Relationship with our Neanderthal cousins

The relationship with our distant Neanderthal cousins is  complex – part origin story, part romance, and both larded with an unhealthy dollop of Rousseau’s Noble Savage. We admire them and relate to their plight, but there is also disdain. “Neanderthal” remains a term of abuse, synonymous with slow wits and a lack of sophistication, no matter how much evidence we might find of the real Neanderthals’ advanced tool use and the survival skills we have lost, if we ever we held them.

Then there is a small matter of their extinction. They must have been inferior to modern humans if we survived and they didn’t, right? But, as one scientist in Café Neandertal points out, Neanderthals lived for more than 250,000 years, whereas we Homo sapiens have only managed 160,000 so far.

But that hasn’t stopped our growing fascination, driven in large measure by geneticist Svante Pääbo, whose lifelong obsession with ancient DNA has helped to write pages of paleo history that seemed lost forever. And with the discovery that there is a little bit of them in all of us has come insights into our own human origins.

It doesn’t matter that most of what we think we know of what it means to be Neanderthal is almost certainly wrong, and, some believe, might not be possible to ever get right. “We think with the Homo sapiens mind,” Bahrami quotes one archaeologist as saying. “We can’t possibly know the Neandertal reality.” And yet it is precisely the search for that reality which lies at the heart of this beautifully crafted book. 

While Bahrami gives an excellent account of the pioneering DNA sequencing of Pääbo and others, it is the story of the extraordinary work of palaeoanthropologists, struggling to bring the Neanderthals to life; to recreate how they lived, loved and died, that clearly captures her imagination.

Mind you, it was with an inward groan that one reads from the blurb, “Café Neandertal is also a detective story, investigating one of the biggest mysteries of prehistory and archaeology”. The detective story trope is too often the cliché juste publicists grope for to describe any straightforward piece of scientific enquiry. But as it turns out, it is entirely justified with Café Neandertal, which indeed picks up the many pieces of the puzzle, carefully examines them and painstakingly places them in context.

In many ways is a most unusual science book. Bahrami is a wonderful writer who brings many of the attributes of the novel to a clear and compelling narrative that encapsulates a snapshot of the state of our current knowledge about Neanderthals.

Peopled with a vast cast of fascinating characters, from village locals to querulous scientists, it brings to life the excitement of unearthing the past and describes the “new, more enlightened era in studies of human evolution” that is dawning.

Bahrami is an anthropologist by training and throughout this book those roots show. Brought up in the American school of cultural anthropology, as a student she was encouraged to undergo psychotherapy before going out into the field. The thinking was that unless one’s own biases were uncovered and known, any reading of another cultural system was bound to become tainted by mirroring the psyche of the researcher – a problem she notes that is rampant in the field of palaeoanthropology.

Given the incomplete picture of the deep past that we have at any given time, archaeology, she notes, is as much art as science. And this almost inevitably leads to emotion creeping in. “Thinking that Neandertals buried their dead,” archaeologist Dennis Sandgathe says, “makes them more human, more like us, so we like this idea.” But there is little evidence for it and any dogmatic belief that they did is a case of desire overriding science.

The book begins and ends in the southwest of France in the beautiful and ancient Périgord region, which itself plays a starring role. Bahrami draws the book’s title from the near-universal fascination for prehistory among those who live within reach of the Dordogne River, an area with the richest concentration of early hominid sites in the world. Locals, she found, whether born there or, like her, migrants to the region, feel a deep spiritual connection to its prehistory, “a profound connection to life, land, and spirit for all who came later”. “That’s when I realised we all existed in a special place, one I called Café Neandertal.”

Bahrami’s book follows the main dig featured – at the La Ferrassie site from 2010 to 2014 – and the subsequent lab work through the summer of 2015. It is not the first time La Ferrassie – the motherlode of Neanderthal sites in southwestern France and Europe – has been excavated, and nor will it be the last.

As she explains, archaeology is a multi-generational process, in which one generation of archaeologists will close a dig with the expectation that the next may have better techniques and tools at their disposal to winkle out a more accurate picture of the long past.

And La Ferrassie holds many secrets. Of 30 or so nearly complete skeletons of Neanderthals across the world, it has yielded seven.

The latest mission was designed to reinvestigate the question of whether Neanderthals buried their dead – and whether they had at La Ferrassie, as earlier generations had conjectured.  This was to be done by using improved state-of-the-art excavation techniques. There were also questions of tool creation and use, innovation and creativity, love and family to be addressed, along with, perhaps the most vexed problem of all, why did the Neanderthals disappear around 35,000 years ago?

While there are not definitive answers to any of these questions, and probably never will be, Bahrami helps us to understand the value of trying – and the complexities of doing so.

Neanderthals, after all, were an extraordinarily diverse bunch – just as diverse as modern humans today across the globe and perhaps more so. And then there is the time scale over which they lived – look, for example, how much Homo sapiens have changed just in the past 100,000 years.

Of why this strong, resourceful, intelligent species died out, Bahrami says, “there are lots of theories and as usual, probably not one is an answer”. And, despite this brilliant account of the current thinking, that’s probably a fair summation of the whole endeavour of trying to piece together the minutiae of prehistoric life.

As one of the leading scientists explains to the author: “We need to remain humble, and know we will never know everything. We’ll never unlock the entire mystery of human evolution.”

But that, he adds, is what makes it so exciting.

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