In defence of Neanderthals: a reader writes

In my recent post ““Progression”: ‘extraordinary attitudes’ that did for “The Woodsman”?” I questioned why “Basildon’s Conservative Party acts like a Neanderthal collective when it comes to  public art?”

This prompted one irritated reader to point out by email that this comparator was unfair to Neanderthals. As I explained in my response, I had actually worried about that myself, but decided that, on balance – and after a careful read of Wikipedia on the subject of the Neanderthal the issue of artistic activity in Neanderthal society is still significantly contested enough for me to err on the side of cliché.

However, upon reflection, the fact that it is even contested suggests the possibility of its existence in Neanderthal society in a way that could not possibly be true of Basildon’s Conservative Party.

Read for yourselves:

“How dare you make such allegations in your Blog!

I refer to your posting of 3rd February in which you liken the Basildon Conservative party to a Neanderthal collective.

I speak on behalf of that extinct community which continues to receive a negative image as a result of ill-considered remarks such as yours. For many years Neanderthals have been treated as sub-human simply because of the physical appearance of their skull. For years they were thought to be stupid and dumb as no hyoid bone had ever been found, indicating that they had vocal chords. And then twenty years ago, in 1989, a Neanderthal skeleton was found with the hyoid bone intact, and suddenly anthropologists deigned to grant the Neanderthals the power of speech – but they were still considered to be ignorant.

The trouble is that time has a strange effect on artefacts, and Neanderthal artefacts are 50,000 – 60,000 years old. Some years ago a carved bone was found in a Neanderthal cave. And last month there was the discovery of Neanderthal “make-up” artefacts in southern Spain suggested that they were “capable of symbolic thinking”.

It seems that we started off with a negative image of the Neanderthal and only concede that they have positive aspects when there is archaeological proof. I believe that Homo neanderthalensis was as civilized and cultured as the Homo erectus of 50,000 years ago. At least the Neanderthal’s left some artefacts behind by which we can judge them. The way the Basildon Conservative party is going, there will be nothing left of Basildon’s culture 50,000 years hence!

May I therefore request that when seeking a comparator in future, you do not impugn the reputation of the Neanderthals by associating them with the Basildon Conservative Party.”

However tongue-in-cheek it might sound, the point is a valid one. As the BBC is demonstrating in conjunction with the British Museum (see “A History of the World in Objects – a brilliant idea from the BBC”), our history is told through ordinary objects. We regularly impune Neanderthals for a lack of sophistication, based on little more than cartoon caricature and a lack of physical evidence.

Read more on the story of the Neanderthal ‘make-up’ containers.

Read more on the story of the discovery of the Neanderthal ‘face’.

Prehistoric art is a subject I’ll return to at a future date. In the meantime, suggestions for a more appropriate comparator to Basildon’s Conservative Party would be welcome.

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