Neanderthal skull from Forbes' Quarry, Gibraltar.
Result: none of the old stereotypes work any more. We imagine Neanderthals smothered in furs against the northern cold, their heaving breath clouding the frosty air, spears at the ready to fell Ice Age mega-fauna like woolly mammoth. It’s a vision reinforced by what turn out to be hoary old myths about ‘Arctic-ready’ adaptations such as stocky bodies to conserve heat and big noses to deal with thin air.
In fact, as Wragg Sykes explains, Neanderthals were as likely to be hunting straight-tusked elephant in balmy forests, collecting seafood on estuarine sand, or scurrying through sheets of rain, as to be ‘hunched against bitter snow flurries’. The climate fluctuations and the Neanderthal range mean there was nothing especially ‘Arctic-ready’ about the species. They emerged around 450,000 years ago, and the last of them perished perhaps 45,000 years ago. In that time of great fluctuations, of advance and retreat by the glaciers, of smaller oscillations of cold and warm, they ranged from Central Asia to the Iberian Peninsula, from the Baltic to Gibraltar. ‘Neanderthals today,’ explains Wragg Sykes, ‘are less like identikit hominins than denizens of a world as wide and rich as the Roman Empire. Its huge scope in space and time means cultural variety, complexity, and evolution. Varied and adaptable, Neanderthals survived in vanished worlds where kilometre-high glaciers met tundra, but also in warm forests, deserts, coasts, and mountains.’ Adaptation was more cultural than physical, more a matter of clothing, shelters, tool-kits, and food strategies than bone and muscle. Arguably, indeed, it was hardly physical at all. Narrowly functional explanations of evolutionary form are giving way to a more nuanced understanding of how species develop. Evolution, we now realise, can be weirdly idiosyncratic; it’s not always ‘uber-adaptive’.
The Past | April/May 2021