Thursday, September 21, 2006

An axis of evil

It is only a few stone tools, shaped in a fashion that elsewhere is associated with Neanderthal bones, so take the new discovery with a grain of salt. But the tools appear to be the youngest Neanderthal artifacts yet found, a mere 28,000 years old, maybe even younger. Where? At the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, the Rock of Gibraltar.

For 200,000 years, Neanderthals had Europe pretty much to themselves. Then, about 35,000 years ago a new breed of humans, anatomically identical to ourselves, came sweeping out of Africa. They fanned across Europe, displacing Neanderthals. Did they interbreed? Did they live side by side in peace? Apparently not. Rather, the story of the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon encounter seems to have been written in blood. It would appear that the last Neanderthals were pushed into caves at Gibraltar, their backs against a strait they had no way of crossing. There they made their last stand. And there they became extinct.

When I was a kid, we read the story as a triumph of modern humans over a grisly, sub-human race, a triumph of reason, imagination, and lofty moral vision over ugliness, stupidity, and amorality. Then, in his 1955 novel The Inheritors,, William Golding turned the story of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons on its head. Golding's Neanderthals live in a state of childlike innocence, possessed of wonder and imagination. They do not willfully kill other animals. They are sexually restrained, and charmingly uninhibited about their nakedness. Into this Edenlike existence come the violent and cannibalistic Cro-Magnons. The new folk revere a witchdoctor with an antlered mask. They are adulterous and engage in orgies. The gentle Neanderthals are no match against the craftiness and cunning of the new arrivals. Except for a single child, Golding's happy band of Neanderthals are eliminated. The tougher, more adventuresome Cro-Magnons inherit the earth.

Needless to say, the new story is as much a fiction as the old, a sort of hippie anthropology. There is no reason to believe that Neanderthals were less violent than their adversaries. Was it mental capacity, language, and inventiveness that gave Cro-Magnons the advantage? Was it aggressiveness, rapacity, and a shrewd instinct for self-advantage? Or was it simply a more efficient technology of killing?