Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors

When William Golding sent the manuscript of The Inheritors to his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith, he also sent a worried letter in which he asked whether an expert on the Neanderthals should read the book before publication. Golding wrote ‘I haven’t done any research for the book at all – just brooded over what I know myself’. Monteith politely dismissed Golding’s concerns.

In the sixty years since The Inheritors was published, our understanding of the lives of the Neanderthals has been much enhanced by a number of scientific discoveries; most importantly, the revelation that many modern humans carry the Neanderthal gene. The explanation for this is that humans and Neanderthals probably interbred at some point in history, and this forms the basis for Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors, recently shown on BBC Television.

This fascinating programme re-created the Neanderthal people, with the undisputed king of motion-capture, Andy Serkis, playing the part of ‘Ned’ the Neanderthal. The fossilised bones of 60000-year-old Ned were discovered in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq, the heart of Neanderthal territory, and using forensic facial imaging, Ned is slowly re-created throughout the first episode of the programme. The most surprising revelation is that Ned does not look that different from modern humans, and the work to demonstrate how he moved shows that Neanderthals were ‘stronger, faster and much better looking than we ever thought’.

In The Inheritors, the Neanderthals don’t hunt – they do eat meat but only if the animal has been killed by other means. This is a deliberate straying of fact by Golding, in order to prove the savagery of the invading Homo sapiens, and to enhance the innocence of his group of Neanderthals. Meet Your Ancestors showed that Neanderthals were ambush hunters, and able to sprint over very short distances. An experiment suggested that a Neanderthal would move faster than Usain Bolt, although Bolt would soon overtake! The evidence of their hunting techniques also disproves views of Neanderthals’ low brain capacities. Hunter-gatherers require huge cognitive skills, and evidence that they made their own tools, with a glue that scientists can’t now replicate, show that Neanderthals were intelligent.

After examining Ned’s bones, the programme showed that he had suffered a serious head trauma, which left him at least partially blind in one eye, and that he was missing a hand, either through accident or amputation. Neither of these injuries caused his death, and the scientists argued that this was proof that Neanderthals must have lived in groups, as Ned would have been unable to survive on his own with these kinds of injuries. Golding’s Neanderthals live in a small group, with a range of ages. Mal is the old man, who is seriously ill in the novel, and the youngest is the ‘New One’, Nil’s baby. When Mal is ill in the cave, Lok runs to the river to fetch water, and the group rally around to try to take care of him. In addition to caring for the old and infirm, the family share childcare and food-gathering responsibilities. The scientific evidence certainly suggests that Golding’s ideas were sound.

A harder question to answer was whether or not Neanderthals ‘spoke’. In The Inheritors, the Neanderthals mostly communicate through the telepathic sharing of pictures, although some simple words are spoken. The hyoid bone gives humans the ability to speak, and Neanderthals also had that bone, although scientists can’t be sure whether it was similarly placed. However, using their best estimation, testing has shown that it is likely that Neanderthals could speak, although the ‘ahh’ sound was different. The question then becomes whether they had the mental capacity to speak, and the scientists pointed out that there is a clear difference between speech and language.

The second episode focused on the extinction of the Neanderthals, and their replacement by Homo sapiens, which is also the major focus in Golding’s novel. It cannot conclusively be proved that the emergence of modern humans caused the decline of Neanderthals; other factors such as climate change certainly played a part. Shanidar 3, another skeleton found at Shanidar Cave, died from a wound to his chest and testing revealed that this was likely caused by a long-range weapon, which the Neanderthals did not use. This evidence suggests Homo sapiens did attack Neanderthals, giving support to Golding’s vision of humans destroying Lok’s family group. Despite the immense strength of Neanderthals, human capacity for imaginative thinking would have given them the edge in a fight, although it must be remembered that Neanderthals survived longer on this planet than modern humans have – to date, at least!

But the breakthrough discovery by Svante Pääbo at the Max-Planck Institute, that modern humans carry the Neanderthal gene, is the most striking scientific evidence that Golding predicted in The Inheritors. Pääbo and his team found that the only people living today that don’t carry this gene are from sub-Saharan Africa, probably because their descendants did not migrate. At the end of The Inheritors, the humans take the ‘New One’, a male baby with them on their boat, giving hope that his people will survive in some form. Today, that hope is realised in about 2% of most people’s DNA.

Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors is available on BBC iPlayer.

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