The Changing Perceptions of Neanderthals: The Role of Socio-Cultural Paradigms and Archaeological Theory and Methodology.

Jacqueline Gardiner

The Type specimen of Homo neanderthalensis, N1, was unearthed in Neanderthal (Neander Valley), Germany, and was jointly announced in 1857 by Johann Karl Fuhlrott and Hermann Schaffhausen. It is here that the story of Neanderthal perception begins, born as an intellectually and physically crippled ‘savage’ incapable of speech, technology, culture, emotion and other essential verbs encompassed under the umbrella of human capacity. Neanderthals have grown in modern eyes to be somewhat of an antithesis to this depiction and beyond. While the discourse has abandoned such binaries as ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’ it still features, predominantly, ‘them’ and ‘us’, testifying to the Neanderthals separate placement in our sibling line genetically, despite topical discussion on this issue.

It is sufficiently ingrained into even our modern minds, this ‘savage’ ‘other’, and for the most part a description of this portrayal is unnecessary, ergo this essay will assay to analyze the motivations behind the representations, arguing that such convictions and dichotomies are fundamentally a product of each of their authors’ times. To facilitate this, the historiographical sphere will be broken into four main epochs; the first, an age of creationism, imperialism and ethnography that later incorporated evolutionary theory, and attributes of so-called Social Darwinism, the second influenced by the Post-War implications of intrinsic humanity, space exploration, ‘New Archaeology’ and science fiction. The third will outline the proposed role of cognitive psychology and its adherences to archaeological discourse while the fourth will explain motives in our modern age where foci questions of genetics and interbreeding have arisen as well as revisionary work. These later two sections will feature more theoretical discussions, designed to ameliorate the well documented past with the dynamic discourses of the present digital age supplemented with examples of my own provided. I will additionally discuss the role of archaeological paradigms such as culture-historicalism or cultural evolutionism, hyper-diffusionism, processualism and post-processualism and suggest how these changing faculties expedited and influenced the perceptions of Neanderthals in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

The Neanderthal discovery provided an enigma for Creationists and the scientific community alike, augmented by the conventional community’s perturbation when presented with the pivotal substantiation of essential religious fallacy. This was exacerbated by the communiqué equating the epitome of religious creation’s process to that of an animal, an ape no less [Drell 2000]. The relative contemporaneousness to European colonization, missionary endeavors and the expansion of Ethnologists territory provided ‘exotic’ tales of ‘modern savages’, allowing for a process of analogy. Such reasoning followed: along the lines of the ‘processes of the past are presented in the current’, leading to key figures in the new Neanderthal debate, Schaffhausen, Kupka, Boule, and Fuhlrott (to some extent) to vehemently juxtapose such anachronistically modern physiological and cultural primitivism to that of the European, and human, past. This of course was done using a scientific albeit borderline racist foundation, Schaffhausen the anatomist noted that the Neanderthal he studied had a larger cranial capacity than that of the most disadvantaged ‘negroes’ [Schaffausen 1888]. The role of Ethnography, phrenology and anthropology was explicit in his literature, but a lack of post-cranial analysis was a detriment to these researchers, as they focused on measurements and struggled to overcome the boundary of the supra-orbital Taurus, prognathism and occipital differences. Meanwhile, devoid of physical evidence all together, Boitard ran rampant with Darwinism, allegedly crafting ‘the first Darwinian narrative’ with a visual hypothesis of intermediate ape and humanoids, which was hideously unfounded [Trussel 2002]. Boule perhaps became the most notorious when he purported the depiction and consequent promulgation of Neanderthals animalistic base tendencies due to motives of diluting the ‘radical implications of evolution’ spurred from the Catholic atmosphere he was accustomed. With likewise scientific inducement to Schaffhausen, however it could be argued that this attempt to ‘soften the blow’ ran away from him when the subtext was taken up by others [Graves 1991] [Drell 2000]. Kupka was one such artist who extended the ‘primitivism’ and physical impairments, thus imprinting an image of the hirsute, slouched and bowlegged species incongruous with the gracility of Homo sapiens [Hamilton 2011]. Such reactionary creationist paradigms were also reflected in the Catholic publication La Croix that imbibed Neanderthals as purely animalistic to vindicate human kind [and Creationism], as when acknowledged as an animal ‘the bible made clear that animals had been created before humans’ [1909 via Sommer 2006].

Furthermore, popular contemporary references such as literature, newspaper articles and comics asserted the indignation of the populace where H G Wells’ The Grisly Folk of 1921 perhaps epitomized the role of Imperialist ideology on the depictions of Neanderthals at the turn of the century. The interaction (read: conflicts and extinguishing of) between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens was essentially a metaphor and outlet for the civilized British ‘elitist’ practice of ‘curing’ the outer reaches of our world of ‘primitivism’ [Hackett et al. 2003]. However, Wells took this further, increasing the Neanderthal simianism to four-legged locomotion that actively affected the Homo sapiens by stealing their youth, thus their ultimate extermination was a blessing to man kind. Hackett et al. suggest popular mediums in the same vein as The Grisly Folk such as Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912), The Neanderthal Man (1951 film), and Quest for Fire (1981 film), represent an “over riding fascination… [with] defining ourselves by contrasting what it means to be ‘us’ as fully modern humans, as opposed to ‘them’” [2003]. Harper’s Bazaar was lost to this conquest as well, representing both the exoteric nature of such ideologies and the extent of the social readership that cultivated an interest in such subtextual Imperialistic attitudes.

Neanderthals suffered such reputations long after the hyperdiffusionist and essentially eugenic phase, but realistic interpretation was garnered during the ‘Post-War Zeitgeist’ [Graves 1991]. The effects of multiple wars and political conflicts had served to challenge human nature and human capabilities, leading to an intellectual search to redefine Humanity. Similarly Pithecanthropus and Sinathropus further played a role, extending the outer peripheries of the human evolutionary timeline, rendering Neanderthals less strange and more analogous to ‘us’. Cold-war efforts to explore space gave rise to notions of other worldliness and the thematic genre of science fiction, essentially amplifying distrust within the ranks of palpable humanity. The implications of this led to Golding’s science fiction novel The Inheritors (1955), a direct dichotomy to The Grisly Folk, while the prose is thematically similar, the former presents the Modern Human incursion from the Neanderthal point of view. He portrayed them as an emotional, naturalistic, vulnerable yet still primitively instinctual race wary of the anthropogenic implications and privy to supernatural phenomena, thus Golding’s novel suggested the growing emotive perception and response of the new generation [Hackett 2003]

Such burgeoning sympathies were echoed outside of popular culture, in historiographical and archaeological changes, pivotally by the incipient necessitation for reassessment and reconfiguration of Neanderthal anatomy. Patte disputed Boule’s representation in 1955, and utilized comparative data to prove that the morphological differences were much less conspicuous than previous reports [Howell 1957]. Similarly Straus and Cave announced the severe osteoarthritic pathology Boule’s specimen exhibited, ultimately leading to the discrediting of Krupka’s depiction [Drell 2000]. The skeletal revaluation led to a renaissance in Neanderthal discourse, Howell discussed the present understandings and legacy of Neanderthals in 1957 concluding that the palaeoarchaeology of Neanderthals “[stressed] the need for their careful study and re-evaluation if studies of man’s evolution are to proceed along potentially fruitful directions…” [pg 343, 1957]. The echoes of Processualism are apparent, along with the radical subversion of the previous generation’s attitudes thus debates over Neanderthal physical capabilities became the highlight of their generation. Speech became a main precursor in discussions; undoubtedly due to the importance speech is given in differentiating “us” from the rest of the Animalia. Boule was noted for presuming Neanderthal musculature impeded their ability to even smile [La Pierre 2007], despite the new trend of relying only on actual evidence (Positivism), the discussion of speech principally attested to the ideological revolution in the Post-War period. The palaeoanthropologist, David Frayer was conspicuously ‘pro-speech’; obviated by “it is now time to reject the notion that Neanderthals lacked the capacity for speech” [1992], while linguist Phillip Lieberman and anatomist Jeffery Laitman proposed that Neanderthal throats were limited in physiognomy to that of a modern human infant [Mahathey 2000]. Similar considerations of the role of Neanderthal women within kinship groups reflected the impacts of rising feminist archaeological theory. The first discussions of sexual dimorphism, or the lack of, gave way to the interpretation of homogenous subsistence practices between the genders, as well as features of fecundity, gestation, reproduction and maturation (such as Zeller 1987, Rosenberg 1988, Baskerville 1989 etc. via Graves 1991). Most significantly, the Mousterian industry/complex represented physically analogous (but differential in terms of time) tool development to that of Cro-Magnon counterparts. Discussions of lithic manufacture predominantly aimed to promote Neanderthal hunter-gatherer techniques and subsistence strategies to that of an intellectual parity with anatomically modern humans. Most notably, Bordes assessed the aspects of the Mousterian assemblage in the 1950’s and described ‘handaxes, numerous sidescrapers, denticulates and backed knives made with a Levallois technique’ as resembling more advanced, specialized tool kits. Furthermore cultural, regional or chronological differences in the physicality of such lithics were noted. In response, however, Binford suggested technological and material differences could be prescribed to the apparent differences in their assembly [Binford 1966]. Marshack further discussed the intellectual implications of secondary manufacturing techniques, specifically the notion of ‘holes’, technologies in hafting, and tertiary methods such as fire-hardening [1989]. The potential variability and multi-staged approach to creating objects necessary for survival in the spheres of subsistence, defensive, domestic and industrial contexts affirmed the changing perception of Neanderthals in the Post-War, and Processualist era.

Such physiological considerations had their basis in fundamental questions of cognitive behavior and capabilities, as evidenced by Marshack, but Post-Processualism allowed for a new, specific framework to be applied to questions of this nature. It is here that I will begin to discuss the less-treaded ground of the role of Cognitive Psychology and its application to the human evolutionary process and the assiduity it provided for questions of a Neanderthal socio-cultural aperture. I do not mean to imply that Neanderthal cultural behavior was not considered until the late 20th century, merely to describe such contemporary discourse within this context. Cognitive psychology itself was concerned with studies of memory, language processing, perception, and problem solving [ed. Logan], and Post-Processualism was eminent about its interdisciplinary principle. One such example is the 1990 Cascais symposium Tools, Language and Intelligence: Evolutionary Implications, at which Lieberman presented among others, inferences of hominid behavior [Gibson and Ingold 1995]. Such centralization of cognitive debates represented the once again changing perception of Neanderthals to include the various familiar attributes of culture; burial, artistic expression in both cave art and artifact production, bodily adornment or ornamentation and social organization including hierarchy, co-operation, societal roles and care. As previously mentioned, Lieberman even refuted the potential for speech, yet Hayden, Solecki, Marshawk, etc., rebutted many of these anti-socio-cultural arguments. Burial was an anxious issue in particular; previously ascertained to be essentially non-existent, but Shanidar soon became an illustrious crux. Hayden championed that near-eastern and European cave sites alike “leave little doubt concerning either the intentional human origins of most of these interments or the evidence of a strong symbolic component” [121, 1993]. He thoroughly maintained that burials predominantly exhibited an east-west orientation, incorporated auxiliary deposits of offerings and ‘on face value’, evidence of fire established a strong correlation between Neanderthal sites [ibid.]. This insistence on ritualism was an inherently Post-Processualist ideology, prompted by psychological theories, and evidenced theorists’ pursuits of new interpretations of Neanderthal capabilities and perceptions. Divergent theories, however, also arose, Pettit was reluctant to immediately assume such grave accouterments, yet surmised that intentional burial ‘seem[ed] clear enough’ [Pettit 2000]. Diametrically opposed to Solecki, Hayden and Marshack, Gargett was renowned for a vociferous skepticism towards Neanderthal capabilities of interment; “[he] postulate[ed] that Neanderthals sought out depressions in caves to die in” [Hayden 1993], however in Gargett’s own words his tenet was fundamentally to ‘see if natural processes can be ruled out’ [28, 1999]. If anything, this attests to the voracity of contemporary discourse, potentially lending an undertone of the stakes defining ‘Humanity’ itself had throughout this epoch. The discussion of art became a complex issue from the onset of definition alone, but for the purposes of this analysis, a negotiation will be suggested as ‘ornamentation beyond physical configuration’, i.e. in Dissanayake fashion, ‘making something special’ [1995]. Precious materials, percussion flaking scars and techniques [Marquet 2003], pigments [D’Errico 2003], mobiliary art [Marshack 1989] and even lithic symmetry [Hayden 1993] were all part of the extension of artistic representation discussed under Neanderthal cultural manifestation. Furthermore, skeletal evidence arose in Shanidar and La Chapelle-aux-Saints that indicated care and rehabilitation of the elderly or injured [Owen 2000], Solecki was soon to propose that care, labor distribution and social organization was as much a hallmark to the Neanderthals as it became to Homo sapiens [Edwards 2010]. This Neanderthal psychological and cognitive revolution went on to become the main pivot in generating changes to our perceptions of the ‘other’ even today. It must be made implicit, however, that this first generation were rather overly zealous and were largely impeded by factors such as the lack of soft tissue evidence, potential disparities in brain formulation between Neanderthals and Modern Humans and the relative infancy of neurological comprehension. Purely psychological or physiological hypotheses were attempted, but a cross-faculty approach at best, was necessitated thus the archaeology of artifacts played a great role in evidencing theories. Despite such ambitions, the ever-constant fallacies of archaeological investigation continued to, if nothing else, accentuate the thresholds of paeleoarchaeology and anthropology.

The modern age, past the threshold of the 21st century, is built from these discourses of socio-cultural cognition, genetic place and hypothetical capability, and augmented by increasing scientific technology, fast-paced information delivery and the increasing need to find biological companionship as we begin to comprehend the expanse of our universe. Ideological trajectories have been complicated by digital technology and the infinity of voices involved within an international forum where palaeoarchaeology is attempting to answer fundamental questions about the similarities, differences and relationships between ‘us’ and them’. The aperture opens and closes, affected by the current epoch of ideology and individual agency, where revisions of the past paradigms are playing an important role on the current perception of Neanderthals. Langely’s thesis submission (2006 via Dyason 2007) proposed an “innovative diachronic approach to the analysis of Neanderthal faunal extraction, technology and symbolic behavior” ultimately aiming to evidence patterns of change in Neanderthal assemblages. This simultaneously affirms the role future palaeoarchaeology and its caucus will play as much needed data and ultra-modern voices come to the forefront. Veteran archaeologists are revisiting preliminary theories and data, constantly extending the limits of our new archaeological ideology, Pettit has denounced the importance of ritual and material culture, redefining Neanderthal raison d’etreas predominantly garnered through social and group dynamics, individual ‘physical and/or intellectual’ value and the comprehension of the limited phenomenon of life [2000, 2010]. Various returns to the Neander Valley type site and the skeletal remains have also occurred, [Schmitz et al. 2002], while Khun and Stiner reaffirmed the theory of the robust Neanderthal women participating in the hunting position of hunter-gatherer society [2006]. These are a mere handful of the examples of ideology and perceptions in the sudden deluge of Neanderthal perception and discourse, as our decade takes the word ‘renaissance’ to the extreme.

This is of course symptomatic of Lagar Velho’s yielding of Trinkaus’ ‘hybridised’ Neanderthal – Cro-Magnon child which began the highly topical ‘admixture hypothesis’ in 1999, echoing the still to this day primarily, farcically, misinterpreted ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ model of Allan Wilson (1987) [Jones 2005, elucidation mine]. Huxley, however, antedated this scientific ideology of admixture in the 19th century, although it must be stated that his paradigm ‘expected’ to find these characteristics within the ‘more primitive’ races [1890]. The Neanderthal Genome Project of 2006 saw the focus of this debate shift from Trinkaus’ anatomically derived synthesis to one of archaeogenetics infamously substantiating the admixture theory. Relentless debates, reviews, comments, replies and reworkings have since arisen, mimicking the similar countenance of acceptance or denial the first epoch described. We seem to have come full circle in other realms of Neanderthal perception, where suggestions of the original Neander Valley Museum portraying the hominids with ‘too much’ humanity are noted. The excesses of bodily hair have disappeared, replaced by overly subjective expressions in identifiably modern social situations (the elderly emphatically conversing with the young, religious scenarios, lamentation of a partners death etc.), and even depicted wearing sewn leather trousers [Drell 2000].

Such is the legacy of our genetic cousins, from putative barbarism and base simian attributes to the sudden impetus to define previous ‘Neanderthaloids’ as part of our own clan renaming them Homo sapiens neanderthalensis [Britannica 2012]. From limited cognitive processing to complex notions of ritual, cultural and societal conventions the dynamic historiography has testified a plethora of perceptions that seem to make the task of identification, hence differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’, palpably convoluted. Similarly cumbersome is the originally cardinal aim to justify our own humanity, now encapsulated by the solitary existence of Homo sapiens sapiens. Related paradigms of the previous epochs symptomatically strained their contemporary societies perceptions generating an ‘on paper’ dichotomy to what we see today. While scholarly articles and discourse have propounded multiple interpretations of Neanderthals, a residuum of pathological intellectual defects, linguistic obtuseness and a propensity for ‘savage’ behavior still manifests in popular culture today, Gogs (BBC 1996), Parisi’s Off the Mark comic series, Cro (ABC 1993), just to name a few. Despite this minor regression, archaeology itself has generated radical changes to the Neanderthal ideology, suggesting that “the ‘evolution’ of Neanderthals over the last 100 years says more about ‘us’” [Rimmer 2012].


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