This article first appeared in the New Statesman's 'Ideas Corner', 30 October 2006.
Germany have been celebrating the discovery, in August 1856, of the
original specimen from the Neander valley. It was the first fossil to
be identified as an archaic form of human; a form that was to become
one of prehistory’s most celebrated inventions. A plastic idea, it has
adapted readily to changes in the scientific and cultural climate.
Unlike its prototypes, it has integrated itself with the most advanced
technology of the day. Earlier this year, a German research institute
announced plans to reconstruct the Neanderthal genome.
project the Neanderthals will continue to play the principal role in
which they have been cast, as beings through whom we may reflect upon
ourselves. They are fitted for the part by their profound ambiguity.
Their basic characteristics – robust build, modern-sized brains – do
not in themselves suggest radical difference, but the lesser
differences add up, for many scientists, to a separate species. In
effigy and image they have been by turns bestial and noble, shambling
and upright, brutish and soulful. They have served as a uniquely
ago, the bones of one specimen were read to indicate an ape-like
posture; half a century later, they were rearranged, and the figure
stood upright. The Neanderthals of the 1900s, snarling and shambling,
were replaced by the gentle innocents of William Golding’s The
Inheritors. Simple but spiritual, these prelapsarian humans
survive the advent of the moderns, technologically superior and
intrinsically destructive. This vision was the product of two world
wars as well as improvements in anatomical analysis. Supporting
evidence was offered later, when pollen grains found with a Neanderthal
skeleton were interpreted as the remains of a flower-strewn burial.
scientists pride themselves on a more objective understanding of the
Neanderthals, but the great themes – human difference, human nature,
what makes us human – remain the same. Behind the question of how long
the Neanderthals lasted hangs the question of how much the moderns had
to do with their extinction. Now the talk of a genome project offers
new opportunities for guilty reflection about what modern humans can do
with their technology. Having fretted over whether our kind drove or
squeezed the Neanderthals from the face of the earth, we can now brood
upon whether we might one day bring them back again.