Before anything else, a disclaimer. This article is profoundly unscientific—it is about something I noticed in how the media has portrayed the Neanderthal over the years, so I decided to dig it up. It expresses an entirely subjective interpretation of the media according to what I think is going on, a criticism if you will. It is basically cherry picking, so reader discretion is advised.
Images used were ripped at low resolution under fair use since this blog is non-commercial, if you’d like to file a claim please contact me and I will remove the image.
It is odd to live long enough to see a shift in how a whole species is perceived and understood. Not long ago my biology textbooks had dinosaurs as giant reptiles, whereas these days they show how closely related they are birds. Science progresses quickly, and that is a good thing. For what it’s worth, the work done by scientists isn’t being questioned here, nor is the tremendous talent involved in the reconstruction based on fossil remains. These are tough fields and a lot of work goes into them.
Popular representation of scientific facts, however, tell a different story. To showcase what I see as an incredible whitewashing of the Neanderthal, I decided to make a family album with depictions over the years. The big change, in my opinion, happened when in the late 90s genetic analysis of Neanderthal DNA showed that it was related to modern humans. This was only amplified by the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and the consequent discovery that some people do in fact carry Neanderthal genes in them. What people? Europeans. And if there’s one thing Europeans like to do is try to demonstrate in every possible way that they are superior to everyone else.
But the Neanderthal story starts with the exact opposite. At first, it was considered a savage and less developed hominid that couldn’t compete and coexist with modern humans, and consequently went extinct. This idea basically said that modern humans were superior and Neanderthals inferior. It is no surprise, then, that in the late 19th century, the scientific articles tended to mirror just that. Consider the following depiction from 1888, and the text of a scientific article from 1890
(…) The same alternatives present themselves when Neanderthaloid characters appear in skulls of other races. If these characters belong to a stage in the development of the human species, antecedent to the differentiation of any of the existing races, we may expect to find them in the lowest of these races, all over the world, and in the early stages of all races. I have already referred to the remarkable similarity of the skulls of certain tribes of native Australians to the  Neanderthal skull; and I may add, that the wide differences in height between the skulls of different tribes of Australians afford a parallel to the differences in altitude between the skulls of the men of Spy and those of the grave rows of North Germany. (…)From L. Huxley, Life and Letters, The Aryan Question and Pre-Historic Man (1890), Collected Essays VII, my emphasis.
All writing from this time must be taken with lots of scepticism, since it was common to legitimise genocide using anthropological justifications. In the quoted text, it is quite clear that the author is linking native Australians with the ‘lesser Neanderthal’. Duly noted, the author seems to do the same with other groups, such as the Frisians, so the racism seems to be just an expression of the time of writing. Nevertheless, the Neanderthal here is a lesser human, and the depiction clearly shows a person of color with rough features.
As time went on and the scientific knowledge grew, with discoveries of their complex rituals, art and bigger brains, the perception began to shift. But even in the 20th century, before the discovery of Neanderthal genetic information, the depictions remained. A brute that could not face the superiority of modern man fresh out of Africa armed with culture and technology. Jared Diamond’s theory that germs brought by modern humans being responsible for the extinction of Neanderthals mimics almost perfectly the European colonial spread of disease. Coincidentally, the colonisers are the modern man and the colonised are the Neanderthals. At this time, the idea that modern man and Neanderthal could be related was already brewing, but polemic. If the superior modern human had made Neanderthals go extinct, to admit that Europeans might be in any way related to this lesser kind of man was not a popular idea. It is no surprise, then, that the depictions remained savage and brutish, even against many scientific theories that were developing. For example, consider this write up about that period (1929-1994) from The Field Museum, Chicago
Many generations of adults remember coming to the Museum and being transported back to a time when people were living in caves. The first of two Neanderthal family dioramas was installed in 1929, in the Hall of Historical Geology which was located on the Museum’s 2nd floor. In 1933, the Hall of Prehistoric Man (located on the Museum’s Ground Floor) opened with a series of 8 prehistoric scenes. In the early 1970s, the Neanderthal figures were replaced with new ones made by Museum artist Joseph Krstolich. By 1994, the Hall of the Stone Age of the Old World exhibit had been dismantled because most were considered to be scientifically inaccurate. The Hall had included the Neanderthal Family diorama as well as dioramas depicting Mas d’Azil cave in France (also called Azillian Boar Hunt); Aurignacian Cave Art (Gargas cave, France); Chellean scene in northern France; Neolithic Sun Worship; Solutrean sculptor; Swiss Lake Dwellers; Cap Blanc Rock Shelter and the skeleton of Magdallenian girl.
The big breakthrough was when the first DNA testing revealed that there was Neanderthal genetic material in modern humans. In the early 2000s, evidence started mounting that there was genetic material in modern humans, but it wasn’t mtDNA, i.e., if there was a mix of modern humans and Neanderthals, it had been between a male Neanderthal and a female human. See, for example, the state of this research in the 2000s page of the Neanderthal museum. By now, the depictions were shifting, thanks to a better understanding of the Neanderthal’s environment and biology. Consider this other text, also from the 2000s page of neanderthal-modern.com:
Numerous genetic studies of DNA from living people also appear to support the “Out-of-Africa” theory. These studies reveal that the genetic differences between the far-flung peoples inhabiting the globe today are actually quite small. This indicates a relatively recent common ancestry. The studies also consistently show present-day Africans to be the most genetically divergent, and therefore the most ancient, branch of humanity. This points toward an African origin for modern humans. These studies have recently been enhanced by analyses of ancient DNA from actual Neanderthal remains. The scientists studying this DNA have reported that the Neanderthal DNA differs significantly from our own, which they see as support for the Out-of-Africa theory (see Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe web pages).
But the most dramatic shift happened in the 2010s when the Neanderthal genome was finally sequenced and the evidence was now clear: a vast group of Europeans was not only related to Neanderthals, but other branches of the human tree, such as the African lineages, weren’t. Here was clear, scientific evidence that coloured people and Europeans were biologically different, and that the Europeans had interbred with a hominid with a bigger brain. If your critical radar hasn’t gone off yet, it should be going off right now. Not only do these reconstructions look tremendously European, they also show finer features, lighter hair and blue eyes, a traditional European sign of nobility and pure lineage. Note that there is little evidence pointing either way as to where light eyes come from, but some are beginning to say Neanderthals could be the origin of blue eyes. Perhaps this quote from the New Yorker might make it even more obvious:
Of course, while the shape and proportions of the face are determined as objectively as possible, some characteristics, like the color of the eyes, the skin, and the hair, can only be approached with subjectivity. But even if decided without certainty, the color of the skin, for instance, will be chosen according to the environmental setting.
While it is obvious that the Neanderthal’s environment was very different from our own, most likely much colder, how valid is this depiction and skin colour, versus, say, one based on the look of indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic? Perhaps this is little more that an expression of the never ending human need for a definition of its own identity, as if our biology determined us somehow and we could attribute our qualities or shortcomings to external factors, instead of admitting mistakes as our own. Maybe it isn’t me after all—it’s this darned Neanderthal gene!
Consider the 2012 BBC programme How scientists recreated Neanderthal man, where the hosts confide:
– I still can’t get my head around the fact that this guy is in my ancestry, not that far back. What do you think John?
– Give me a break, you look like twins!
Never mind the fact that this reconstruction shows a fair skinned, light haired rugged looking young man with neatly arranged body hair and an out of bed look. I’m sure I’ve ran into a few of these “Neanderthals” at parties.
And this brings us to today, and what better example of today’s astrology-like fascination with genetic lineage than this episode of Meet the Izzards, Eddie Izzard: ‘I’m 2.8% Neanderthal’. Here we can see a discussion of what percentages each one of them might have of Neanderthal, with Izzard being in the top tier of Neanderthal heritage. What a journey! From under-evolved coloured man in the 19th century all the way up to famous rich blonde white English comedian, all in a bit more than 100 years.
And while the science continues to progress even further, it has already answered the questions we might have about these genetic percentages. From The Guardian:
So why do newspapers report these claims and why do TV and radio programme makers base documentaries on them? After all, there are plenty of experts who are engaged in scientifically cautious research on our genetic history and will point out their absurdity. One reason is that, being simple “just so” stories, they have a popular appeal that cannot be matched by the more rigorous population level testing of migration histories. The bias is always towards the story rather than the science.
Another possible reason is that “ancestry testing” is aimed at individuals, although in reality the statements made are sufficiently general that they could be true for a large number of people. This is reminiscent of the “Forer effect” in psychology – the observation that individuals will tend to believe descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. The same effect has been used to explain the popularity of horoscopes.
Perhaps it is harmless fun to speculate beyond the facts, armed with exciting new DNA technologies? Not really. It costs unwitting customers of the genetic ancestry industry a substantial amount of hard-earned cash, and it disillusions them about science and scientists when they learn the truth, which is almost always disappointing relative to the story they were told.
In other words, what the Neanderthal representation story tells us is how genetic information is basically replacing the older ideas of lineage and is being instrumentalised again by the ruling ethnicities of the world. The fantasies about a higher evolved human being continue and refuse to go extinct as they should. They are little more than a fantasy, say nothing about who we are, and instead reflect the constant need of Europeans to justify their oppressive role in the world. It seems the poor Neanderthal man has been turned into the modern day genetically backed equivalent of the Aryan race. And we all know what that leads to.