This is retelling a story of Modern Man that we probably have all grown up with ' the story of the rise of a species specially endowed with sagacity, created by god or nature to be the ruler of this earth and all other creatures. The story was always joyful ' for we were on the winning side ' but getting 'curiouser and curiouser' all the time. Some people have a problem with it that is not necessarily a problem in advanced biology (or theology) but in understanding new facts about the roots of humanity that scientists are bringing to light. I will try here to explain at least my problem to my readers. Like most of them, I am not a specialist in the concerned fields. My only excuse for doing so is my usual excuse, that I follow a simple principle of life: if a problem seems serious enough, I do not want to go by specialist opinion alone.
Modern Man's ascent to the biological high ground was success so spectacular, and achieved against such tremendous odds, that no living being remains today to question it ' barring, of course, some among the bacterial and viral populations of our earth. God knows how they managed to adapt and mutate all the time, fast enough to remain credible contenders for the ultimate prize. But still, even with this proviso in small print, the story of Man makes a strong case. Only, sometimes one has to wonder what exactly the moral of the story would be.
I would like to make it quite clear at this point ' after all nobody is above suspicion these days ' that I am happy it was Man who won the biological race, rather than one of the dinosaurs. But who on earth exactly would be claiming the Man of the Match award on the day of judgment' I have a special question for him : did Homo sapiens sapiens win out because of only the doubled sapience, meaning wisdom' Or did cruelty and cunning play an equal part'
Let me make my suspicions more pointed: was there only one kind of modern man ' filled with sapience, capable of taking moral decisions, and consequently only one couple of Adam and Eve on the arduous path of the Ascent of Man' If there were other couples, what happened to them' I dread to think what happened to them. My allotted space being short, I would rather give you some well-known facts straightaway and leave you to judge.
It was in 1856 that the fossil of a skullcap with a partial skeleton was discovered in a cave in the Neander valley near Dusseldorf, Germany. It immediately started a controversy among scientists about the roots of Modern Man that has not been settled to this day. The Neander valley skeleton was the first recognized fossil human form. Eventually it was realized that other Neanderthal sites had already come to light but not recognized.
In 1864, the Neanderthal skeleton was notified as belonging to a new species of man: Homo neanderthalensis. Scientists declared the species to be in some ways similar to, but genetically completely different from us, that is, the Modern Men, the wise men, the Homo sapiens. Neanderthals inhabited Europe and western Asia during the latter part of the Pleistocene Age. The climate in these regions was much colder than it is today, and the Neanderthal had lived through several Ice Ages. Evidence of Neanderthal colonization has been found spread from Spain to Uzbekistan. Strangely, no evidence of their existence has yet been found in the neighbouring Himalayan and sub-Himalayan regions.
Originally the scientists had converged on the view that the Neanderthal anatomy was one of a primitive 'early man'. It was hypothesized that this species not only evolved earlier than Modern Man, but its evolution ran into a blind alley and stopped: the species, an anatomical mockery of Man, was already extinct when we, the real thing, came upon the scene.
Gradually it is this proposition that became suspect and then was abandoned. Clearly our Modern Man and the older Neanderthal had lived together in close proximity for thousands of years. They fought, at least Modern Man did, as evidenced by a mass burial site of a whole population of Neanderthals carefully laid to rest, their heads smashed. This was during the time, scientists suggest, Modern Men were frequently passing by the Neanderthal settlements in southern Europe and the Middle East and eliminating them. At last it began to be apparent that the distinctions some of the scientists were originally making confidently between the Neanderthal and Modern Man were mainly derived from a flawed reconstruction of the near-complete skeleton of an elderly bodily impaired Neanderthal male that someone had chanced upon at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. There were plenty of other fossils to look at. In fact, one of the surprising distinctions between the Neanderthal fossils and those of early Man is that the former are more plentiful, and more neatly buried, showing greater care for the dead than the latter. Some of these burials show evidence of these graves being adorned with offerings such as flowers. This cultural advance, which represents an awareness and recognition of life and death, may have first been practised by the Neanderthals before Modern Man.
For the scientific world, at least, the impression that the Neanderthal was an inferior throwback had been completely offset when an astonishing, almost unbelievable, fact was noticed. The Neanderthal braincases measured on average about 1600 cc, more than 15 per cent larger than Modern Man's 1300-1400 cc. For comparison, chimpanzees had 400 cc, Homo erectus 1200 cc braincases, the maximum recorded for some human geniuses being about 2000 cc. It is improbable that all Neanderthal braincases found belonged to their geniuses.
It is conceivable that the average Neanderthal Man was brainier than the average Modern Man. With a powerful wrestler's body, he had a thinking head. The Neanderthal Man was shorter but more robust than Modern Man. The distinctive cranial features of Neanderthals included prominent brow ridges, low, sloping foreheads, a chinless, heavy, forward-jutting jaw, and extremely large front teeth. The shoulders and pelvis were wider, the rib cage more conical in shape, and the forearms and lower legs shorter. By the aesthetic norms handed down to us, the Neanderthal Man was by no means a beauty. I was reading the other day, with some discomfort, stories that some Asians ensconced in Paris during the recent riots had said their black neighbours looked like baboons. Some scientists probably equipped with similar inherited norms of beauty formed similar impressions. The Neanderthal appeared after the Homo erectus, so they had to be a throwback to the earlier apes.
If you leave that skeleton of the physically impaired elderly Neanderthal alone, the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens would look very similar anatomically. So similar, that by 1964 it had to be generally agreed that Neanderthals were not a separate species at all, at most they represented a subspecies of the species of the Homo sapiens. The two human groups were renamed Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens. This classification was popular through the Seventies and Eighties and still continues. But many writers today want to return to that two-species hypothesis.
In their view, depending on whatever DNA evidence is available, Modern Man is the evolutionary successor of the west European tall and long-faced 'good-looking' Cro-Magnon. The shorter and robust Neanderthal was Nature's mistake. Accidentally, I found several self-congratulatory articles selling this 'scientific' proposition in, of all places, the Pravda. Even without being a scientist I find this a brutal but not a logical Final Solution. I rather find one proposed in the Columbia Encyclopedia more probable: Neanderthal's anatomical distinctions got diluted through gene flow with other Homo sapiens. So did Cro-Magnon's.