In a recent New York Times magazine cover article, Jon Mooallem describes recent research that suggests that Neanderthals were a lot closer to Homo sapiens than many of us would care to admit. Mooallem travelled to Gibraltar, where Neanderthals inhabited Gorham's Cave, and other caves, off and on for 100,000 years. Every summer since 1989, archaeologists have returned to this cave to learn more about the Neanderthals. Recent research has suggested that Neanderthals were actually quite similar to their contemporary Homo sapiens in Africa. Mooallem writes: "We've always classified Neanderthals, technically, as human--part of the genus Homo. But it turns out they also did the stuff that, you know, makes us human."
Some of this human stuff includes burying their dead, making jewelry, painting their faces, which suggests a symbolic worldview, and speech, which he describes as "high-pitched, raspy voices, like Julia Child." They may have created glue from birch bark, used feathers for decoration or ceremonial purposes, and hunted dangerous game, such as an extinct species of rhinoceros.
I was especially interested in Mooallem's discussion of the interbreeding between early modern humans and Neanderthals. After all, I have Neanderthal DNA myself (4 percent per my 23andMe report), and without giving away a spoiler, I had to come up with my own story about the main character's Neanderthal ancestor.
There can, of course, be many ways that interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals may have occurred. As Mooallem writes: "[Svante] Pääbo now recommends against imagining separate species of human evolution altogether: not an Us and a Them, but one enormous 'metapopulation' composed of shifting clusters of human-ish things that periodically coincided in time and space, and when they happened to bump into one another, occasionally had sex."
What were these relationships like? When I was writing Nightsong, I thought a lot about the Europeans' first encounters with indigenous peoples, which varied from wary friendliness to genocide. And yet as Prof. João Zilhão points out, this may not be an entirely accurate way of looking at things. He is quoted in the article as saying, "Those people [Europeans] were a product of a civilization that had books, that had studied the past." Modern humans encountering Neanderthals wouldn't have necessarily thought of themselves as superior.
As Prof. Clive Finlayson, paleoanthropologist and Director of the Gibraltar Museum, says, as quoted in the article: "Each valley could have told a different story. In one they may have hit each other over the head. In another, they may have made love. In another, they ignored each other."
In Nightsong, the Neanderthals view the Homo sapiens as outsiders who have deadlier weapons, are faster and more agile, and are truly frightening, despite their "baby faces"--definitely "Them" not "Us." And in the particular valley that I describe, the Homo sapiens see prime real estate--the Neanderthal's roomy cave with an ocean view--and want it for themselves....
Discovered in 1995 in the Divja Babe cave in Slovenia, a 60,000-year-old flute is thought to be the world's oldest instrument, and according to the National Museum of Slovenia, it was most likely made by Neanderthals. The flute is made from the femur of a young cave bear.
At the time I was writing Nightsong, there was some controversy about the flute and research was suggesting that the holes in the bone may have been made by hyenas, or that perhaps Cro-Magnons from a later period created the flute. I decided not to include Neanderthal flutists in my story. The Neanderthals in Nightsong make music with their bodies or with natural objects around them--shaking rattles made with seeds, blowing folded leaves to make whisting sounds, etc. Yet I am still intrigued by this flute and it's possible that a Neanderthal musician created it. I like to imagine the sound of flute music floating over an ancient forest thousands of years ago.
Here is a video of Jelle Atema, Professor of Biology and Adjunct Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, playing a replica of the flute at the American Museum of Natural History. (He is also an accomplished flautist.) After I heard this, I wanted to try the flute out. The museum shop of the National Museum of Slovenia sells a replica, but I don't think you can order it online. I may have to travel there someday to get one!
I've always been fascinated by the idea that certain fears may be passed along through the generations. Genetic changes that occur from a trauma may pass to one's children, and then to subsequent generations--a genetic imprint called "epigenetic transgenerational inheritance."
In 2013, neurobiologist and psychiatrist Kerry Ressler at Emory University, along with co-author Brian Dias, published a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggesting that it may be possible for some fears and neuroses to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA--at least in mice. During tests they showed that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences to subsequent generations. They conditioned the first generation of mice to associate a pleasant odor with fear; the next two generations were also afraid of the smell. You can read a description of their research for the layperson in Nature: "Fearful Memories Haunt Mouse Descendants."
After writing a draft of Nightsong, I put it away for several years. I couldn't quite figure out how to make the story gel. How would Bronwyn, the main character, have carried fears from ancient times in her DNA, and what would trigger these fears? I think reading about this research gave me the impetus to go back and work on the novel again. It was the glue that, for me anyway, held the story together and made it work.
Bronwyn eventually discovers the source of her own extreme fear of fire, as well as the origin of many other fears and anxieties that were passed along from her prehistoric ancestors.
In my novel NIGHTSONG, the Neanderthals communicate by a combination of speech and song. They bond by singing together, and their "nightsongs" help keep their fears at bay. They tells stories by singing and in their songs they "show" where they've been and what they've experienced.
When I began writing NIGHTSONG about 9 years ago, I read a lot about the origin of music and singing. What was the evolutionary purpose of music? I think I absorbed a lot of theories and ideas from books such as The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithen, as well as books about the amazing vocal variations in people today.
I was especially fascinated by the Tuvan throat singers of Inner Asia, and their complex sonic world. In the book Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond, Theodore Levin describes the songs of the Tuvan throat singers, who can sing more than one tone at a time. Their songs don't only imitate nature and animals; they also create a sonic picture for listeners. These are the kinds of songs I imagined that the Neanderthals may have sung,
I sing in a women's choir called Cantigas, based in New Jersey, and we performed a crowd-pleasing piece called Tres Cantos Nativos by Marcos Leite, in which the singers recreate the sounds of a rainforest, using only body movements, clapping, and voice. The animal sounds are made by choir members (as I recall, we had one choir member who did a mean Venezuelan rooster). In NIGHTSONG, the Neanderthals create this kind of music--using simple shakers, their voices, and their bodies only. Listen to the first few moments of this piece with your eyes closed. You'll be transported to a rainy day in the forest (performed by Lee University's Choral Union).
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...