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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Rediscovery of Neanderthals

The first Neanderthal remains were discovered in Belgium in 1829. But the recognition of Neanderthals as ancient hominid creatures happened after the discovery of remains in Germany’s Neander Valley in 1856. Throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, researchers depicted Neanderthals as cannibalistic and unintelligent brutes. Such views of Neanderthals could become popular because, during the age of imperialism, the Europeans were inclined towards demonizing the past and present non-European cultures. 

In his Views and Reviews essay, Sir Harry Johnston, the British explorer, botanist, and colonial administrator, wrote: “The dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore…” Till this day we hardly know anything about the brains, bodies, and food habits of Neanderthals, but Harry Johnston could decide, by virtue of his imperialistic mindset, that they were gorilla-like, cunning, and cannibalistic. 

Johnston and other European researchers demonized Neanderthals just as Columbus had demonized the native population of the Caribbean islands, and the conquistadors had demonized the Aztecs and the Incas. In a letter to the Monarchs of Spain, Columbus had described the cannibals of the Caribbean islands thusly: “there were men with one eye, and others with dogs’ noses, who ate men, and that when they took a man, they cut off his head and drank his blood and castrated him.” 

In the 1940s, when imperialism came to an end, and the non-European cultures started asserting their political, cultural, and moral values, some scientists and writers rejected the biased approach towards Neanderthals. They started looking at Neanderthals as people. 

In his 1955 novel, The Inheritors, William Golding does not accept the idea that Neanderthals were unredeemed brutes. He intuits their spirituality and humaneness. He gives them the marvelous capacity of telepathy—they can convey their thoughts without pictures and words, though they possess a basic language. Their sense of smell is so sharp that they can analyze an environment with their noses. Their feet can read the vibrations in the ground. They do not create, which is their limitation. They take whatever nature provides them. 

Golding portrays the last surviving band of neanderthals as meek, intelligent, and compassionate people who were wiped out by the barbaric Homo Sapiens. When there is a clash of civilizations, the meek do not inherit the earth, they get killed. 

In the 1990s, Neanderthal DNA was isolated and analyzed, and it became clear that most groups of human beings have up to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA. To explain the presence of Neanderthal DNA in humans, researchers have come up with the theory that between 50,000 to 40,000 years ago, primitive humans had mated with Neanderthals. Mating does not happen without exchange of culture. We have inherited not just Neanderthal DNA but also Neanderthal culture. That is why Golding calls his novel The Inheritors.

Neanderthals were discovered in 1829 but in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a remarkable change in perception and they were rediscovered as people.

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