What’s in a name?


Reuters and other news agencies are reporting on an article in PLOS ONE by two paleontologists who have studied Homo sapiens neanderthalus.  They report that Neanderthals were quite as advanced as Homo sapiens sapiens, citing evidence for complex tool making, social strategies for hunting, use of fire, use of pigments and use of eagle claws and animal teeth in ornamentation for some purpose.  Of course these would all presuppose the development of language.


I think this view has been prominent in scientific circles for some time though the general public still seems to hold the view that Neanderthals were not intelligent, did not have any advanced culture and lost out to modern humans in the survival of the fittest competition.  Oops.  One of the authors of this latest paper points out that they are not even extinct since they interbred with modern humans and specifically Neanderthal parts of their genome survive in us.  Our genomes in general are very similar even apart from this.

So the name, Neanderthal, connotes some ignorant brute and why?  This is mostly historical, as the discovery 150 years ago came when racial discrimination was often based on stereotypes supportive of someone’s superiority.  I think the prejudice has been reinforced by the image of a robust, heavy boned, shorter stature and forelimbs, and prominent nose/brow facial area.




I also think their discovery came during Darwin’s time and many misunderstood (for propaganda reasons?) the survival of the fittest concept.  Neanderthals, before interbreeding, survived over 300,000 years until the climate change (now I’m worried) and some sort of interaction with modern humans. This is another example, I think, of good science arriving at self-correction and hopefully the rest of culture following along albeit slowly.  A list of interesting facts was published in Discovery magazine December 2013 which you can see here:  http://discovermagazine.com/2013/dec/22-20-things-you-didnt-know-aboutneanderthals.

By the way, did you catch the last episode of Cosmos about the beginnings of astrophysics?  Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out that many of the key scientists there and then were female, unknown now and prohibited then from studying science at university or leading research efforts (at least in title) in England and other countries.  Seems like 100 years ago or so that females and Neanderthals suffered from similar prejudices relegating them to second class status.  Cultures change, albeit slowly, with some resisting more than others and in this case usually on religious grounds.  Amen.

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