So we have a new set of cousins: the Neanderthals. We were already aware of a distant relationship – although they were never our direct forebears – because we shared a common ancestor some half a million years ago. But what we have discovered is a much closer similarity in our genetic codes, and strong evidence that interbreeding with humans took place. So once again we must look at what constitutes a being with an immortal soul, and whether Neanderthals qualify.
The first archaeological discovery was made in 1829, although it was then assumed to be from a primitive human ancestor. Fossils found in the German Neander valley some years later were eventually identified as a distinct species, homo neandertalensis. First signs of the species seem to have appeared over 400,000 years ago, complete characteristics were present 130,000 years ago and it survived until about 30,000 years ago. Its last community is thought to have been at Gibraltar – a fine place to see out such a history. We have only been around for less than 200,000 years – mere babes by comparison.
The signs of interbreeding (1 per cent to 4 per cent of the human genome) may not be of functional significance, but it demonstrates that we were so closely linked that we could breed fertile children together. This is a rule of thumb indication of a shared species. The interbreeding dates from about 60,000 years ago — around the time that we migrated from Africa into the Neanderthal heartland, which ranged from Europe to southern Siberia. Humans with pure African ancestry do not have Neanderthal genes.
But in general there seems to have been little mixing between Neanderthals and modern humans, and there are plenty of competing ideas about why they died out. These suggest the possibility that they were much weakened by frequent glacial climate change, that they had larger energy needs, they were ill-suited to forming diverse societies, that they simply weren’t so sophisticated and ingenious. But since there were different Neanderthal populations, spread wide geographically, there may well have been more than one cause.
In fact the stocky Neanderthal body was well set up for cold weather, and the wide spread of territory they covered suggest that they were good at adapting to different environments. Nor do we have to assume a slow, lumbering gait, although I would imagine that ballroom dancing would not have been a forté.
It is difficult to grade intelligence – if only because evolution would favour its development. And, should we use brain size as a measure, the Neanderthals, with slightly larger brains, would score more highly than modern humans. But in assessing true human characteristics it is the kind rather than the level of intelligence which counts. The ability to work with abstract concepts, or the existence of a mind which can introspect, reason and make free judgments are all signs of the immaterial qualities we would associate with the spiritual soul – even if they operated at a lower level.
Certainly they manufactured tools and weapons which were quite sophisticated for the time. We know that some of the lower animals, and some birds, are skilful toolmakers, but these are of a different order of inventiveness. So much so that it has been suggested that the Neanderthal techniques were copied from their modern human neighbours. However, their capacity to hunt large herd animals, requiring substantial courage and co-ordination, seems to have been very high. They could control fire and build complex shelters.
Some claim that objects buried with bodies were grave goods – witnessing to a belief in immortality; other have claimed that these were just incidental trash, and that burial was simply a way of disposing of a rotting corpse. There is always room for another explanation. But perhaps the recent discovery, in territory only used by Neanderthals, of perforated and painted sea shells, personal jewellery and containers for pigment used for skin painting is more difficult to explain away. As Professor Zilhao (Bristol University) put it: “This discovery, along with research on the rock strata at other cave sites, has huge implications for how we view the European Neanderthals… The differences between Neanderthals and modern humans may be much less than had been previously thought…”
In fact the use of symbolic communication suggests, some would say – implies – speech. And the substantial cooperation required for large-scale hunting or the communication of tool making skills would seem to require at least a simple language. Interestingly, very recent work has discovered that the mutations on the “language gene” FOXP2 which are not present in the chimpanzee and were thought to be unique to humans, are now known to be present in the Neanderthal. They appear, at least, to have the genes to speak.
The work on the Neanderthal genome, published in May, shows that the variations in proteins compared with ours are remarkably few – in fact 160 times fewer than the differences between man and chimpanzee. I know that the significance of this is hard to grasp for us who are not experts in this field so I use the summary given by Professor Hannon (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory), who did this part of the work: “The news, so far, is not about how we differ from Neanderthals, but how we are so nearly identical, in terms of proteins.”
Everything which I have described is well backed by plausible evidence, but there is plenty of detail disagreement and speculation. If I speculate that we know of a sub-species of homo sapiens, who was intelligent, capable of abstract thought, revered its dead, and could communicate through language, then I speculate that we have someone with an immortal soul. What do you think?