Neanderthals were human, say it loud and proud

The above tweet captures the essence of something that occasionally happens in science: a revelation that transforms our understanding of the possibilities of the real. 2010’s Neanderthal genome paper did that, transforming a field which was mostly skeptical or cautious of Neanderthal gene flow into modern lineages, to one that was accepting of the likelihood.

Today was a similar event. Neanderthals, the World’s First Misunderstood Artists:

The team found flowstones covering parts of the artworks and scraped away samples for dating. In three caves, it turned out, some of the art was over 64,000 years old — about 20,000 years earlier than the first evidence of modern humans in Europe.

“They must have been made by Neanderthals,” said Dr. Pike.

Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University who was not involved in the new study, said the evidence was conclusive. “This constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies,” he said. “Neanderthal authorship of some cave art is a fact.”

The colored, pierced shells themselves are probably not much older than that. Up until about 118,000 years ago, the cave was flooded, thanks to higher sea levels.

That finding provides strong evidence that the shells were made by Neanderthals. They were definitely living in Spain 115,000 years ago, while modern humans would not arrive in Europe for another 70,000 years.

The two new studies don’t just indicate that Neanderthals could make cave art and jewelry. They also establish that Neanderthals were making these things long before modern humans — a blow to the idea that they simply copied their cousins.

Chris Stringer thinks this is real too.

What to make of this? First, a shout out to my old friend John Hawks. He’s been slowly repairing the reputation of Neanderthals for many years, and now we’re almost there. Neanderthals had large brains. Their cranial capacities were the largest of all hominins. The idea that they were brutes without language, as Richard Klein hypothesizes in Dawn of Human Culture, seems ludicrous now.

Back in the early 2000s I read Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Real Eve, and one of the arguments that I thought was ludicrous at the time is that the dominance of African humans was not due to some distinct genetic advantage (as Richard Klein posited), but accumulated cultural capital which gradually but continuously compounded over time. Though one shouldn’t discount genes, especially in the context of gene-cultural coevolution, with hindsight it seems clear that a simple causal factor of genetic innovation driving advantages vis-a-vis Neanderthals may be too simplistic.

Papers such as Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East illustrate that first mover advantage can result in huge demographic consequences. Small groups of farmers in the hillocks of the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago transitioned to agriculture just early enough that their genetic impact on West and South Eurasian populations, as well as African ones, would be enormous. Similarly, the invention of the light chariot by the Sintasha people may have resulted in the spread of haplogroup R1a-Z93.