Marx, Neanderthals, & Other Social Creatures

Louis R Godena louisgodena at
Thu Oct 10 14:21:43 MDT 1996

Adam Rose raises a number of pertinent issues:

Louis Godena:   Neanderthal brains were as large as those of modern humans,
but of
>>different shape.

Adam Rose:   I always understood that the "large brain" stuff was an
argument about
>the size of the brain relative to the body. Do you know how this ratio
>compares with other humans, both ourselves and others which existed at
>around the same time as the Neanderthals ?

REPLY:  The long flat loaf was encased in a massively thick skull,  tucked
behind a receding forehead and deeply overhung eyebrow ridges.    Leakey and
Lewin (*Origins Reconsidered* 1993) suggest that Neanderthal brains were
"clearly larger" than those of their contemporaries,  but are non-specific
in terms of ratio.

Louis Godena:   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.

Adam Rose:   Why do [you] say "it is possible" ? I thought that Neanderthal
graves had been

REPLY:   There is,  as of yet,  no trace of the deliberate construction of
gravesites,  just as there is no evidence that Neanderthals purposely
fashioned stone hearths or pits.    The discovery of interred bones does not
necessarily suggest the purposive burying of the dead.

Louis Godena:   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?).

Adam Rose:   The flip side to the large jaw is that technological and
cultural adaption
>was made unnecessary : if you have large jaws, you don't need to cook it /
>if you can cook it, you don't need large jaws.

REPLY:    In the colder northern climates (let us also remember that the
Neanderthals developed through 50,000 winters of an ice age),  the need to
find predictable sources of meat would have been crucial to survival.
Neanderthals,  naturally,  would have had to live near the winter
concentration grounds of their prey.    Wild cattle,  horses,  goats,  deer,
pigs,  mammoths,  etc.,  would have frozen solid within a few hours of death
and could have stayed that way for up to six months.     Too,   deep-frozen
cadavers would have accumulated in predictable localities,   such as
dangerous fords in the path of reindeer migrations,  rocky ravines where
horses or bison stampeded regularly stampeded,   valley funnels where ibex
and sheep came off the mountains,  or even in boggy land croweded with herds
of mammoths and aurochs.    Such a store of meat could have been used with
great economy only by those who could fire to thaw out meals,   bit by bit,
whenever needed.    And anyone who has wrestled with a deep-frozen carcass
will know that brute force is necessary to move it,  let alone break into
it.    Imagine three meals a day each demanding that sort of unmannerly
struggle,  and Neanderthal's herculean body build and jaw structure becomes
easier to explain.    50,000 very bitter winters were no trivial ordeals for
an originally tropical animal to adapt to and withstand.

Louis Godena:     Too,  the Neanderthals,  their predecessors and their
cousins (our own
>> ancestral line) had a common ecological niche--that of the tool assisted
>> scavenger.
>> 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
>> development.

Adam Rose:     I think in chronological terms, the competition between
Neanderthals and
>other humans happened before the rise of class society. The rest of your
>argument, I feel is correct - that Neanderthals adapted their bodies, but
>the other humans had more generalised bodies and adapted their culture /
>technology. Perhaps at a certain stage, when this culture/technology was
>quite low level, the competition was fairly even. But as the culture/technology
>continued to develop, those humans ( descended from Neanderthals or not )
>which adapted in this way could compete better with other humans and also
>against the rest of nature ( for instance, changing weather patterns,
>changing ecology can be adapted to by a change in a relatively sophisticated
>culture/technology far quicker than a change which can only come about over
>many generations via natural selection ).

REPLY:   The belief that Neanderthals were our ancestors is largely the
function of the intense Eurocentrism that has dominated the study of
prehistory for over one hundred years.    So long as all the best known and
best documented fossils came from Europe this was understandable ,  but now
that more and more African fossil sites are being opened up,  it becomes
even clearer that Modern humans were the Neanderthals'  contemporaries in

Louis Godena:     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.

Adam Rose:    Rubbish. The biology comes first of all ( Humans are just apes
on two
>legs ). This allows the development of technology ( Standing on two
>legs frees the hands ) , and the evolution of biology to use tools.
>Human beings start talking to each other "when they have something to say"
>ie after the development of technology.  Technology implies an increased
>division of Labour, first within the life of one individual and then
>within the group. Culture ( and speech, and consciousness ) is necessary
>to coordinate the division of Labour.
>Of course, once this process has started, each development reacts back on,
>and enhances, the development of the necessary preceeding stage.

REPLY:   But of course the question of how and why and how quickly the
"biology" developed is itself problemmatic.    For example,  in 1971,
linguists pronounced that bony attachments for tongue muscles on a
Neanderthal jaw were so poorly developed that its owner must have been
unable to make many of the sounds we take for granted in our own speech.
But the linguists themselves were later found to have faultily reconstructed
the Neanderthal's mouth--if fact,  some of their reconstructions would have
meant that the putative Neanderthals were unable to swallow or even open
their mouths.

And to quote Harold Jerrison (*Pre History and Social Organization* 1992):
"language needs big brains and not tools."   Communication is a side-effect
in the evolution of language.    Its central function is the construction is
the construction of a species-specific mental model of the world.    An
individual's relationship to the resources and dominant features of its
environment is something that is common to all members of a group.   To fend
off challenges from the external world,  all members must share a common
perception and somehow fashion appropriate respones.     For all non-human
species,  much of the inflow from "outside" is predictable, and their choice
of adapted responses can,   within limits,  be anticipated and coded

Louis Godena:     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
>> inarticulateness.

Adam Rose:   I would argue something different : that the large jaw made the
>of a large brain and the culture/technology to support such a large brain
>both impossible and unneccessary. At the time, which adaption was the best
>was not clear, and both adaptions succeeded. But the  culture/technology
>turned out in the long term to allow more flexibility and greater competitive

REPLY:   I think too little is still known about the culture/technology of
the Neanderthal to admit readily of such a statement.     And the
competitive advantage (if existing in any appreciable form) would have been
obviated by the Neanderthal's propensity for self-incorporation in the
techniques of survival,  referred to above.

Louis Godena

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