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In the past, most people considered Neanderthals somewhat like a parody on mankind, the hillbillies of the Upper Pleistocene. Today we know better, or at least we should.
The bias against them has led most scientists so far to look at the facts and interpret them unfavourably for the Neanderthals, and archaeologists tend to attribute inventions and milestones to them only if nobody else was around at the time. But the more evidence emerges, the more difficult it becomes to portray these people, who happened to have a larger brain than any other hominids (including ourselves), as naďve savages.
Neanderthals emerged in modern-day Spain 430,000 years ago
and spread over most of Eurasia. This coincides with the Holstein interglacial which began 424,000 years ago, and during which temperatures in Europe became less hostile for humans. The Holstein lasted for 50,000 years, after which the next glacial period gripped the continent.
Even though the physiognomy of the Neanderthals had made them more resistant to cold weather, human life in these conditions would have been impossible without clothes, and an animal hide thrown across one’s shoulders simply wouldn’t do the trick. Therefore it must be deduced that Neanderthals had developed the ability to produce clothes as early as 370,000 years ago, almost 200,000 years before Homo sapiens emerged.
While vegetables seem to have been a regular side dish, Neanderthals were carnivores who specialised in large prey such as bison and reindeer. They lived in the mountains where they attacked herd animals and drove them off the cliffs.
Of course, coordinating ambushes like this requires organisation, and organisation requires complex language. Fortunately their hyoid bone was located as low in their throats as it is in ours, and their FOXP2 gene was identical to ours, which means they not only had the need but also the ability to speak in full sentences - once again, long before Homo sapiens even came into existence.
Their stone tools were of the Mousterian class from which they developed the Châtelperronian industry, and they also used projectile spears; it seems they produced wooden tools as well which, sadly, don’t fossilise. In order to attach stone spearheads to wooden shafts, or knives to handles, they developed a strong adhesive from the heated bark of birch trees in a technique which to date has not been duplicated with the resources that were available to them. They were also the first to use bone tools.
It also appears that Neanderthals were the first human seafarers, at least 100,000 years ago. Their Mousterian tools have been discovered on Crete, an island that is separated from the mainland by 40km of open sea (even during glacial periods).
We don’t know when exactly the first Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, but we know that they already had met and reproduced with Neanderthals 100,000 years ago.
It is generally assumed that, just like contemporary human beings do, the stronger species would have exterminated the weaker one. This didn’t happen.
If it had, Homo sapiens would not have stood a chance, anyway; Neanderthals were physically stronger, familiar with the terrain, and they knew how to survive in a frozen world approaching another low in global temperatures.
It’s most likely (albeit difficult to imagine in today’s world) that both parties established friendly relationships and joined forces right from the start. The Neanderthals would have taught Homo sapiens how to hunt, gather food, build shelters and make clothes and tools, and the large numbers of Homo sapiens would have made their hunts of large prey such as mammoths more effective.
Generally, even in this day and age and despite the information we have now, Neanderthals are still played off against Homo sapiens when facts are presented, despite growing evidence that they weren’t competitors but collaborators and lovers. We know that, with the exception of a small sub-Saharan population whose ancestors never left Africa, all of today’s humans have Neanderthal ancestors. Taking into account that the overall Neanderthal population was quite small (it is estimated that Homo sapiens outnumbered them 10:1), it is reasonable to conclude that they were entirely assimilated into Homo sapiens (seeing that such a small group found their way into all our DNA suggests they must have been quite attractive), to the benefit of both: once the creativity, resourcefulness and inquisitive spirit of the Neanderthals were combined with the ambition and adventurous nature of Homo sapiens, an unstoppable force was created that conquered the world, beginning with the Cro-Magnon culture 45,000 years ago.
There are many aspects of Neanderthals that are reminiscent of autism. They preferred to live in very small groups that had little or no contact with each other, they had a significantly larger occipital lobe which gave them greater visual and pattern recognising abilities, and they were less social than Homo sapiens (‘We have a social brain, whereas Neanderthals appear to have a visual brain’ - Clive Gamble). They had larger brains, came up with original solutions to problems they faced (see the paragraph on inventions) and smoked and dried meat which they probably stored to live on until the next herd of big game came along, corresponding to the common autistic trait of hoarding.
While autism causes atypical social behaviour and is therefore considered a disorder by most, it also brings with it an increased ability for creative thought (‘thinking outside the box’), recognition of patterns, attention to detail, focus and a lot more - all the properties that brought mankind out of the Stone Age.
Even though the fact might be caused by other factors, such as lack of diagnostic tools, autism rates in Africa are lower than elsewhere in the world. In their article
Autism Spectrum Disorders in Africa, Muideen O. Bakare and Kerim M. Munir conclude, ‘The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among children living in African continent is possibly lower than the prevalence among African children living in Europe and other high income developed countries. This disparity in prevalence need to be explained by future studies.’
It certainly would be interesting to see a study conducted in the sub-Saharan countries to find out whether any individual without Neanderthal DNA was ever diagnosed with autism; if not, this would make a strong case for the theory of Neanderthal DNA being responsible for autism.
Looking at our closest living relatives, the bonobo and the chimpanzee, it is intriguing to see that the former seems to be obsessed with socialising while the latter is more interested in objects. Despite their genetic makeup being almost identical, they display very different behaviour, with the bonobo fucussing on interaction and the chimpanzee on tools; it’s almost like an ape version of Homo sapiens and Neanderthal. Ironically, it was a bonobo who recently was reported to display autistic behaviour; I have contacted the research centre and asked about the possibility of a recent chimpanzee ancestor, but they didn’t grace me with a reply.