The Neanderthal’s Cautionary Tale

I came across an interesting gem of a story out there recently:

I’m fascinated by Neanderthals. Here is this alternate branch of humanity, a humanity that had spread throughout Europe even while Homo Sapiens was still in Africa. They had a complex language, albeit one that was likely higher pitched (yes, higher … look at their tracheas) and at least partially non-verbal.

They had larger brains than modern humans, but without as much cortical complexity along the corpus callorum, the fissure that separates the two halves of the brain. They had adapted to northern climes — the presence of red hair and blue eyes, the broad barrel chests that would have given them greater lung capacity in elevated mountains, but they were also compact, exposing less skin surface to cold air.

They were profound innovators. They had invented multi-stage glues, requiring both controlled use of fire and a basic understanding. They had established the rudiments of medical care, with the discovery that willow bark, when chewed, could relieve pain, and that certain fruit molds were efficacious at treating wounds. It would be tens of thousands of years before Sapiens would realize that Neanderthals had isolated aspirin and penicillin.

They had clothes and thread and had figured out the needle, had created pottery and cooking, may have had both beer and tea. Some went heavy on the meat, some ate nothing but nuts and grains. They adapted, made use of whatever was in their environment.

They cared about their homes. We tend to see them as “cave-dwellers”, but it was more likely that they were adept at creating shelters, and caves just happened to be the one environment where their remains were most likely to survive.

When a Neanderthal died, she would be painted with complex markings using various pigments, among which red ochre was likely the most common and certainly the longest lasting. Then she would be placed in a natural crypt, which not only hastened the decomposition process but also kept the potentially toxic remains away from food and water sources.

They had an uneasy relationship with Sapiens, but it wasn’t necessarily the antipathy of two predators playing out us versus them. Neanderthal genes appear in the human genome, in some places people have up to six percent of genes that were otherwise unique to Neanderthal.

They interbred, begging the argument that in those places where humans and Neanderthal had the most common territory — the Levant, for instance, speciation wasn’t so far complete as to make them genetically incompatible.

Indeed, the picture that emerges is that they were simply another kind of people, more like oversized dwarves than hulking monstrosities, that what we see today in the paleological record are those that had most isolated themselves. Many were absorbed into the human diaspora — we find evidence of Denisovans, more closely related to Neanderthals than to Homo Sapiens, spread throughout Siberia and Northern China.

There are hints of another hominid, as we continue to parse the genetic records and get a better understanding of the human experience, that likely become the precursors of the Oceanic peoples, just as we have discovered theHomo Florensis, our Hobbits, who might have survived as the last remnants of Homo Erectus on the island of Flores in Indonesia.

Fifty thousand years ago, all of these flavors of humanity were around, were trading and having sex and brawling with one another. Where did they go? Most likely, it was not wars or superior skills or better brains, or even interbreeding that spelled their doom. It was ice … climate change.

Human civilization has taken the conceit that our era — the Holocene, or arguably the Anthropocene — is unique. In reality, however, we are still technically in the Pleistocene, a period of glaciation that has gone in quasi-cyclic patterns, most likely due to the arrangement of continents and how that affects water flow within the oceans. That period started about two million years ago, and humanity, in its various forms, has waned and waxed as the glaciers have waxed and waned.

There is evidence that Sapiens were the most warm adapted of species, and so as the ice spread, and as arboreal habitats with rich ecosystems gave way to tundra habitats with far poorer ecosystems, the Neanderthal, the Denisovan and others who had adapted to these Northern climes ultimately faced extinction as they ran out of food.

There is a cautionary tale here. It was not the superiority of one human species over another that made the difference, it was largely just a matter of where they happened to be when the world changed. If, as the evidence is pointing to with increasing certainty, we are going through anthropogenic fueled climate change, then we could, perhaps over a very short period of time, be facing a double whammy.

First we could be facing pressure as the equatorial tropics become too hot to inhabit (and too incapable of supporting the food needed to survive), even as we continue to pump hydrocarbons into the air, even as storms and rising seas overwhelm out largely coastal society, meaning that more and more of our technological capacity will be engaged in fighting the effects of that, resulting long term in the collapse of what we think of as civilization globally.

Yet this is only a temporary situation. The carbon cycle in the atmosphere runs about 150 years absent continued pumping, while methane, far more potent, will disappear in around 35–40 years.

Yet nature is a physical process, and it is likely that as the planet then cools, it will overshoot dramatically (especially given that there is additional evidence that we would otherwise be in an ice age now without human input). Even if we were to stop all of these emissions completely, it will be 75–100 years of heat increase, followed swiftly (perhaps another 100 to 150 years) of rapid cooling, at a point where our ability to affect the environment is far more limited than exists today.

What makes this worse is that most organisms above the level of microbes are unable to adapt to such extremes. Already in our oceans there are vast stretches, once teaming with a diversity of life, where only jellyfish, one of the simplest multicellular organisms on the planet, can be found. This will happen on land as well, especially as the glaciers reclaim the Earth to where only deserts remain.

So remember the Neanderthal, humans like ourselves for all our diferences, and bear in mind that in the end it was fire and ice, not superiority of brains or brawns, that sealed their fate … and may seal ours.

Kurt Cagle writes the Metaphorical Web.