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The

“Neanderthal
Enigma” and
the structure
of thought
By John MacBeath Watkins
Much speculation has been made about the reason Neanderthal Man disappeared once our ancestors

entered Europe. I'll add to that speculation with this essay, and draw a parallel between the biological

and cultural aspects of Neanderthal's demise.

Neanderthal and our ancestors appear to have had a common ancestor about 700,000 years ago.

When our ancestors came to Europe, they do not seem to have interbred with them to any appreciable

degree. Of course, if you chose 100 people at random from New England, you might find a similar
result in regards native Americans, and we know that they were numerous before Europeans came and

quite capable of interbreeding with Europeans, so no definitive conclusion can yet be drawn as to

whether Neanderthal and modern humans could interbreed. There are other parallels as well.

The indigenous population of the North and South American continents crashed after first

contact in part because of new diseases; often the great die-offs occurred before the Europeans arrived

in a new area, because the plagues they brought with them traveled faster than the Europeans.

Estimates of the level of the die-off go as high as 95 percent.

Native Americans had been cut off from Eurasia for something on the order of 10,000 years,

except for the occasional contact that must have occurred between Siberians and Eskimos, the

occasional castaway from Oceania, the Norse expedition, and other such small and incidental contacts

that would not have been capable of bringing on the health crisis that came when Europeans arrived in

force, and with pigs and other disease-carrying domesticated animals that could get loose and spread

new diseases beyond the range of those who brought them. In terms of disease given to the newcomers

by Native Americans, the exchange was quite one-sided. They gave Europeans syphilis (even this is

controversial,) we gave them smallpox, hepatitis, influenza and a number of other diseases that quickly

devastated their populations. In this sort of meeting, the organism that evolved in the bigger Petri dish

usually wins.

How long was the Neanderthal population separated from the rest of humanity? Perhaps

100,000 years or more. The possibility that they could not deal with the diseases that spread across

Africa and Asia though the rest of humanity cannot be ignored.

There are other questions, of course. Why, if their brains were at least as large as ours, was

their culture less complex? We have few signs of symbolic activity on the part of Neanderthal, and

their tools were far less varied. They do not seem to have had needles, which means their clothing

cannot have been as complex, though their climate was harsh.

My position is that the fact that they lived in small, isolated communities restricted the
complexity their cultures could support. In Thoughts on Structuralism and the Death of 'Ghosts' I

explored the notion that it takes a larger number of minds interacting with other minds to build a

complex society.1 Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas of University College, London,

have theorized that the reason modern 'upper paleolithic' behavior appeared and disappeared several

times in the archaeological record is that it takes a large enough population and enough contact with

other groups of people to support UP culture.2

My take on this, in Thoughts on Structuralism and the Death of 'Ghosts' was that this reflects an

entity, a sort of intellectual edifice, in which individual minds take part, but which no individual brain

can encompass entirely. Individual minds interact, struggle with and against one another, and in the

process build a structure of thought that enables us to live a life that is very different from any other

animal. Modern humans came from an environment that would support larger populations than the

Neanderthal. They developed a more complex society at least in part because they had the population

to do so. The Neanderthal were top predators, hunting large mammals for the most part and living for

the most part as predators rather than omnivores. It should be noted that the Eskimo and Inuit way of

life is also heavily dependent on meat. Such a diet may not be ideal for the human metabolism, but

vitamin A and D are fat soluble and raw organ meats are rich in vitamin C, so such an adaptation is

possible without any great change in metabolism. (The comparison to the Inuit way of life breaks

down at some point, because the Inuit are a highly sophisticated neolithic culture.) Consider that the

Norse did very well in Greenland during the medieval warm period, and succumbed to the cold near

the beginning of the little ice age. The Inuit thrived through the little ice age in Greenland.

Given a warmer climate, Greenland could support a larger population with the Norse way of

life, but when the ice closed in the Inuit way of life showed its superiority. It would support fewer

1 http://www.scribd.com/doc/19407908/Thoughts-on-Structuralism-and-the-Death-of-Ghosts

2 Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior


Powell et al.
Science 5 June 2009: 1298-1301
DOI: 10.1126/science.1170165
people per square mile, but would support them in more harsh conditions. The life the Norse lived in

Europe would allow them a density of population that enabled them to have a more complex material

culture, with metallurgy and animal domestication that were unknown to the Inuit.

Neanderthals, adapted to something closer to the Inuit way of life but with a far less complex

material culture, were in a tough position. The climate at the time they faced the incursions of modern

humans (starting about 45,000 years ago) fluctuated enough to make life hard for them. They would

have experienced a succession of population declines, and before they could rebuild their population as

the climate improved, modern humans moved into the ecological niche they sought to fill. Each new

group of modern humans would have brought with it a structure of knowledge that only a larger

population could support. They will also have brought with them diseases they were suited to handle,

both genetically and from previous exposure.

Comparison of human leukocyte antigens, which play a role in identifying “non-self'” material

in the body and subjecting it to the tender mercies of the immune system, show that Europeans have

about twice the number of HLA classes Native Americans do. There would have been a genetic

bottleneck in the Native American population, but in addition, since they didn't bring all of Eurasia's

diseases with them, they didn't need the immunity conferred by a variety of HLA classes. Francis L.

Black, a Yale virologist, has found that nearly a third of South American Indians have near-identical

HLA profiles. A virus that would have a chance of finding its next host had similar immune system in

Europe of 2 percent would among South American Indians have a 28 percent chance of finding its

next host had a similar HLA profile.3

With a separation from the rest of humanity ten times as long, and a population that in the best

of times must have been quite small, the problem would have been worse for Neanderthal than for

Native Americans. New diseases from outside of Europe would have been troublesome for modern

humans who did not have the acquired immunity prior exposure would have given them, but chances

are they would have had better genetic immunity than Neanderthal man.
3 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2005.
Each time the Neanderthal population was devastated by a climate change, the structure of their

society was devastated as well. Each time their climate improved, new modern humans moved in not

just with the structure of thought they carried from a society with a larger population, but also with

new diseases from the larger “Petri dish” outside Europe. The structure of their society was devastated

again, and again that most distinctive of human adaptations, the structure of thought they had

developed, took a blow. If they were able to interbreed with modern humans – which is by no means

certain – there would have been few of them to do so.

It is no accident that the larger Petri dish of diseases and the larger suite of skills exist in the

same population. As Richard Dawkins pointed out in The Selfish Gene4, genes are self-replicating

information. Dawkins mentions in the same book the 'meme' – information that replicates itself in the

human mind. Again, the rule of the larger Petri dish applies. Sometimes an organism from the smaller

Petri dish will win out – Corvidae, the family of birds that includes crows, ravens and blue jays,

evolved in Australia, Canidae, the family that includes dogs, wolves and foxes, in America, and each

has spread into the larger ecosystem – but chances are the Petri lager dish evolves the more potent

organism. It was Neanderthal's misfortune to live in small groups in an evolutionary backwater, and to

be overwhelmed by the diseases and the knowledge that could evolve in a larger and more open

ecosystem.

4 Oxford University Press, 1976.

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