Cousin Neanderthal

Yes, I’ve found yet another book about our cousins the Neanderthals with the appropriate title of Neanderthal: Neanderthal Man and the Story of Human Origins. Paul Jordan authored this interesting 239-page work published by Sutton Publishing in 1999.

The biographical information provided on the dust jacket indicates that Jordan is a Reader in archaeology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom (“Reader” is equivalent to a full professor at American universities). He has authored a number of other works including Early Man and Ancestral Images that also deal with human origins. Jordan has written and produced television shows for the BBC concerning science and archaeology.

The author’s stated purpose for writing Neanderthal is to present the most current information known about Neanderthals and to make sense of the evolutionary pathways leading to them. Jordan does not claim to present any new theories or revolutionary ideas concerning Neanderthals. To this end, Jordan has done quite well.

Neanderthal naturally begins with the story of the original 1856 discovery by quarry workers in Feldhofer cave in Germany. Jordan then explains the cultural situation in this time just prior to Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. The world was not ready to accept the existence of prehistoric humans as such a finding was contrary to the interpretations of the Genesis account of creation in the Christian Bible. While fossilized remains of extinct animals had been accepted as having existed on the earth prior to the final Creation, influential scientists of the time followed the French biologist Cuvier rejecting any notion of an evolutionary process. Other French naturalists such as Buffon and Lamarck were amongst the few to question the literal Biblical accounts. Lamarck even had his own theory of evolution known as the transmutation of species.

All was well up until human remains and artifacts were found in contemporaneous deposits with extinct animal fossils. Many scientists of the time had no problem discounting Neanderthal man as brutish and apelike. This classification allowed relegating Neanderthals to the previous Creation according to Jordan. That satisfied the need to affirm the Biblical accounts. Later scientists, even into the twentieth century, used these descriptions to place Neanderthals as apish ancestors to modern humans. One of the famous French scientists, Marcellin Boule, can be credited with most of the modern misconceptions of Neanderthal man as a stooped and stupid creature barely evolved beyond the apes. Boule described one of the most complete Neanderthal finds at the time from La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908. In doing so, he misinterpreted the diseased and arthritic skeletal remains as normal for the species. Thus we have the typical cartoon representations of Neanderthal man. None of this has stood the test of additional fossil discoveries although the prejudices and misconceptions remain.

Some of the more interesting information presented in Neanderthal was that of the variation between skeletal remains. It would seem that some Neanderthals were more “Neanderthal” than others. Typical characteristics of the classic Neanderthal skull include the lack of a chin, large nasal opening, huge brow ridges, a bulge at the back of the skull (bun), a “pulled-out” face, and a low sloping forehead. Neanderthal remains found in the middle east tend to show moderation in these features. Fossils from this area have also shown that Neanderthals and modern humans occupied the same caves at different times.

It has been proposed by some that the moderation of classic Neanderthal features may have been caused by interbreeding. As Jordan reports, some modern European populations exhibit various Neanderthal features. These include the “bun” at the back of the skull and somewhat more prominent brow ridges. Modern technology and fortuitous events surrounding the original Neanderthal remains found in Germany have allowed a test of this theory. The modern technology is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing made famous through the “out of Africa” theory of human origins. The original fossils have their own tale to tell. The Feldhofer fossils actually retained some of their original DNA. Discovery and exposure of the fossils would have caused rapid deterioration of this DNA had not the practice at the time been to varnish fossils for protection. The mtDNA testing of these fossils indicated that Neanderthals and modern humans diverged some 600,000 years ago. Therefore, as the theory goes, no modern population could have any Neanderthal genes.

The mtDNA tests would seem to put the interbreeding theory to rest. There is another possibility however. Jordan explains the glitch in mtDNA testing. This form of DNA held in our cells’ mitochondria is only passed on through the mother’s line. Male mtDNA is lost. Nuclear DNA, which controls what we look like physically, passes as a mixture from both parents but can’t be tracked. Given the physical evidence of the fossils, it is possible that Neanderthal males may have occasionally impregnated modern human females. This scenario allows for the mtDNA evidence and the “blended” physical forms.

Neanderthal devotes three chapters to reveal a greater picture of the Neanderthals life and times. These include extensive information about the flora, fauna, and environment of the Neanderthals. Jordan discusses tool technology and what can be presumed about daily life for these people. Some of the newer information presented here reveals evidence that these people were primarily meat eaters. Earlier workers felt that Neanderthals were not intelligent enough to hunt and may have scavenged the remains of the kills of carnivores. The realities of scavenging carrion and the potential for consequent health problems make this idea less plausible.

Jordan uses the first half of Neanderthal to concentrate on them specifically. The following chapters take the reader back to human origins in Africa and beyond. This portion of the book builds the human evolutionary tree and logically flows to the origins of both modern humans and the Neanderthals. The most logical predecessor for these two groups appears to be Homo heidelbergensis.

It is during Jordan’s chapter “The Emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens,” that an extensive and worthwhile discourse on relative and absolute dating occurs. Skeptics questioning the dating of hominid fossils will be properly educated in these matters here. Dating methods have progressed to the point that multiple methods can now be used to cross-check dates. It is also in this chapter that a lengthy discussion unfolds about mtDNA and its implications for the “Eve” theory of human origins. Many took comfort in the notion proffered by proponents of the theory that modern human populations originated with one female in Africa. This theory has since fallen on disfavor and Jordan justifies the reasoning behind this disfavor at some length.

Neanderthal is not without problems. The book is unfortunately quite reader unfriendly. Jordan’s style of writing assaults the reader with extremely long and complex sentences. While these sentences are grammatically correct, this practice will strain even the best reader’s capability for comprehension. Paragraphs also suffer from excessive length—many approaching a full page. Colloquial Britishisms pop up infrequently that will leave Americans wondering what was said.

While Neanderthal is illustrated with numerous black and white photographs of Neanderthal remains, a few color photographs, and line art, it suffers from a lack of a much needed chart. Jordan covers the whole of human evolution from the earliest hominids to modern Homo sapiens mixing archaeological terms, paleontological terms, glacial chronology, and regional terms without the use of one simple chart that could easily illustrate the time equivalency of this mixture. Neanderthal begs for a simple time line.

Despite the challenges to reading comprehension, I can confidently recommend Neanderthal to readers who, like myself, want to know as much as possible about the Neanderthals. The sections on human evolution that constitute almost half of the book provide a picture of current knowledge illustrating the pathways to Neanderthals and to us. Personally, I found the information in Neanderthal fascinating.

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