“Sometimes I wonder if my desire for a tribe, a working family unit, a singing-sharing group, derives from a long, long line.”
Homo neanderthalensis was living a successful life on earth for about 250,000 years. They had what archaeologists have tagged “immense cultural continuity.” Two hundred fifty thousand years is twenty-five times as long as we have been agriculturalists and industrialists. Their bones and distinctive stone tools are found over an extensive range—from the British Isles to Uzbekistan. They lived in an incredibly challenging time climactically and survived the ebb and flow of ice ages in a cold, harsh world.
The criticism most often leveled against them by modern humans eddies around their consistent lack of change. We scoff at their immense cultural continuity. Supposedly, that absence of change indicates a deficiency of intelligence. This argument is constructed based on evidence garnered about their material culture, almost strictly tool construction and use. Like the misconstrued word crone, popular culture uses “Neanderthal” as a pejorative. I disagree.
I have, like many people of European lineage, a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. I’m delighted that this is true. I admit to a deep curiosity and ongoing affinity for Neanderthals and celebrate the recent explosion of new research that brings more light to Neanderthal behaviors and intelligence. New techniques around ancient DNA collection and analysis, the re-working of museum collections and stratification data, as well as brand new archaeological discoveries, have all brought surprises and additional controversy to the interpretation of the history of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
I’d venture to say that the consensus now is they were not arm-dragging cavemen, but early hunter-gatherers. They lived in small family groups, collaboratively hunted large game, ate a variety of plants, cared for the incapacitated over long periods of time, buried the dead, masterfully crafted useful stone tools, decorated and wore shells, perhaps made cave paintings, and most likely had some form of language, perhaps more in the form of song. One of the areas of hot debate is if they had a grasp of symbols. Their brains were at least as large as modern humans, sometimes larger. Maybe like dolphins, a large brain indicates a different type of perception, intelligence, and motivation. Maybe comparing Neanderthal intelligence with the thinking of modern humans is like comparing apples and oranges.
An Immense Continuity
I like to imagine that long, long lineage. I like to imagine 250,000 years of existence without much social change—their immense continuity. I like to imagine 250,000 rounds of seasons, 250,000 cycles of dealing effectively with larger patterns—the oscillation of glacial ice, paying careful attention to the movements and habits of prey for success in the hunt, experiencing an animal-like connection to the present—perhaps experiencing deep contentment resting in the sun, pride in eking out a hardscrabble sustenance from the environment, of feeding a family through skill.
I like to imagine the satisfaction of showing your child how to flake a perfect blade from a core of flint, of enjoying participatory singing. A quarter-million years of practical survival. Perhaps those things were enough. Perhaps there was deep cultural satisfaction in ongoing rhythms and patterns. An immense contentment. That’s a hard thing for a Homo sapien to comprehend. It doesn’t appear that the Neanderthal mind was obsessed with novelty, with change itself, as our restless minds seem to be.
In many ways, they were genuinely like us. But something was different, something outside of, and foreign to, the kind of intelligence we currently value. Neanderthal life went on successfully and expanded geographically for all those many years—and then an abrupt disappearance occurred about 40,000 years ago. There is a passionate debate over what ended their long reign. The theories on their extinction range from a failure to adapt to climate change and other natural catastrophes like major volcanic eruptions, to war-like violence between modern humans and Neanderthals, to a lack of immunity to introduced pathogens and parasites, to competitive replacement, to low Neanderthal population densities and continued fragmentation of their populations as modern humans encroached on their territory. It was most likely a smorgasbord of deadly combinations that did them in. We didn’t outthink them, as some used to claim. The expansion of Homo sapiens into Europe added burdens and pressures to an already stressed population and tipped a complicated run of Neanderthal bad luck over the edge.
We are fortunate that traces of their stories remain in their artifacts and their bones. I love to toy with speculation about them. To imagine them sheltering in their caves. To imagine the cold air drawn into their barrel chests. To imagine a group of tough, squat bodies, up to 20 percent stronger than a modern human, walking together on an icy path tracking red deer and aurochs, with only sharpened wooden spears in hand. I like to dwell on their immense continuity.
Neanderthals are still within some of us, carried in our DNA. Sometimes I fancy my desire for an intact earth, a dark sky, and a longing for the chthonic—a respect for the wisdom that comes from the depths of the earth and the deities that dwell there—spring from a long, long line. Sometimes I imagine my desire for a walking-wandering “explore-for-food” life, carried out within a well-known landscape descends from a long, long line. From an immense continuity. Sometimes I wonder if my desire for a tribe, a working family unit, a singing-sharing group, derives from a long, long line. Maybe my inclination toward superstition, to believe in sympathetic magic, to practice light trance, was nascent in a sub-species from long, long ago.
I know this. And it’s not imagination. I’m tired of noise. I’m tired of artificial light. I’m tired of rapid and repeated change. I’m tired of progress. Tired of novelty. I’m tired of growth, growth, growth.
I imagine imitative singing with you way back then, clacking sticks or bones in a rhythm, bonding, unconsciously aware that I need you and the others for my very survival. In my mind’s eye, I see a fire, kindled for gathering around and cooking over. We may be trance-dreaming of the Great Powers and finding ways to propitiate the Great Powers. In that vastness of unchanging time, I recognize, as you recognize, that we are in active reciprocity with the cosmos.
I fantasize my death along this immense continuity. I see the others excavate a natural pit in our cave. I’m tended by kin, placed in a fetal position, accompanied by flowers, then covered with a protective cairn of stones. At rest for 60,000 years. Excavated in 1960. My remains, my bones, my culture, the subject of intense ongoing debate by Homo Sapiens. I wonder, are Homo sapiens a flash in the pan? I wonder, where will the species be in 250,000 years?
Ritual Suggestion for Contacting the Deep Past
Gather a group or go solo, respectfully circling near a small fire outdoors (use contained candles if fire risk is too high). Invite people to take off shoes and get their feet in contact with the earth.
Introduce the concept of the deep past—you might read this essay or some other piece of writing to set the mood. Invite people to look up, in silence, and spend 5 minutes beholding the immense continuity of the night sky.
Set some smudge to burning during that time. Pass the smudge around the circle to prepare/cleanse participants. (You can also use water prepared ahead of time to seine participants.) The leader will ask for permission from, and for the support of the ancestors to help our group learn about the deep past each of us descends from.
Next spend 15 to 20 minutes in participatory percussion. You could use drums, rattles, sticks, long bones, even clapping, and a mix is OK. The leader can set the beginning rhythm and bring the percussion gently to a close.
After a moment of silence and allowing people to gradually return to this place and time, invite participants to share any images, feelings, messages, or other information they received. After sharing, go back to 5 minutes with the night sky. The leader will thank the ancestors for their help and for the gifts of information.
To close, put out the smudge, have each person throw a bit of dirt onto the fire or blow out a candle, put shoes back on, and respectfully exit the ritual space.