Neanderthal actor on human stage

NEANDERTHALS are on display in a cage at Warsaw Zoo.

The new arrivals, a male and a female, are not, alas, the genuine article, nor can a Neanderthal captive breeding programme be attempted; actors play the roles of our long lost cousins. This publicity stunt, to advertise a play called ‘Caveman’, is not a major contribution to science. However, the exhibition is not entirely frivolous; it reminds visitors of their prehistoric roots.

“We wanted to promote the idea that we haven’t moved so far away from the animal world, that we are closer to animals than we sometimes think”, says Zoo director Andrzej Kruszewicz. A video clip on the web shows the actors dressed in rough animal skins. They don’t look at all like the Neanderthals portrayed in museum reconstructions.

Few actors would welcome being type-cast as Neanderthal. To us, these ancient hominids seem grotesque, but their reaction to an encounter with you or me would probably have been similar. We have a good idea what they looked like. Stocky, they had short limbs, an adaptation to the cold climate of long ago. Their brains were just as big as ours, but the forehead sloped backwards from prominent eyebrows. Huge noses preheated the icy air which they drew into their lungs. Like modern Europeans they were pale-skinned, allowing sunlight to penetrate the flesh so that Vitamin D could be synthesised.

’Tal’, which used to be spelled ‘thal’, is the German for ‘valley’; the ‘h’ in ‘Neanderthal’ isn’t pronounced. Remains were discovered in Belgium in 1829, but a find in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf in 1856 gave rise to the name. Bones from over 400 individuals, including some almost perfect skeletons, have been unearthed in Europe and Asia. Some have been found in Britain, but there is no evidence that ancient hominids were ever in Ireland.

Scientists disagree as to whether Neanderthal Man was ‘one of us’. Most consider him a distinct species; Homo neanderthalensis. For others, he was a subspecies of modern humans; Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. We had a common ancestor with him between 350,000 and 600,00 years ago. It used to be argued that we interbred with these cousins, but examination of their DNA seems to rule that out. Related to us or not, these hominids were in Europe for countless millennia before we arrived on the scene.

Theirs was a rough tough lifestyle, if the broken bones found in skeletal remains are anything to go by. Meat-eaters, Neanderthals used stone tools, lit fires and built shelters. The Polish actors should have little difficult recreating their ancient ‘culture’; these hominids had no great artistic sensibilities. Decorated objects found with bones from the period just before the Neanderthal extinction are thought to have been made by our ancestors who may have traded with their uncouth cousins.

Any actor hoping to portray a Neanderthal must, however, be able to sing. According to Stephen Mithen of Reading University, these ancient people sang rather than spoke. This is not as odd as it seems; birds and whales, the other great vocal communicators, sing. Music conveys emotion much more effectively than speech does. But did they use language in their operatic arias? Damage to a gene, known as FOX P2, impedes speech in humans. The gene is absent in the other great apes but DNA examination shows that Neanderthals had it. Their vocal apparatus was similar to ours and so it is highly likely that Neanderthals used language. The babies, born to short stocky mothers with wide hips, may have had bigger brains at birth than our infants have. At any rate, Neanderthal children grew up more quickly. This might seem advantageous but it also meant that there was less time to educate the young and, perhaps, to develop a complex language. Neanderthals, it seems, lived in isolated family groups which failed to co-operate with each other, another inhibitor to language development. This may be why, despite being better adapted to the Ice-age cold, they lost out with the Homo sapiens blow-ins who arrived from Africa 40,000 years ago.

It’s believed that the last Neanderthal died in a cave in Gibraltar. What emotions must the sole surviving member of the species have felt as he or she, all alone, succumbed to disease or starvation on a fateful day 24,000 years ago?


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