Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
What happened to the Neanderthal? Scientists have been asking that question for a long time, as did a recent New Yorker article. Why the interest? Because the Neanderthal is our long, lost brother, and, as Homo sapiens – the intelligent ape – it’s time we got to know our extended family.
Going way out on an evolutionary limb, Bigfoot also plays a familial role as a spectral relation: Bigfoot sightings have fostered widespread mythology, enshrining this mysterious man-thing in movies, books, articles, clubs and cults. Those sightings, I’m beginning to believe, are authentic and connected to our ancient prehistory.
Neanderthal characteristics appeared among early humanoids about 130,000 years ago. Compared to Homo sapiens, they had a larger, more powerful body with thicker bones, and stronger arms and hands. “They were extremely tough,” reported the New Yorker article, “and probably capable of beating modern man to a pulp.” Neanderthals also had a larger cranium, possibly a larger brain.
So what happened? Was it just their bad luck that they disappeared 30,000 to 50,000 years ago? “Their bad luck was us,” concludes a prominent DNA researcher, quoted in the New Yorker, who is tracking Neanderthal’s genetic trail. He suspects that modern man “replaced” the Neanderthal by outcompeting him, just as modern man has “replaced” thousands of species in today’s mass extinctions.
Homo Sapiens had a genetic advantage over Neanderthal. Higher intelligence provided better tools and greater mobility. He was also more aggressive, the same trait that furthers our perpetual wars against each other and against all of nature. The contest between Neanderthal and Homo sapiens is described as allegory in the biblical myth of Cain and Abel.
Cain, the farmer, slew Abel, the herdsman. Cain’s failure to win God’s favor (Abel’s offering was chosen above Cain’s) infuriated him. Out of jealous competition, he murdered his brother, was cast from Eden, and went on the build the first city. Change the names and it was Homo sapiens that destroyed Neanderthal as a competitor for nature’s grace. What he couldn’t kill, however, was his victim’s shared genetics. Neanderthal genes endured.
Scientists are certain that Homo sapiens cohabited with Neanderthals. They must have had sex together because Neanderthal genes are found in modern man. Each of us retains a portion of that line. The amount depends on our individual evolutionary linkages, which often are regional.
It is our commonalty with Neanderthal that brings me to the credible belief in Bigfoot sightings. Ancient memories of our long lost Neanderthal brethren could trigger psychic, or spectral, emanations. These sightings are passionately defended, even though they come with no physical evidence (phony footprints and grainy films aside). Sightings typically occur in wild nature rather than in urban settings because the influence of wildness is necessary to conjure imagery from our wildest origins.
I’m writing this on Halloween, so that might explain some of this fantasizing. I’ve also been reading Emerson, and perhaps taking too literally what he wrote in 1841 when he described “that great nature; that Unity; that Over-soul within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all others; that common heart.”
If you felt pain from the BP oil spill, it might have been a twinge from your Over-soul. If you feel sympathy for the sick and the poor, it’s the Over-soul speaking. Our universal connections are often indescribable because we don’t have words for the soul linkage we share with all animate, and perhaps inanimate, things.
If you don’t believe any of this, it might be that your Neanderthal connection has been diluted to the point of impotence, making you totally modern. Perhaps tree-hugging conservationists and social do-gooders are closer to Neanderthals than industrialists and Wall Street tycoons.
Evolution teaches that we came from mitochondria swimming in the sea that linked with other bacteria and created life as we know it. Our most ancient ancestors were weird little bugs that over millions of years spawned the biodiversity that’s teeming over our planet. We have come a great distance from bugs, but we have all come from the same root source.
If we carry Neanderthal genes, then we also carry genetic traces of past hominid experiments, even those that failed. We are mostly Cain, but we are Abel, too, holding residual traces that survived extinction and genocide. We are in the thrall of the Over-soul, which may be the only power capable of saving our biosphere from utter ruin and our exalted species from extinction.