Marx, Neanderthals, & Other Social Creatures

Louis R Godena louisgodena at
Sat Oct 5 15:45:14 MDT 1996

Are Neanderthals our ancestors?    Paleotologists still answer with a
resounding "yes",  "no",  and "maybe".

The Neanderthal "identity" has aroused controversy ever since the first
fossil drew its name from the valley near Dusseldorf where it was discovered
in 1856.

It was promptly dismissed as the remains of a diseased Cossack mercenary,
stored in a museum and forgotten for half a century.

It was not until the 1890s that Gustav Schwalbe,  on the flimsiest of
evidence,  declared Neanderthals to be intermediate between Erect and Modern

It is not just how fossil finders have since traced our ancestry,  but whence.

Neanderthal brains were as large as those of modern humans,  but of
different shape.    Their skeletons were also massive,  with short limbs,
long backs and rotund barrel-shaped chests,  proportions not found in any
modern people.    Such striking features were derived from taller,   longer
limbed,  but much smaller-brained Erect humans,  destined to become the
indigenous people of western Eurasia.    Neanderthals began to differentiate
>from them possibly as early as half a million years ago.    By 130,000 years
ago,  unequivocally Neanderthal fossils,  their cave sites and their
Mousterian stone-tool industries occur all over Europe.   By 35,000 years
ago,   they disappear from the fossil record.

Neanderthals seemed to have lived in small groups,  and the bones of elderly
and disabled individuals imply that families took care of their weaker
members.   There are traces of ornaments, and it is possible that they
buried their dead.

Aside from the normal human agency of two hands,  Neanderthals were unique
in joining these with a third agent--a ferocious dental clamp.    It was
this specialization--mainly animal tissue was thus clenched,  shredded and
cut--that gave them their diagnostic "muzzle",   massive jaw-muscle
attachments and big front teeth.    It is still unclear why "clamping"
develop in just one regional population of humans.    The ecology of the
cool northwestern provinces they inhabit may provide a clue (the
consumption, perhaps,  of deep frozen cadavers?).

Too,  the Neanderthals,  their predecessors and their cousins (our own
ancestral line) had a common ecological niche--that of the tool assisted

On the other hand,  they left no hint of a symbol or representation.    This
is in striking contrast to Moderns who,  across the length and breadth of
Europe,  carved little nude figures as early as 23,000 years ago.
Standardized artifacts and symbols imply shared rituals and performances.
They also imply chains of interactions that linked quite distant people.
Symbolically organized behavior would have helped social cooperation and
communication,  suggesting that such "advantages" might have speeded up and
intensified the colonization of Europe by moderns.

Slower or less successful breeding,  smaller social units and a lower
overall density could also have prejudiced Neanderthal survival;  simple
demography might be enough to explain their demise.    It is also possible
that,  given the fact that Neanderthals had come to incorporate--in the most
literal sense--their own bodies in the ecological strategy that had insured
their survival for more than 100,000 years,  the arrival of more independent
and flexible techniques proved fatal.    Self-integration into a specialized
mode of earning a living is never conducive to long-term species survival.
More versatile Modern hunters would have displaced them as surely as
fishing-boats and fine-mesh nets starved out the sardine-eating birds of
Peru.    Such an adaptation would have precluded of course the development
of class relations among the Neanderthal and related species.   No class, no

Some of Marx is suggested,  too, in the demise of the Neanderthal record
30,000 years ago.    Like the modern psychologist Nicholas Humphrey,   he
believed that it was the demands of a complex social life that made humans
intelligent.    He gave social skills and "social chess" importance over and
above practical skills in the planning,  co-ordination and use of technology
and techniques.   "Social chess involves the individual in working out its
place in the social order,  relating to the group or the class,  devising
trade-offs and technical deceptions in manipulating individuals and groups.
Marx's emphasis on the social (and its natural extension,  the economic)
assumes that the learning and practice of technical skills comprises a
qualitatively different class of knowledge and behavior.    One that is
ultimately less suited for long-term survival.

If,  as the fossil record suggests,  the Neanderthal jaw was incapable of
making any of the sounds we take for granted in our own speech,  this may
account very neatly for the Neanderthal's extinction as well as their

Louis Godena

*Christopher Stringer & Clyde Gimble,  *In Search of the Neanderthals:
Solving the puzzle of human origins.*   1995: Thames & Hudson.

Erik Trinkaus & Pat Shipman,  *The Neanderthals: Changing the image of
mankind.* 1995:  Jonathon Cape.

Jonathan Kindon,   *Images of Prehistory:  Marx to modernity*  1996: Sage

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