Another brick out of the wall

2 Sep 2014

At ... some lines scratched into rock inside Gorham's Cave on Gibraltar are said to prove Neanderthals were more cognitive that consensus theory allows. This is another brick out of the wall of an attitude formed in the 19th century with the discovery of Neanderthals in Germany. Evolutionary theory demanded that prior to modern humans there would have existed a more primitive and more brutish form of human species - and Neanderthals were thought to fit the bill, especially the first specimen, which was deformed by arthritis - and walked with a stoop. Hence, until recent years Neanderthals have been regarded as little more than grunts - or defective in human abilities, such as speech, tool making technology, and artistic prowess, etc. Even the mammoth bone hovels are now regarded as quite clever constructs, and yet artistic flair has continued to be a problem, as authorities on cave art (the academic variety) have been able to confuse by waving their arms and pointing to techniques - which might well be imaginary. It's a long running saga - those that want to visualise Neanderthals as a sort of missing link, inferior to modern humans and yet more clever than apes - after all they belong to the same genus, homo sapiens. Neanderthals, so the myth goes, had heavy brow ridges and deep eye sockets, among other oddities, and were big boned. Well, big skulls doesn't necessary imply dull contents, as the paper in PNAS attempts to show. It makes the point that the lines, or grooves, were covered in a sedimentary layer, and archaeologists had previously found Neanderthal artefacts in the overlying layer. This suggested the grooves were somewhat older, and Clive Finlayson, one of the authors, is quoted.

In spite of Neanderthals almost coming of age there are still a lot of people quite happy to think in terms of distancing modern humans from them - to avoid being tainted by the grunts. This is essentially the essence of the Out of Africa theory, the manufacture of a pristine origin for Homo sapiens sapiens. I always quite liked the idea of Bushmen being a survival of ancient humanity and there is no reason why the first humans did not evolve on that continent. That seems a reasonable idea - but that does not necessarily fit the Out of Africa time scale. Until fairly recently, the mainstream were insistent that dispersal of modern humans coincided with the disappearance of Neanderthals in Europe. Australian Aborigines put paid to that one - but they stone walled for years before accepting reality . How much of the Clovis First debate was centred on the fact that humans could not have reached the Americas until recently because of the time scale of Out of Africa dispersal?

  The Gibraltar discovery follows on a recently published study that claimed it was possible to rely enough on C14 dates around 40,000 years ago, in order to show Neanderthals and modern humans co-existed for several thousand years. This is complete bunkum as there was a very large C14 plateau between 30 and 40 thousand years ago, so big that it has formed a barrier to scientists hoping to date material prior to 40,000 years ago. Some efforts have been done to overcome the obstacle, by Bayesian jiggery pokery - but the reality is the barrier hampers any attempt to date anything in this particular time period.

Why then the effort to breach the barrier - and claim a period of co-existence. The reason is they wish to explain away the fact that genetic evidence shows modern humans in Europe and western Asia have a small proportion of Neanderthal genes within their makeup. If modern humans came out of Africa, where Neanderthals are  absent, the whole theory of Out of Africa would have to be reappraised - but obviously a lot of academics are not keen on going to such trouble and are content to stick with the mainstream version of events. It's about fortifying the consensus opinion - not rocking the boat. Now, if they looked at the C14 plateau in the grand scheme of things, noting that it coincided with the extinction of large animals in Australia and was a graveyard for many Ice Age mammals in the northern hemisphere and South America, they might be willing to face up to the fact that prior to the plateau we had Neanderthals living across Europe and western Asia, possibly even as far as Siberia, and modern humans living in exactly the same regions immediately after the plateau. It is the obsession with the Out of Africa theory as the origin of modern  humans which appears at fault. Anthropologists are pretending they can use C14 dating methodology at a period of time when the method is at its extreme point of limit.

As reality tends to introduce the most embarrassing of anomalies, we can safely assume the grooves in the Gibraltar cave, and other finds, will continually pop up and demonstrate the wilful nature of the mainstream point of view. Clovis First denied a whole host of finds for many a long year and its adherents are still fossilised in their opinions on human entry into the Americas, and this attitude of mind is equally observable with the Out of Africa people. No matter how much evidence is produced from field evidence that is contrary the academics always bounce back with a rebuff. This is one way to look at both papers - two contrary points of view.

Anyone interested in this subject might like to read Clive Finlayson's book, 'Humans Who Went Extinct', Oxford University Press:2009 as it provides some input on the faction fighting in anthropology circles and the similarities between the Neanderthal range of expansion and that of the modern humans that took their place. It is also clear from genetic studies that genes of Neanderthals have gradually been disappearing over 40,000 years - and may once have been much higher. It may be that the answer is in the biology rather than in perceived advanced traits.