When I first began writing Nightsong about 10 years ago, there were many theories about why our ancient cousins went extinct. As a novelist, I chose my own theories, based on what might work in the story and my own gut feelings.
For example, one theory intrigued me. Is it possible that the partnership of humans with wolf-dogs may have given Homo sapiens an advantage over the Neanderthals? With the help of these dogs, early modern humans may have outhunted Neanderthals. Pat Shipman advances this theory in her book The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. These wolf dogs (not hybrids of wolves and dogs but rather a distinctive group of ancient wolves) could track animals from their scent, run much faster than humans, and were pack animals. If the hunters killed a mammoth, the wolf dogs could chase off scavengers (cave hyenas, etc.) that competed with the modern humans.
The wolf dogs would have been able to track Neanderthals to their caves or wherever they lived. This is the scenario I envisioned in my novel. Imagine you are a Neanderthal and you see these strange humans, who are slighter than you and have baby faces (as compared to the Neanderthal face) but they are accompanied by huge wolf-dogs barking and baring their teeth, dogs that seem to be partners with and obey the strange humans. A very scary vision indeed.....
In my novel Nightsong, the main character, Bronwyn Bloom, is reluctant to tell people what she does for a living:
I was self-conscious when I told people I was a paleoanthropologist specializing in the Neanderthals because I could read their thoughts: She looks like a Neanderthal! But my slightly stooped posture had nothing to do with our doomed human cousins. It was a myth that Neanderthals hunched over, caused by the famous La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton of a Neanderthal man, who was later discovered to be suffering from osteoarthritis.
I was playing a bit with the Neanderthal stereotype here and also throwing in some autobiographical stuff. (I do need to work on my posture.)
Unfortunately, however, the stereotype of the brutish, hunched over, dimwitted Neanderthal took root early on and is still alive and well. The third definition in Merriam-Webster for "Neanderthal" is "a man who is stupid and rude." (If you google one of our 2016 US presidential candidates and the word "Neanderthal", you'll see what I mean.)
I came across a recent article on Vox that explained why Neanderthals get such a bad rap: Neanderthals were stereotyped for a century--all because of one French scientist.
In an interview with Brian Resnick, Lydia Pyne, a historian and anthropologist, and author of a new book Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World's Most Famous Human Fossils, explains how the description of the first discovered Neanderthal skeleton by French paleoanrhroplogist Marcellin Boule in the early 1900s has colored our view of Neanderthals ever since. As Pyne says in the interview:
It’s an inherent bias or inherent desire to want [humans] to be unique. That there's something about our species — maybe it's language, maybe it's culture, maybe it's our ability to be bipedal and to walk on two legs — that gives us this kind of evolutionary success.
It's only been a few years since we've had confirmation that many us aren't so unique and actually have Neanderthal DNA (@1% to 3%). Perhaps our view of our extinct cousins will soften as they change from the Other to one's own ancestors.
Were Neanderthals artists? This distinction is usually reserved for Homo sapiens, but there is speculation that the Neanderthals may have been the first cave painters. The hand stencils in El Castillo cave, located along northern Spain's Cantabrian Sea coast, are estimated to be more than 40,000 years old, and so are the earliest dated art in Europe by at least 4,000 years.
When I was writing my novel Nightsong, it didn't seem that much of a stretch to imagine the Neanderthals creating hand stencils on cave walls. They most likely used red ochre to decorate their bodies, and I learned how they may have created stencils--by blowing the color through a tube of some sort (bone, reed, etc), creating a pattern around a hand.
In Nightsong, Chaya, the Neanderthal girl, is initiated as a healer by creating a handprint next to her mentor.
In NIGHTSONG, the main character, Bronwyn Bloom, an anthropology professor, shares a simulation of a Neanderthal voice with her class. In the video below, Patsy Rodenberg, from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, explains how the voice of a Neanderthal may have sounded. With a squat vocal tract, deep rib cage, heavy skull, and huge nasal cavaity, the Neanderthal voice might have been quite high-pitched and very loud. She doesn't mention it, but it seems that with such a huge nasal cavity and deep rib cage, they were probably great singers (which goes right along with my novel), though the men may have sung soprano!
I am the author of NIGHTSONG: A Neanderthal mystery. I hope you may want to dip into my blog after you've read my novel (or even if you haven't) to learn a bit more about the Neanderthals and to hear some of the music described in the novel. I may go off topic sometimes...