Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fear and loathing in the Pleistocene

There are a couple of interesting items on Neanderthals coming our way today, courtesy of the National Geographic. First is this short video that presents the contrasting views of I. Tattersall and J. Hawks on modern human-Neanderthal interactions:

Did Man Kill the Neanderthals?

Now, I'm sure it was unintentional, but this cracked me up: as the narrator announces "Today, it’s obvious who dominates the planet" and pauses, the video cues to a shot of John standing in the middle of Times Square(?), looking straight into the camera! And it's only fitting, really, considering the refreshing perspective Hawks brings to the debate over competition between the two hominin groups (transcripted by yours truly):

"It would be insane to go out and pick a fight. You’re not a military organization going in, looking to conquer. You’re a small group yourself. You sort of have to find a way to live with the locals and, as you do that, you learn from them to some extent. And the locals learn from you.

I feel like the defense attorney for the Neanderthals sometimes. I’m trying to see the ways that they overlap with us and trying to add complexity to the story because any story that involves things happening over a continent over thousands of years has got to be complicated."

Good little video, overall, though I was a bit aggravated by the conclusions narrated towards the end of the video: "Fossils are inconclusive, the answer lies in DNA." Well, no, actually. DNA provides some information, fossils provide other types of information and archaeology provides yet other information, all of which is necessary and complementary to reach an adequate understanding of this process. I hammer this a lot to my students and in my work, but it really cheapens the practice of physical anthropology and archaeology when they're considered only as icing on the interpretive cake of evolutionary genetics. Bones and stones (to simplify) are not just ancillary evidence: they're critically important sources of data that need to be accounted for fully as opposed to simply made to fit in the models derived from other disciplines. It's often all too tempting to grant greater weight to the conclusions of disciplines that are more directly grounded in the life sciences, but it's important to realize that they're also fraught with internal tensions and debates and wide-ranging differences in interpretation.

This ties in neatly with the second NG item, namely a report on a new reconstruction of a Neanderthal female. Here's a shot of this beauty:

But what you should really check out is the set of photos related to this reconstruction. Five pictures in, there's an especially great shot of the Neanderthal woman (nicknamed Wilma) thrusting a spear and sporting an extensive set of black tattoos on her back and upper chest. Now, why is this so neat (beyond being the closest thing to Neanderthal fetish/alterna-porn you're likely to ever see - I mean, it's a naked chick with tats and a weapon!)? Because the reconstruction is based on genetics, skeletal anatomy and archaeology. You have the genetics that have informed the artists about the likely hair and skin color of the Neanderthal. You have the skeletal morphology dictating the overall look and posture of the thing. And finally, you have the archaeology contributing some additional behavioral information. In this specific case, the reconstruction draws on discussions about the fact that Neanderthal females may have been integral to large game procurement strategies (i.e., no sexual division of labor) and on the fact that Neanderthals appear to have used manganese as a coloring material to on their skin. Kudos to the artists for artfully integrating all three lines of evidence!


Anne Gilbert said...

About Neandertals, I feel rather like John Hawks, except that rather than being a "defense attorney" for Neandertals, I'm a Starving Writer, writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, that is rooted in the aim of making Neandertals respectable once more. Or at least just making them respectable. People can probably swallow this idea easer in fiction, than in the conflicting views and privileging of certain disciplines, that come from (some) scientists who study them.
Anne G

Maju said...

DNA provides some information, fossils provide other types of information and archaeology provides yet other information, all of which is necessary and complementary to reach an adequate understanding of this process.

Exactly! I just hate it when some people seem to want to draw conclusions only from one of these fields, regardless of the others.

Re. the Neanderthal woman reconstruction, I am glad that you linked to the whole set of images. The closeup pic make her look way too modern maybe, while the other images (profiles specially) are more realistic. Still, she seems to have a quite wide forehead for most Neanderthal skulls I've seen (but guess it's her peculiar trait) and it must be noticed that all the genetic info in this reconstruction is the finding that some Neanderthals may have had red hair, what strongly suggests light pygmentation as happens with West Eurasian H. sapiens. Nothing else in this reconstruction is, for what I know, genetically-based (not the blue eyes and not the partial epicanthic fold, certainly, which rather seem capriciously inspired in modern Northern Europeans).

Another thing that strikes me as probably wrong is the nose: the cavity is (as with most Neanderthals) very wide, resembling those common among Black Africans, so I'd really would expect a more African-like nose. But I may be missing something in this.

And I miss some body hair too: nearly all H. sapiens women have naturally much more body hair than this "cold-adapted" Neanderthal lady.

Anne Gilbert said...

Maju and all:

Some sub-Saharan Africans(particularly in West Africa, and to some extent in southern Africa, have "typical" wide noses. But in other parts of Africa, people have narrower noses, e.g. East Africa, Horn of Africa, Central Afric. Neandertals did have large nasal cavities, but whether their noses were "snubby" like "Wilma's" or very large, long, and straight, or something else, there's no way of knowing. Probably there were a variety of nose shapes, just like there are among "modern" humans.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny when they are always depicted as dirty, with messy hair. Even animals clean themselves. I like to imagine that they enjoyed a dunk in the river now and then.