By Alun Salt
School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, UK.
Once again the government has launched a crackdown on yob culture. In the forthcoming year Neanderthal behaviour will not be tolerated, yet little research has been done on why men act as Neanderthals - some people say drink, others say peer-pressure and the influence of the media. One possible reason is that it’s a mating display. But, despite this, the results of archaeological excavations now lead to the inescapable conclusion that Neanderthal men were sexy.
It’s difficult to excavate sexiness. We can’t even find Neanderthal genes in our DNA, as DNA studies suggest that it’s unlikely that Neanderthals have contributed to the modern human gene pool. However, if Neanderthals are our ancestors then they would no doubt have passed on some of their appearance to some of the world’s most desired stars. The average height of a Neanderthal man is thought to have been around 170cm, making them the Tom Cruise of the prehistoric world. In contrast the distinctly unsexy John Travolta is 188cm (Neanderthal women were slightly shorter, a Kylie-sized 155cm). Certainly one could snipe that Neanderthals seem to have been chinless, but in modern humans it’s regarded as a sign of breeding - Neanderthals may have all been members of the aristocracy. They also lived lives of excitement and danger, the bones of Neanderthals have evidence of breaks and dislocations. Neanderthals seemed to have lived life on the edge, sometimes literally.
Evidence of Neanderthal hunting has been discovered at foot of the cliffs of La Cotte de St Brelade in Jersey. It’s all rather sophisticated. Rather than walk up to the nearest mammoth with a club and try to whack it over the head, the Neanderthals worked together to drive mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses over the cliff edge. This is not unlike hunting as practised by modern humans in later periods, however, the bones at the foot of the cliffs date from 250,000 years ago, which means they are definitely the work of Neanderthal hunting as modern humans did not yet exist. It requires planning, forethought and a large helping of courage. Again Neanderthals have shown they are prehistoric Tom Cruises.
They were also extremely brainy, more so than modern humans, and this is posing quite a puzzle. The cranial capacity of a Neanderthal is around 1650cc. The modern human has just 1500cc, which makes them 10% more brainy than the average modern human. Once again the Tom Cruise comparison rears its head, but Neanderthal brains are strange. Despite being larger they don’t seem to have ever been as adaptable as modern humans. Currently archaeologists believe that Neanderthals had little or no capability for symbolic thought, so while they had impressive brains, they don’t seem to have used them to their full capacity. Steven Mithen, professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology at Reading University, has likened the Neanderthal mind to a Romanesque cathedral. It may be big on the outside, but instead it’s cramped, gloomy and you can’t hear much going on. I would like to make clear to Mr Cruise and his lawyers that my analogy has broken down.
So much for lust, but would a Neanderthal man be a keeper? It can be hard to unpick the threads of family life, but Palaeolithic archaeologists have been fortunate in finding some persuasive evidence in the Shanidar cave of Iraq.
The Shanidar I burial site contained a man who lived to around 40 years, old by Neanderthal standards. His right arm was withered, possibly since birth and he also appears to have had a gammy right leg, making it impossible for him to run. He certainly couldn’t run fast enough to avoid breaking bones in his right foot or suffering damage to his skull, which may have left him blind in one eye. Healing of the bones shows that while his injuries were serious, they could not have been fatal. This is puzzling; this man was not lucky by nature and so his survival into old age needs to be explained.
It is possible that sympathetic rhinos volunteered to kill themselves in order to feed the man. This would not be a successful long-term survival strategy and would thus explain the lack of rhinos in Iraq. However, archaeologists do not favour this explanation. Instead they argue that it was provision of food and support by other Neanderthals that ensured the man’s survival. If they are right then this would be a demonstration of a Neanderthal’s nurturing instincts.
Shanidar IV, another burial site in the same cave, also reveals flower pollens among the bones. Hayfever sufferers can testify to the omnipresence of pollen and so may not be surprised to find it in a cave. Grass pollen certainly travels well, but flower pollen is heavier and so less likely to waft into a cave. The easiest explanation for the pollen is that someone put flowers there - but this is controversial!
Some archaeologists do not believe that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought, which the placing flowers would disprove. Others have argued that simply placing flowers may not have been evidence of funeral rites; instead they say that after a few weeks at the back of the cave granddad may have started to whiff a bit and the flowers were an attempt to put an end to that. However the argument is resolved the key point here is that Neanderthals will bring you flowers. But would the romance last? If Steven Mithen is right, then it might - he thinks Neanderthals would sing to you.
The theory, like any other involving the words ‘Neanderthal’ and ‘symbolic’ is controversial. Briefly, Mithen builds his case on observing other primates in the modern world. Gibbons are most well known for singing and, when they’re with a partner, they combine to sing duets and compose ring tones. Mithen also notes that Gelada monkeys sound particularly sophisticated, interspersing their calls with those of their companions. He argues that archaeological evidence would indicate limited symbolic behaviour and so ‘language’ would be unlikely. However holistic messages sung as whoops or wails could convey complex emotions and information with being language.
It is possible that in the evening, bands of Neanderthals would gather round the fire and bond over a collective warble under the setting sun. Equally it would seem equally plausible that a Neanderthal man trying to chat up a woman would do so with rhythm and melody. Or what would sound like melody to a Neanderthal, as he notes the grunts of great apes are less tuneful than those of monkeys.
It would therefore seem that Neanderthals were the ideal partner as they were intelligent, expressive and caring. Furthermore, rather than being short, they were in fact ‘fun-size’ and were thus the ultimate in sexiness. Where can the discerning woman go to find her own Neanderthal on her summer holidays?
One suggestion would be to travel to southern Spain as the first Neanderthal skeleton was found on Gibraltar. However, for the classic Neanderthal experience, you may wish to visit Germany this summer instead. Neanderthals are named after the Neander Tal (New Man Valley) in Germany. It was the skeleton found here with the recognisably pronounced brow ridges and stooped stature that lead archaeologists to the conclusion that the Neanderthal was something quite different to modern man. If you find groups of men in Germany this June grunting or chanting inarticulately and attacking things as a mob then you may well have found your very own Neanderthals.
Alun Salt can be found in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History and the i-Science Centre at the University of Leicester where, surprisingly, he is single.
Steven Mithen. Explaining the early human mind. British Archaeology 1996.
Suggested further reading:
Steven Mithen. The Singing Neanderthals. Weidenfield and Nicholson. 2005.
Christopher Stringer and Clive Gamble. In Search of the Neanderthals. Thames and Hudson. 1993.
Gibbon ringtones may be found with a search e.g. www.google.co.uk/search?q=gibbon+ringtones