Recently, President Biden accused the governors in Texas and Mississippi of “Neanderthal thinking” because those states were preparing to lift mask requirements in defiance of recommendations from the CDC and other scientists and doctors.
Many people, including myself, agreed with the President’s position on mask wearing, but many didn’t—and the purpose of this blog post is not to take sides on that issue.
Rather it is to examine the phrase “Neanderthal thinking.”
I believe the President owes a huge apology here—not to the governors in question—but to the extinct tribe of Neanderthal humans—whose thinking skills actually appear to have been rather impressive for the time in which they populated our planet (a perspective persistently bolstered by new discoveries and ongoing research). Studies suggest that we modern humans share as much as 99.84% percent of our DNA with Neanderthals.
I have a novel called Cat’s Whisker coming out in September 2021, from Köehler Books. The novel’s main character is a scientist, engineer, and successful entrepreneur, who is fascinated with the extinct tribe of Neanderthals. He finds that aspects of their story fuel his quest to integrate science and spirituality within his own consciousness, so that the two forces together, form a unified and overarching gestalt.
What follows is an excerpt from Cat’s Whisker dealing with the tribe of Neanderthals. It has been edited slightly for the purpose of this blog post:
They were a fascinating and endearing bunch.
Evidence shows incontrovertibly that Neanderthals manufactured and utilized an array of surprisingly sophisticated tools, employed fire for cooking, lived in shelters, and made the clothing they wore. They skillfully used weapons to hunt large animals, and also gathered plant foods to supplement their diets. They even played music—a recently discovered flute constructed from the hollow femur bone of a juvenile bear attests to this remarkable fact.
But most startling was the compassion Neanderthals displayed toward members of their tribe.
Neanderthals buried their dead. There was no practical need for that behavior because scavenging carnivores would have quickly devoured corpses left out in the elements. Excavations have discovered Neanderthal graves that were marked with symbolic offerings such as flowers. No other animal or early human species engaged in that sort of ritualistic behavior.
A number of Neanderthal skeletons have been unearthed revealing individuals who were crippled, deformed, blind, paralyzed, or missing limbs. Older tribe members who had lost all their teeth have been found as well. It is clear that these afflicted humans could not possibly have survived on their own, yet their bones clearly establish that they endured for years with these disabilities. The only explanation is that Neanderthals cared for their sick and incapacitated tribe members, where necessary carrying them about or chewing food for them.
The primitive Neanderthals found time to nurture and support the frailest among them. Is it fair that they went extinct, ultimately unable to compete with a more cunning and cognitively gifted human tribe?
It is not.
But it is also not what happened. Their story had a far more ambiguous conclusion.
The kind and gentle Neanderthal thrived in Europe and Western Asia for several hundred thousand years. They abruptly and mysteriously went extinct about thirty thousand years ago, but not before they coexisted for a period of time with our ancient ancestors, early Homo sapiens, who had left Africa and begun colonizing Europe and Asia about sixty thousand years ago.
The Neanderthals could not overpower or outthink the Homo sapiens who invaded their territories. And in some instances, we Homo sapiens probably just slaughtered the Neanderthals we found in our midst.
But during those thirty thousand years of coexistence, prior to the Neanderthal’s demise, there were occasional primitive souls who were drawn more to love than to conquest. These remarkable individuals interbred across the two competing species. They produced children who continued to breed and contribute to the gene pool. So, in the end, the Neanderthals did not perish. They yielded, and became a small part of us.
Scientists now postulate that most modern humans of European or Asian descent possess genomes that are between one and four percent Neanderthal in origin.
Their traits are in us.
I often wonder to what extent the traits of kindness and generosity are inherent in those specific genes.
As I continue to work on my spiritual self, I hope to someday tap fully into the unrealized well of compassion within me. When I do, I will not know from which ancient forebear it emanated. It will not matter then. I will be one with all of them.