Still Looking at that Caveman in the Mirror

It’s been a while since I last put on my paleoanthropological hat. But I’ve been heading where the field is taking me, and for the last few years it’s been taking me solidly down the path of industrialization. But today a story floated my way that I can’t stop thinking about. If you’ve followed this page for a while, the title of this post may have given it away.

In 2018 I wrote about Neandertal in my post entitled Caveman in the Mirror: The Case for Our Closest Cousins. In it I covered their troubled media representations and how that’s started to change, though it’s sort of yet to percolate into the common understanding. I still think they’re the butt of an unwarranted amount of jokes, but as an anthropologist and would-be (have been?) paleoanthropologist, I know I’m in the minority worldwide in thinking that it’s an issue that needs rectification.

But anyway. The article today strongly challenges long held thoughts about Neandertal behavior, including those that already had them posed as a highly intelligent bunch. Published just today (Wednesday, February 1, 2023) in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe a pit find of some 70 animals found just outside of Halle, which is the city right next door to our recent (and hopefully future) stomping ground of Leipzig, Germany. Heartbreaking as it is to have this published just a few months after our return, it’s been hard to contain my excitement for it.

This pit, currently an artificial lake, was once a coal quarry yielded the remains. And these 70 animals were elephants. But they weren’t just any elephants. They were straight tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon namadicus). Those aren’t around anymore. We don’t have any megafauna approaching anything close to the size of these things.

For a wee bit of context, here’s a diagram illustrating the relationship of straight tusked elephants to other types of elephants:

Our new friend the straight tusked elephant is right in the middle. You can see the thing is monstrous. Now, here it is in comparison to a modern human:

Think about the size of this thing for a minute. These things were three times the size of modern Asian elephants. This hype-up matters because these elephants were butchered. The running understanding of Neandertal was that they were living in small bands and were relatively nomadic, primarily hunter-gatherers and opportunistic scavengers.

Well. There’s a problem with that now. These elephants being butchered in and of itself doesn’t mean anything. You can go on Etsy and find a whole mess of taxidermied animals in all sorts of fun situations that were made from scavenged finds. It would be a bit tricky to move a giant elephant carcass but if you know where the kill is you could move your bunch over to it, butcher it, and then haul it back to your current main base.

But. This is 70 individuals in one area. And they’re all butchered. So that means that these critters were transported to a common area and their remains left in a midden. And there’s more. They’re disproportionately males. Full grown bull elephants.

That’s not scavenging. That’s hunting. You don’t accidentally find a 70 carcasses of the biggest, most powerful, and easily most friggin’ horrifying thing you can possibly encounter. They were hunting them.

So, imagine you wake up in an ice age landscape. Think Alaska in the winter, just for something easily conjured up. Imagine you’re with several of your friend. I dunno, 5-10, because that’s a realistic number.

Stipulate that you’ve got decent clothing. But let’s make it hide clothing. Not for the authenticity but because hide clothing is going to blunt the wounds of a 10 foot tusk a lot better than your Van Halen shirt. Plus it’s going to insulate against the weather better than anything you can get at Burlington.

And there’s spears for everyone. You’re going hunting. Not for rabbits or turkeys or buffalo or hippo or giraffe or any other tiny game. You’re basically hunting a whale on legs that could trample the lot of you without noticing.

Think of what goes into that hunt. You’ve got everything you need. You can probably find some high ground to spot them. How do you plan it out? Who goes first? Do you come from above or try and run under it and stab up into its belly? What happens when it notices? How do you communicate with one another in the heat of it? How are you going to react when the tusk coming at you is adorned with the bloody heap of your best friend?

Never mind in the moment. Think of the planning that goes on BEFORE you’re even ready to glue pointy rocks to sticks and go HAM. Think of the icy landscape and deep snow. Knowing where the appropriate rocks are, that fracture predictably and make ideal points that can puncture the more than 1 inch thick hide of these behemoths. Think of how to source the straight, hard wood that you’ll probably be heat treating to make it stronger. And wait, who taught you about the heat treating?

Think about the hides you’re wearing and how you learned to hunt and process the animals who originally wore them. And think about how you survived your first winters, long before you were able to obtain hides on your own. Someone showed you how to do that. You knew how long before you had to do it on your own. You knew how long before you could do it on your own.

And what about the hunt? Who even thought of this? Was it desperation, arrogance, or insanity drove your ancestors to say “let go hunt that spiked city bus?” What did it take to not only make that successful, but make it a routine thing?

These animals yielded so much meat that 25 people would’ve been eating for almost a month. That’s 100 people for a week. I can’t think of 29 people to take with me but I’d bet we’d fair a lot better as a group of 30 to maybe frighten one of these things towards a cliff and then stab it to death after climbing down after it. Then cutting it up into slightly-less-enormous chunks and hauling it back home.

But housing that many people? It works better when you’re not always on the move. And these elephants were killed over the course of generations.

So, never mind the stooped over idiots of early Neandertal depictions. We came a long way in accepting that they were simply immensely strong, stockier, and less lucky versions of ourselves. But we kind of still didn’t want to accept it. The prevailing ideas of them making art, sewing, potentially creating music all knew that they weren’t around anymore. Sure, they survive within us. But it’s not the same. Or is it?

For so many years it’s been thought that there must have been something wrong with them. Something inferior.

The amount of communication–intergenerational communication as well as immediate–that has to have been the norm for millennia for this type of lifestyle to work can’t be called anything other than modern. We don’t and will likely never know what language capabilities they had, whether spoken, signed, or otherwise. But it is impossible to coordinate intergenerationally-successful monster hunts like this without a full range of expressive communication.

The communication was stronger. The bonds were stronger. The groups were stronger. The habitation was longer-standing, or at least seasonally revisited for decades if not centuries.

These aren’t a people to be underestimated, and I really hope to live to see when they’re no longer misunderstood.

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