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....
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...