On the celebration of Neanderthals.

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

I am descended from the oppressors.  My ancestors ventured from their homeland with colonial aspirations and genocidal results.

It wasn’t my fault.  I wasn’t born yet!  But, having inherited vast privilege, some measure of responsibility from the misdeeds of my people surely falls upon my shoulders.

A hundred thousand years ago, several species of humans shared our planet.  My ancestors, who would give rise to contemporary Homo sapiens, mostly lived in Africa.  They differed from other primates in that their brains were larger, their posture more upright, their epidermis darker in hue, their verbal communication more nuanced.

During a period of climate change, my ancestors left their home.  The planet was warming; glaciers receded; Homo sapiens ventured north. 

One still-popular model for how Homo sapiens spread. Image by Altaileopard on Wikimedia Commons.

Europe was already populated by humans, people who had weathered the bitter cold through the waning ice age.  But my ancestors were undeterred.  They did not respect the old territorial boundaries.  Soon they supplanted the native peoples.  Every last one of the natives died.  Their people disappeared from the face of the earth, extinct.

Every time my ancestors ventured to a new land, the old inhabitants were killed.  Nearly all of our planet’s large animals are gone now; megafauna extinction is directly correlated with human migration

Image by Uweka on Wikimedia Commons.

If it’s any consolation, Homo sapiens were not the only perpetrators of these atrocities.  Every other human species – including those whom my ancestors harried to extinction – wrought similar devastation on their environments.

In this case, no reparations are possible.  The victims are dead; their families curtailed.  My ancestors’ misdeeds against them ceased, but only because there was no one left to harm.

But I can atone through remembrance.

And so, as a descendant of the oppressors, I felt a special sympathy toward the Neanderthal.  When I was in school, these humans were consistently described as brutish, uncouth, and unintelligent.  But I recognized that sort of language.  My people have almost always maligned supposed “others” – until we took the time to learn how smart they are, all non-human animals were imagined to be unthinking automata.  Pale-skinned Europeans claimed that intelligence – or even humanity itself – was inversely correlated with epidermal melanin concentration (by which measure Pan troglodytes would be more human than any Englishman). 

Forty years ago, medical doctors implied that men who felt a sexual attraction to men differed from their peers on a cellular level, as though the human immunodeficiency virus was sensitive to a psychological preference.  Even now, many medical doctors believe that people with higher amounts of epidermal melanin experience pain differently.

My people’s negative assessment of the Neanderthal, I figured, was probably not true.  Indeed, in recent years we’ve discovered that Neanderthals made art, that they probably had spoken languages … that they were like us.  Enough so that many humans living today carry Neanderthal DNA sequences in their genomes.

A Neanderthal model at Zagros Paleolithic Museum, Kermanshah.
Photograph by ICHTO on Wikimedia Commons.

Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a first-person perspective of the apocalypse wrought upon 11th century England, I began working on a story narrated by the last of the Neanderthal.

Stray scientific findings have revealed surprising details about Neanderthal life.  Young women often left their family tribe.  All people collaborated on hunts, regardless of gender.  Homo sapiens males would fool around with either Homo sapiens or Neanderthals; Neanderthal males rarely sired children with Homo sapiens.  After Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, they ate a lot of squirrels, but the Neanderthal declined to eat rodents.

These details seemed sufficient to evoke a world.

I was still working on this story during the 2016 presidential election.  But with our 45th openly praising white supremacists, I felt suddenly less inspired to celebrate the Neanderthal.  Many of the hate mongers were extolling the virtues of humans descended from northern Europeans, and, as it happens, these are the people who have the most abundant remnants of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.

Genetics isn’t destiny.  And there haven’t been any correlations between Neanderthal DNA and intelligence; indeed, most of the genetic sequences that have been proposed to modulate intelligence are probably false.  Neanderthal DNA has been found to correlate only with an increased risk of depression and an increased susceptibility to allergies.

I began working on my Neanderthal story as an apology to the dispossessed, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an environment where some individuals might tout their Neanderthal heritage as a mark of superiority.  As though their blood conferred the right to mistreat people from other backgrounds, or the right to so thoroughly ravage our planet’s atmosphere that other people’s homes are scorched or submerged beneath the sea.

Which seems shocking to me.  Quite recently, the Neanderthal were thoroughly impugned.  As though we could declare their kind to be undeserving of existence and thereby spare ourselves a reckoning for having killed them.

Now the contemporary oppressors herald the Neanderthal as a source of greatness.  Light-skinned warrior folk, beset by dark-skinned immigrants from the south.

Who would have thought?

Then again, I would not have expected Odin or Thor to become patron deities of U.S. white supremacists.  Nor that they might switch from beer to chugging milk as a display of inner fortitude.

Hate works in mysterious ways.

Someday, perhaps, in a kinder, gentler world, I’ll feel safe to write more stories featuring the Neanderthal. For now, I’ve set my draft aside.

Image by Chapendra on Flickr.

Featured image: the National Museum of Natural History. Image by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr.

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

At 9 p.m. on a chilly night in January 2016, I pulled on my winter coat, asked K once more whether she thought my plan was too foolish, then trundled out to the front yard to sleep in the grass.  I pulled my arms close and lay there for several hours, uncomfortable and shivering, but failed to fall asleep.  A few college students walked by; I don’t think they noticed me.  Cars passed, blitzing my eyes with headlights.

Around midnight, I gave up.  I stiffly rose, limped inside, sloughed off my coat and clothes, then crawled into a warm, soft bed in our dark, quiet, safe room.  I quickly fell asleep.

I’d learned, again, that I am very blessed to have a home.  Sleeping shelter-less in wintertime is awful.  And a whole lot of people have to do it.

But that’s not why I was outside.  I was writing a short story about one of the last Neanderthals and wanted to know more about what my protagonist’s nights might have been like.  She lived in Europe approximately 40,000 years ago, a time when Europe was much chillier than it is now.  She might not have felt so shivery at night – Neanderthals were perfectly capable of building campfires – but much of her life would’ve been marked by cold.

Fewer blinding headlights, though.


And more megafauna, creatures like mammoths, bears, lions, and wolves.  More birds.  More trees, sometimes – the Neanderthal clung to a tenuous existence, both individually and as a species, because of climate instability.  During that era, Europe fluctuated between woodlands and plains as temperatures rose or plunged.

Then Homo sapiens migrated north and the Neanderthal went extinct.  Murdered, starved of resources, passively outbred… we’re not sure.  Even the least violent extinction would’ve felt heartbreaking to the final victims, though.
I began work on this story because I’d read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and kept thinking that he’d struck upon a fascinating genre: post-apocalyptic historical fiction.

Donald Trump Trump Alzheimers Warning DementiaOur civilization might fall.  So many countries have nuclear weapons; an erratic narcissist has access to our button.  A few degrees of warming and our food crops might die.  Many of those crops are grown as single species across wide swaths of land: a particularly virulent insect or virus might wipe them out instead.  Humans live so densely now, and travel so often: a virus might wipe us out, too.  Or a bacterium resistant to our squandered antibiotics.

These horrors are grimly fascinating to read and think about: I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness.  When we fall, we might fall hard.

CaptureOther cultures have.  The Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Roman empire, the pre-Norman Invasion English.

And, of course, the Neanderthals.  Their language, and religion, and entire species was swept into extinction.

But there has been a recent boom in our understanding of Neanderthals.  I assume you know about Moore’s law, the rapid rate of doubling in the number of transistors that can be added to a computer chip, which has resulted in a massive drop in the cost of processing power.  What you may not know about – you’d have no reason to unless you work in bioscience or diagnostic medicine – is that even Moore’s law is dwarfed by the astronomical rate of change in the number of DNA nucleobases that can be sequenced per dollar.  Experiments that would have been exorbitantly expensive a few years ago are now routine.

It astounds me that archaeologists can recover any Neanderthal DNA from their dig sites.  But they can.  From tiny scrapings, they can sequence genomes.  And so we’ve learned, for instance, that males probably stayed in their tribe as they aged but the female children would depart.  This gave me an incentive to write about a female protagonist – she would’ve been away from her family, searching for a new tribe – which is a fun twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.


Post-apocalyptic fiction typically features male protagonists because female characters evoke the possibility of rebirth (one of the few exceptions I know is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Markson toys with this idea by having his protagonist make repeated reference to menstruation), but in the case of Neanderthals I think a female hero is appropriate.  Neanderthals lost the world, but before departing interbred with Homo sapiens enough times that many modern humans still carry vestiges of Neanderthal genome in their DNA.

Comparisons between Neanderthal DNA sequenced from archaeological scrapings and the genomes of contemporary humans reveal that we occasionally interbred.  Many different species of humans mated from time to time in the ancient world; some contemporary Homo sapiens still carry genes from each.

This was a great recent read.

People who carry a hypoxia transcription factor from the now-extinct Denisovans seem better suited for life at high altitudes.  People who carry a spritzing of Neanderthal genes seem especially susceptible to allergies and depression.  Perhaps Neanderthal DNA conferred some benefits, too.  Neanderthals seem to have been stronger, and had better eyesight, than Homo sapiens, but it’s not clear if genes for these traits remain.

The most speculative element of my story is the religion I gave to the Neanderthal protagonist.  We’ve found no compelling evidence of Neanderthal writing or art, but this isn’t terribly surprising.  After all, we’ve found very little artwork made by Homo sapiens during that time period, and they (we?) were some ten-fold more abundant.  So I’d say that it’s reasonable to suspect that Neanderthal had language, and other “symbolic” behavior like religious belief, even though we have no evidence.

Of course, that same lack of evidence makes it impossible to know what they would’ve believed in.  But that’s okay.  Scientists cleave to the truth; writers get to make things up.

The religion I gave my protagonist does fit the scanty evidence we have, though.  For instance, some Neanderthal practiced cannibalism.  Knife marks on the bones show that they butchered the corpses of their own kind in the same manner as other oft-eaten animals.

We also know that, although both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens consumed a mix of meats and vegetables, Homo sapiens ate many small species.  Squirrels, rats, and the like.  Neanderthals, however, seem to have eaten exclusively large animals.  This is particularly striking because Homo sapiens often obtained more calories from the meat of small animals than large game.  The Neanderthal, with their superior eyesight, would’ve been better at spotting these critters than Homo sapiens were.

hvalsey_churchSo I imagined a religious taboo.  Religious food taboos are prevalent among modern human cultures, even in cases where the taboo seems highly detrimental to health.  Perhaps the best-known example is the religious proscription against eating fish among the Norse who settled Greenland.  Excluding fish from their diet made a large contribution to their culture’s demise, whereas the fish-eating Inuit living nearby survived.

It’s probably very easy to believe in spirits during an ice age, since you’d see your own manifest in wisps with every exhalation.  And so I let my Neanderthal protagonist believe that these spirits lived on in her own self.  In her mind, a clamor of souls takes up residence within her body, burgeoning whenever she eats meat.

If eating also meant ingesting a soul, a Neanderthal might consume only those strong, powerful creatures she wished to emulate.  She might eat her own fallen friends, hoping to keep them forever near.

squirrel_posingAt times she’d surely espy Homo sapiens eating squirrels, but the Neanderthal might conclude that these pusillanimous dietary choices contributed to the scrawny physiques and skittish behavior (always living in such large tribes!  And, throwing spears from a fearful distance!) of those interlopers.

But we will never know… because, around the time those Homo sapiens interlopers arrived, the Neanderthals all died.

The Neanderthal extinction may not have been their (our) fault.  After all, the climate was changing.  Other large species went extinct or vanished from these regions during the same period.  Or, even if the Neanderthal extinction was caused by Homo sapiens, it might not have meant outright war, murder with rocks and spears.  Perhaps competition for food or safe shelter drove the Neanderthal to death…

But that’s not how we humans have usually treated ancestral inhabitants when we embark on a new frontier.  The historical record is replete with examples of methodical, knowing slaughter.  There is only so much world to go around, and natural selection has no reason to favor those who share.

And yet.  We purport to be thinking, reasoning creatures.  We can be better than our genes.

On human uniqueness and invasive species.

On human uniqueness and invasive species.

We like to see ourselves as special.  “I am a beautiful and unique snowflake,” we’re taught to intone.

Most of the time, this is lovely.  Other than the U.S. Supreme Court, hardly anyone thinks you should be punished for being special.  Of course, the Court’s opinion does matter, since the ignorant claims of five old rich white men have an inordinate sway in determining how U.S. citizens will be allowed to live.  And they, the conservative predecessors of our lockstep quartet (soon to return to a quintet) of hate machines, oft feel that the beautiful snowflakes should melt in prison.  In McCleskey v. Kemp, the court decided that statistical evidence of injustice should not be admissible as evidence; they would only consider documentation of deliberate bias in individual cases.

Unique when you are on trial, now orange & a number.  Photo by Joel Franusic on Flickr.

Which means, for instance, that if a police force decides to systematically harass black drivers, and winds up stopping hundreds of black drivers and zero white drivers each month, they’re in the clear as long as each black driver stopped was violating some portion of the traffic code.  At that point, each black driver is a unique individual lawbreaker, and the court sees no reason why their experiences should be lumped together as statistical evidence of racial injustice.  Adolph Lyons, after being nearly choked to death by an L.A. police officer, could not convince the courts that the L.A. police should stop choking innocuous black drivers.

Lovely, eh?

So it can hurt if others see us as being too special.  Too distinct for our collective identity to matter.

At other times, we humans might not feel special enough.  That’s when the baseless claims get bandied about.  For instance, K recently received a letter from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education pontificating that “Only humans teach.”  A specious example is given, followed by the reiteration that “Only humans look to see if their pupils are learning.”  Which simply isn’t true.

But people feel such a burning desire to be special – as individuals, as fans of a particular sports team, as people with a particular skin color, or as people who follow a particular set of religious credos – that an ostensibly very-educated someone needed to write this letter.

That’s why the occasional correctives always make me smile.  For instance, research findings showing that other animal species have some of the skills that our sapiens chauvinists oft claim as uniquely human, or other data indicating that humans are not as exceptional as we at times believe.

Consider our brains.  For many years, we thought our brains were anomalously large for the size of our bodies.  The basic rationale for this metric was that more brain power would be needed to control a larger body – this seems tenuous if you compare to robots we’ve created, but so it goes.  Recently, a research group directed by Suzana Herculano-Houzel counted how many actual neurons are in brains of different sizes.  Again comparing to human creations, computer scientists would argue that more neurons allow for more patterns of connections and thus more brainpower, somewhat comparable to the total number of transistors inside a computer.

As it happens, no one knew how many neurons were in different creatures’ brains, because brains are very inhomogeneous.  But they can be homogenized – rather easily, as it happens.  I did this (unfortunately!) with cow brains.  These arrived frozen and bloodied; I’d smash them with a hammer then puree them in a blender till they looked rather like strawberry daiquiri.  For my work I’d then spin the soupy slushy muck so fast that all the cell nuclei pelleted on the bottom of centrifuge tubes, ready to be thrown away.

After a spin in the blender, all brains look the same. Photo from Wikipedia.

Alternatively, one could take a sample of the soup and simply count.  How many nuclei are here?  Then stain an equivalent sample with antibodies that recognize proteins expressed in neurons but not the other cell types present in a brain: what fraction of the nuclei were neurons?  And, voila, you have your answer!

Gabi et al. did roughly this, publishing their findings with the subtly anti-exceptionalist title “No relative expansion of the number of prefrontal neurons in primate and human evolution.”  We have more neurons than smaller primates, but only as many as you’d expect based on our increased size.

zombie-starfish(Perhaps this leaves you wondering why gorillas rarely best us on human-designed IQ tests – as it happens, the other great apes are outliers, with fewer neurons than you would expect based on the primate trends.  Some of this data was presented in a paper I discussed in my essay about the link between “origin of fire” and “origin of knowledge” myths.  In brief, the idea is that the caloric requirements of human-like brainpower demanded cooked food.  The evolutionary precursors to gorillas instead progressed toward smaller brains – which happens.  The evolutionary precursors to starfish also jettisoned their brains, making themselves rather more like zombies.)

Perhaps all these brain musings are an insufficient corrective.  After all, humans are very smart – I’m trusting that you’re getting more out of this essay than the average hamster would, even if I translated these words into squeaks.

So let’s close with one more piece of humility-inducing (humiliating) research: archaeologists have long studied the migration of early humans, trying to learn when Homo sapiens first reached various areas and what happened after they arrived.  Sadly, “what happened” was often the same: rapid extinction of all other variety of humans, first, then most other species of large animals.

All the Neanderthal disappeared shortly after Homo sapiens forayed into Europe.  There are reasons why someone might quibble with the timeline, but it seems that Homo erectus disappeared from Asia shortly after Homo sapiens arrived.  The arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia brought the extinction of all large animals other than kangaroos.  The arrival of Homo sapiens in South America presaged, again, a huge megafaunal extinction.

On evolutionary timescales, we are a slow-moving meaty wrecking ball.

Bad as we are, we can always get worse. My country! Picture by DonkeyHotey on Flickr.

And our spread, apparently, resembles that of all other invasive species.  This is slightly less derogatory than the summation given in The Matrix – “[humans] move to an area and … multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way [they] can survive is to spread to another area.  There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern.  Do you know what it is?  A virus.  Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” – but only slightly.

Upon the arrival of Homo sapiens in South America, we quickly filled the entire continent to its carrying capacity, and then, after the invention of sedentary agriculture – which boosts food production sufficiently for an area to support more human farmers than hunter gatherers – resumed exponential population growth.  Although the switch to an agricultural lifestyle may have been rotten for the individual actors – the strength needed to push plows makes human sexual dimorphism more important, which is why the spread of agriculture heralded the oppression of & violence against women throughout human history – it’s certainly a great technology if our goal is to fill the world with as many miserable humans as possible.

We’ll be passing eight billion soon, a population inconceivable without modern farming technologies.  And likely unsustainable even with.

Not, again, that this makes us unique.  Plenty of species are willing to breed themselves into misery & extinction if given half the chance.  Almost any species that follows r-type population growth (this jargon signifies “quantity over quality”) – which oft seems to include Homo sapiens – is likely to do so.  My home town, wolf-less, is currently riddled with starving, sickly deer.