions in anthropology. When Hrdy started, she got a hard time from evolutionary biologists for being a feminist-- because, misogyny-- & a hard time from feminists for writing evolutionary biology-- because, you know, mostly you hear "evolutionary biology" & then someone trots out one of those unexamined assumptions I mentioned.

Anyhow, Mother Nature has that hard hitting "you want real talk? Okay, let's get real. Let's talk about infant mortality" edge that good science should have, as well as having Hrdy to sort through the data & make really plausible arguments about what conclusions you can draw from it. I like that book a lot; it might just be my favorite non-fiction book.
William Carter
3. wcarter
Do you know if those are available as ebooks?
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
3. wcarter

How to Think Like a Neandertal is. Lone Survivors, Masters of the Planet & Adam's Tongue are, too. Not so Bastard Tongues, I don't think, & I think the only Hrdy in e-format is The Woman Who Never Evolved. At least, that is what a quick Google showed me, but I could be wrong.
Kingtycoon
5. Kingtycoon
I'll speak up for Hrdy and I believe I reviewed the Artificial Ape for you - and really thought highly of it as well - but it did not speak to a thing that I like, and think about. If you recall he talked about the three states - the last one being technical -the revision of mineral and vegeteble for human use?

For my money there's at least a fourth human element that's language and I don't like the equation of language with tools or technology - that comes up and I just cringe. Language- I suppose, determines your access to symbolic thinking - there's not that without language, says me - and so these ideas about the Neanderthal - with their language - I have some curiosity.

I won't say that you can't have language without symbolic thinking - only the other way around, but I wonder what kind of language you have that doesn't have symbolic thinking? Here I go back to some of what you talked about regarding Orcs - physiology. Maybe the Neanderthals couldn't talk? Or maybe they used much more than just words/voice to speak? Hand signs and eyebrow raises are good at communicating moods, desires and observations but not so much the concept of concepts.

So I wonder if there's any talk about Neanderthal language. What do you say?
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
5. Kingtycoon

There is...wait, I even mentioned it in the article! There is lots of talk about Neanderthals & language. Basically it boils down to this: people agree with you, but they are wrong. That is, it would make things super easy if language & symbolic thinking went hand in hand, or if language was particular to humans. The problem is...it isn't. Every time there is something that comes up-- "ha! Neanderthals couldn't talk because they don't have the right hyoid bone!"-- the evidence disproves that. It was the hyoid, it was Broca's area, it was FOXP2...it would be a nice argument, but the evidence discounts it. So it seems like the better solution is to say yes. Yes they had language.

Also, I'm inclined to say that it isn't a matter of "yes or no" regarding symbolic thinking, but rather one of degrees. Humans having more, Neanderthals having less-- as the authors would argue, at least. Whether there is some kind of threshold-- you know I'm fond of The Great Leap Forward hypothesis-- is another matter.
Bridget Smith
7. BridgetSmith
Ooh, this looks excellent. I'll have to pick up a copy. Thanks for the very thorough breakdown!

My human evolution professor in college (a brilliant, remarkable, funny-in-a-terrible-pun-way man who was a master of covering a lot of material in both a general and specific way, and who had personally worked on almost everything he taught - I took every class he offered) was absolutely convinced of Neandertal speech, though he thought they would sound rather flat: Neandertal palates were a lot lower than ours, so they didn't have a good echo chamber for projection. His attitude towards Neandertals really shaped my view, and it sounds like this is the perfect book to develop it further.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
7. BridgetSmith

The whole "Neanderthal palate" is a really interesting thing, I think about it alot because-- as I said-- I use them in my RPG campaign. The "higher voices" thing has been pretty much discarded but I like the idea of how that lack of echo might have influenced phoneme popularity. Still, I'm not entirely convinced-- I think the throat & sinus reconstruction needs more room before you can say anything definitive.
Kingtycoon
9. SF
Has that mixed gender hunting theory been proven? I just tried looking for articles on it, and there doesn't seem to be a consensus on whether or not it's actually true. (It would be cool if it was true.)

But most of what I'm finding (that is actual science articles, or commentary by actual scientists, and not popular press articles about science) is from 2006-2007. Is it the Kuhn and Stiner hypothesis Wynn and Coolidge are referring to? Or something later than that, with verifiable evidence?
Kingtycoon
10. John R. Ellis
Tolkien never described his elves as having pointed ears or any of that nonsense.

To him, the main difference between elves and humans was the way we perceive time.

Humans are constantly aware of our mortality, thus try to forget about it. We have so many stories about escaping from or defeating death.

In contrast, Tolkien saw elves (which he admits is an inaccurate word, but he adopted because in his day "faerie" had been more or less demoted to those cutsey li'l winged beings) were beings trapped by their own immortality, constantly dreaming about and trying to escape the ennui of endless, pressing, horrifyingly eternal life.

This is why he speculated that accounts of human and fae interaction tend to be rare and to have a lot of misundertstanding on either side. We see a fundamental aspect of reality in such a different way.
Kingtycoon
11. Tehanu
I know very little about this but I did read a terrific novel by Bjorn Kurten, who was a paleontologist at the Univ. of Helsinki, called Dance of the Tiger, about the encounter between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. His idea, if I remember it right, was that the N's weren't all that different from the C's. It was published in 1980, and I wonder if any of the ideas in the novel are still considered worth considering today, or if he's been debunked?
Fade Manley
12. fadeaccompli
Hrdy! Somehow I missed the last name in that sentence. It's a pity that Mother Nature isn't available on Kindle, but as my library has several copies, I think I'll cope.

Another book that gave some really interesting insight on gender roles--in human cultures and in primates--was Sex At Dawn, which is an excellent book on a number of levels. But it's not really the focus of that one, either.
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
9. SF

You are exactly right, it is Kuhn and Stiner. & the whole point of the book is that it is speculative-- admittedly, there isn't a lot of proof, but the burden of anthropology is that you can't do repeatable experiments on the past. Neanderthals are extinct; there is only so much to work with. There are a lot of points in this book where the authors are clearly just...well, brainstorming. Supported by evidence, sure, but the book itself is, by its very nature, making mountains out of molehills. Of course, there only are molehills, so...

10. John R. Ellis

You are right that the Children of Ilúvatar are divided more on the basis of mortality & immortality, on the basis of spiritual categories more than physical ones. Of course, there is debate-- based on letters with his publisher & speculative translation-- over whether his elves had pointed ears. Here is a brief summary of that debate. Frankly, I think it is immaterial. Tolkien, master of the genre though he may be, isn't the be all end all. Elves clearly have pointed ears. Maybe not all elves, but if you took a brief survey of fantasy literature & art, you'd get pointed ears. Anyhow, it was a metaphor; don't miss the forest for the trees!
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
11. Tehanu

& don't know! I haven't heard of it. I suspect "debunked" is probably too harsh away; even if new contradictory data has come forward, I would say it has been superceded, but that is the nature of science; it is constantly in the midst of refinement. As long as it wasn't like, an aquatic ape manifesto or something-- I would save "debunk" for flimflam.

12. fadeaccompli

Yeah, Hrdy. Sorry there isn't an e-version; it was published in 1999, before everyone was paying attention to e-books, so I suspect that the electronic rights might not be clear in the contract (or they are clear but not in the publisher's). I'm glad to hear your library has it; good job library. I also think it is good enough that when you read it you might consider special ordering it from your local bookstore; it is the sort of thing worth owning, worth revisting. & I haven't read Sex at Dawn, but I guess I should. Like I imply pretty heavily when talking about Hrdy, I'm super dubious of "scientific" discussions of sex & gender-- the same way that endemic racism was a problem in the axioms of anthropology last century (I won't say it isn't now, too, but less so) I think endemic misogynist cultural assumptions really taint evolutionary biology (to say nothing of evolutionary psychology).
William Carter
15. wcarter
I highly doubt Neanderthals were without language. I just wonder how much was spoken and how much was body language ( According to James Bord, to this day modern man still relies far more heavily on body language than spoken even if he doesn't realise it).

If for instance we 80-90 percent of our communication is through body language, was theirs more like 95 or even 99 precent?
Mordicai Knode
16. mordicai
15. wcarter

I would say there is a huge difference between informational context & substrate, & informational content. That really is the division between human language & what Bickerton would call an "Animal Communication System." Body language can tell a lot, yes, but it also can't tell a lot. Honey bees may be able to dance to show where good flowers are, but primates don't have the same eusocial structure & pheremone web & instinctual programming. There is a sort of "limbic communication" but I'm almost tempted to put that in a whole seperate category from language. Hm.

This is going in a weird direction, but now I'm thinking of the written language & the spoken language, & how they interact with body "language." We can have a conversation online. We could have the same conversation in the dark, by speaking. We could have that same conversation face to face. We do lose information as we move along that spectrum-- first, we lose body language, next we lose inflection-- & as anyone knows, the internet bemoans the non-existance of a "sarcasm mark." Which does bring up punctuation, which is an attempt to conserve inflection (as well as delineate syntax & other things).

Anyhow, extrapolating from the text, I'd say that the authors would say-- again, me extrapolating-- that the Neanderthals would excel in face to face communication. Small groups are their speciality! It is the more abstract that would falter, & the more abstract is the realm of speech, yeah. So that is a reasonable question. I don't think percentage points is the correct way to address it-- like I said, I think it is categorically different-- but you might be on to something.
Jeff Schweer
17. JeffS.
When we think about language or communication in this case, it seems to me to break down into a discussion on abstract versus concrete processes.
I wonder if the major issue, as has been mentioned already, is that divide.
Language use or not, if you don't have the ability to commucicate using abstract terms, you would find yourself quickly left in a "What's happening now" mode rather than "what could happen next"
Thinking outside the box is a cliche' that seems to be relevent here.
It also meshes with the tribal aspect also mentioned. Family and tribe is, other is not. The concept of other as part of "us" doesn't quite make the jump.
JeffS.
I am only an egg
Kingtycoon
18. SF
@13 mordecai: Thanks for the additional info. The book sounds interesting.

You might find this paleoanthropology blog interesting:
http://johnhawks.net/weblog
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
17. JeffS.

You really should read Bickerton's Adam's Tongue, if you haven't, because I imagine you nodding along with a lot of what he discusses. The idea of displacement-- that is, talking about things that aren't physically or temporally present. I think-- again, making the author's arguments as filtered through my understanding-- that How To Think Like a Neandertal assumes that Neanderthals did in fact have those abstract processes, just not as well developed as humans. The jump from abstract to symbolic is where the two roads diverge.
Jeff Schweer
20. JeffS.
That was weird, my reply went up in smoke.
Anyway,
I'll check that out.
"The jump from abstract to symbolic..." That is a subtle but very applicable difference.
Thanks again,
JeffS.
I am only an egg
Mordicai Knode
21. mordicai
20. JeffS.

I don't have a fine point to put on what I'm about to say, & this is my personal opinions, not my "opinion as a reviewer of the opinions in this book," but I think that the leap from anatomical modernity-- humans who were people who acted like clever apes-- to behavioral modernity-- humans who acted like they had advanced culture & technology-- is probably tied to symbolic thinking. It would be comforting to say "language," but language predates behavioral modernity, I'd say. I might venture that there is a complexity "threshold" at which point symbolic thinking-- or symbolic thought-- accretes, jumping to an exponential level? I don't know; like I said above though, I'm fond of the Great Leap Forward idea, though I admit that my preference for it is largely because it make a better narrative, which isn't a very good criteria at all. Still, in the absence of anything better-- literally, anything better-- I'll go with my gut. I'll show my gut the door if better evidence shows up though.
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
18. SF

Huh! I always find the role of science communicators to be a really important one; people like Sagan & Neil Degrasse Tyson deserve their cult of personality, because they act as important ambassadors-- I crave their infectious excitement about science. Especially in a world where stuff like this-- like a frank discussion of human evolution-- is actually trying to be supressed. Crazy. Evangalize, guys!
Kingtycoon
23. Eugene R.
The biggest stumbling block to getting me to think like a Neandertal is the sheer stability of their culture as evidenced by their Mousterian technology, lasting roughly 250-275,000 years without much change. Conservatism? I'll say! They make the Old Kingdom Egyptians look like a bunch of teenage fashionistas and fad-niks. ("That is soooo Vth Dy-nas-teeee!")

If it helps, I also used to chop the game timeline by a factor of 10 whenever I ran campaigns in Prof. M.A.R. Barker's world of Tekumel.

By the way, is that 'Neandertal' with or without an 'h'?
Mordicai Knode
24. mordicai
23. Eugene R.

They really do hit that note about their technological plateau hard in this book, too; I didn't stress it, but it is one of their major points of contention. Me, I see the use of glues & such as evidence that they were innovative, & I wonder about sample size before getting too attached to that idea-- though I hear you, yeah.

Also, M.A.R. Barker at least has all kinds of dimensional interference, superbeings the covenant of Pavar made into gods, layers of technological intervention & a vast lack of raw materials locking them into their cultural setting. I think A Song of Ice & Fire is a much greater offender, since the world hangs together so well, except for all the dates, which are about 6000 years too long in just about every case.

The authors prefer without the "h," & I prefer it with the "h." In part because I put my bets on "Homo neanderthalis" rather than some human subspecies. It is all predicated on the German; I guess I'm just old fashioned. Heck, I still like "hominid" more than "hominin" though I understand the phylogenic reasons for the revision so I generally take my lumps & go with hominin (though in casual speech I'm given to lapses). Like all terminology, it is consensus based; I personally don't see the "h"-less version getting traction, though. That cat is already out of the pop cultural bag.
Birgit
25. birgit
By the way, is that 'Neandertal' with or without an 'h'?

Thal is an old spelling of Tal. At the time the skeleton was discovered it was still spelled Neanderthal.
Jeff Schweer
26. JeffS.
21 mordicai
I can see the point and I'd have to agree in absense of a better answer.
I would strongly lean toward "a lightbulb moment" as well as anything else.
Somewhat related, I taught electronics in the Navy for a while and marveled when that moment occured when talking about electron flow theory with each new class. Sadly, that leap to understanding that electronics requires did not always occur. The concepts did not work for everyone. This was not a dig at the students basic intelligence, you didn't get into the program unless you were bright, but an inability to grasp some of the more conceptual portions was the problem.

I like the symbology addition to the discussion as it touches on many things we take somewhat for granted. For instance, Why do we have the "order of operations" agreement in math? Because we have to agree on how we use our symbols or we all get different answers.
Oh, I'll be happy to shove my gut to the door even without a better reason. It seems to have decided on a room expansion the past few years...
New books to read, what a wonderful thing
JeffS.
I am only an egg
Mordicai Knode
27. mordicai
26. JeffS.

Right, & I guess that Neanderthals would be incapable-- or unlikely to-- ever have that lightbulb moment, as you put it.
Kingtycoon
28. Bolg
Actually, now we've mentioned Tolkien, I may as well mention that I've always taken his Druedain as his take on the Neandertals.

YMMV FWLIW
Mordicai Knode
29. mordicai
28. Bolg

I actually tend to agree! Though less "Neanderthal" & more "pre-human." Yes, though! & since I mentioned the use of roleplaying& non-human people, the Dúnedain/Númenóreans are best thought of as hybrids-- in fact, I would cast Aragorn as a half-elf, racially, if I was DMing the Lord of the Rings. Widen the scope a little so it isn't just Arwen, Elladan, Elrohir & Elrond.

William Carter
30. wcarter
Resources and need also factor into the progress of technology.

Remember before Europeans came to the Americas, there was little metalurgy and no wheels. The various tribes didn't use an invention we litterally credit to some of our oldest ancestors.

Why did they not use wheels in the Americas? Because there were no large beasts of burdern on this side of the pond before cows and horses were imported (well technically there was the Alpaca, but it's too small to pull a large cart).

There were advanced farming techniques, and the Inca, Maya and Aztecs had cities every bit as advanced as anything you would likely find in Greece or Rome. Different resources led to different developments in technology even among homo sapiens so it's not impossible that the lack of visible innovation was in part due to a lack of readily available resources for our Neanderthal cousins.
Mordicai Knode
31. mordicai
30. wcarter

Well, except their habitat overlapped with the humans who were innovating, right? That said, there is also the element of niche creation; Neanderthals lived a profoundly different lifestyle (one of high impact close range hunting), meaning their relationship to the resources at hand was in a different paradigm. I mean-- we do see diversity in the Neanderthal diet, so they were adaptable, but by & large the "alpha predator" thing seems pretty true...meaning that the way they interfaced with their environment was different entirely. Domesticing animals seems far fetched only because they would have hunted those same animals before "hey, what about keeping some alive to eat later?" even occured to them
Kingtycoon
32. Plinny
They could of domesticated animals - dogs because their good hunters, hard to believe a forward thinking human, would put a wolf near their new born. With cows, they could take an immeadiate drink of blood as the Massi tribe do today and obviously milk. They might have later realised the calves make a good dog, test if the dog goes for the calf they can put it down.
Mordicai Knode
33. mordicai
32. Plinny

Well but then we would find evidence of domestication, right? We only start finding that in the Neolithic. Which suggests that neither Human nor Neanderthals were doing it until then...& then the Neanderthals died out. Would they have jumped on the train? Tough to say; we can only guess & try to find evidence to back up those guesses.

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