You know, I was so sure that my story from last week was going to inspire some clickbait articles on Buzzfeed or someplace: This Man Read a 35-Year-Old National Geographic, What He Figured Out From It Will Amaze You.
It's ok. Not everyone shares my interest in hominids and extinct human species. They're so tantalizing, you know? At one time, not that long ago geologically speaking, there were at least four species of humans sharing the Earth at the same time. Four! (Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, the Denisovans and Homo floresiensis.) They were there but are lost forever. We'll never get the chance to know what they were like, beyond a few fossils and artifacts and cave paintings. Speaking of, a much more recent National Geographic article [ http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/first-artists/walter-text ] had the intriguing suggestion that those famous cave paintings were meant to be animations- the flickering light of fires would give a vivid sense of motion to the cave lions and aurochs and so on. Obviously we have no way of knowing if this was their intent or not, but I choose to believe. Why not?
Just today as I write this (yesterday if you are reading this today when it was published), PLOS ONE, an online science journal which is quickly gaining as much credibility as Nature or Science, published an article [ http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0119802 ] positing that some eagle talons found in a cave in Croatia at a Neanderthal site are clear evidence that they had artistic tendencies at least 130,000 years ago, long before sapiens came out of Africa. Some scientists have argued that Neanderthals only developed symbolic, ritualistic behaviours (as seen in Neanderthal burial sites and ornaments from around 50,000 years ago) after being exposed to the supposedly smarter, more advanced sapiens. Side note, worth mentioning here- Neanderthal brain volume was 10% greater than ours.
I could nerd out on this sort of thing all day. I've had a lifelong interest in paleontology and prehistoric life. I'll leave you with this short blog post from my archives, circa 2006:
Whatever happened to the Neanderthals? They used to dominate Europe- imagine a social predator with the mental capacity of a modern human coupled with the brute strength of a gorilla. Common wisdom says they died out around 30,000 years ago, possibly at the hands of Homo sapiens- though another theory suggests they were ill-adapted to the post-ice age climate. National Geographic has a news item that suggests Neanderthals and sapiens interbred, and that the Neander population was genetically absorbed into ours. The bottom line is, we don't really know what happened to them.
What if they survived much later than the fossil record shows? Everyone knows the fossil record is more of a broad spectrum tool rather than a precise measuring rod. A difference of, say, 25,000 years is miniscule in geological terms. I've always thought this little throwaway paragraph in the Bible was intriguing:
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. Genesis 6:4
Certainly the massive Neanderthals would have seemed godlike to the much smaller sapiens. To me, the cryptic nature of this passage suggests two things- that the Nephilim were fairly common knowledge and wouldn't have needed to be explained much beyond that description, and that whoever they were, they interbred with "humans".
What do you think? I'd be proud to have a little Neanderthal blood in me.
- Nathan Waddell