Neanderthals colonised Europe and Middle East long before modern humans and went extinct less than 30,000 years ago, when our species has spread there. Their story inspired the fantasies of generation of scientists, some of whom still cannot accept the idea that Neanderthals were just another kind of humans very similar or maybe simply just like us. Again and again the Neanderthals are portrayed as grunting hairy cave beasts utterly incapable of anything which makes us human: speech, art, tool-making and any meaningful social interaction except of copulation and mutual delousing. Gracelessly lumbering about, too slow to even hunt some food, not even grunting, but squeaking. The recent knowledge that modern humans and Neanderthal had actual children with each other, evidenced by genetic traces all modern humans of non-African origin carry, has for those academics a whiff of a bestiality fantasy.
The following post by my regular contributor Smut Clyde presents you some fresh new age phrenology papers which try to explain why Neanderthal died out. Their brains were inferior, you see. Defective. This is why they are no longer amongst us: too stupid and anti-social. The history of Homo sapiens however suggests that we tend to see any out-group humans this way and then try our best in exterminating them and take their resources. Had certain more recent human endeavours succeeded, there would probably be peer -reviewed academic studies on why Australian and American first people, or Tutsi, or Armenians, or Jews were biologically bound to become extinct. Was it their poorly developed brains which made them sub-competitive against Europeans and other evolutionary more advanced races?
Of course Neanderthals were just like us humans at that time, even if they looked slightly different, what with the big noses and prominent brows. They even made art, a capacity we long denied to them. We should really consider the possibility that we, the invading sapiens, wiped out the indigenous Neanderthals, who could only survive by assimilating into the sapiens community, which eventually let them disappear. Just like many modern Spaniards have genetic traces of converted Jews escaping a Middle-Age Holocaust. By coincidence, last Neanderthals survived the sapiens onslaught until only 24,000 years ago in a corner of Iberian peninsula, in caves of Gibraltar.
As Smut Clyde tells below, so far it was skull phrenology and other shaky anatomic extrapolations from which scientists kept proving how mentally and physically inferior Neanderthals were, to get the fate these dodos of the hominid world deserved. As the scholar Richard Coss, a psychologist and artist, postulated in February 2018:
“Neanderthals could mentally visualise previously seen animals from working memory but they were unable to translate those mental images effectively into the co-ordinated hand-movement patterns required for drawing”
With the advance of genetic engineering and stem cell research, the Neanderthal idiocy entered the wet lab. The goal is to prove with high-tech buzzwords like stem cells, CRISPR and mini-brain why Neanderthals were so primitive (because accepting that Neanderthals were not, would thwart an emerging field of sexy research).
Svante Pääbo is director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and a star of anthropology research, whose previously led the effort to extract ancient DNA from Neanderthal bones and sequence the genome. Because a Max Planck director and certainly someone of Pääbo’s calibre will never get to hear any proper criticism to his face, he announced in May 2018 in The Guardian to use the gene editing CRISPR/CAS technology to modify reprogrammed human cells and use them to simulate Neanderthal brains in a dish. The technology is called “mini-brains”, not because those are actual little brains in a cell culture dish, but because “neurosphere” or “3D neural stem cell culture” sounds old-fashioned and unsellable. Some quotes from Pääbo’s lab:
“You start the organoid growing and leave it for nine months and see what happens,” said Gray Camp, a group leader at the institute who is overseeing the organoid experiments. “You don’t get a well-formed human brain at all, but you see multiple regions have kind of formed; you can study the synapses and electrical activity and early developmental differences.” [..]
“We can regrow your Neanderthal brain,” said Camp. “We can monitor that and resurrect the functionality of those neanderthal genes.”
Don’t laugh, mini-brains are a big thing these days. An April 2018 Nature editorial prepares reader to expect everything:
“As brain surrogates become larger and more sophisticated, the possibility of them having capabilities akin to human sentience might become less remote. Such capacities could include being able to feel (to some degree) pleasure, pain or distress; being able to store and retrieve memories; or perhaps even having some perception of agency or awareness of self.”
Never mind mini-brains, I am not even sure about all those sentient capacities being fully present even in certain Neanderthal researchers. Enter Alysson Muotri, geneticist at UC San Diego in USA, who “focuses on modeling neurological diseases, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, using human induced pluripotent stem cells“. Muotri made it into Science Magazine in June 2018, because he published not even a paper or preprint with any data in it, but a bizarre conference abstract. Muotri announced to have used his powerful H. sapiens brain to postulate which genes is responsible for superior sapiens development, and then used CRISPR gene editing technology to modify that gene in human induced pluripotent cells, from which he then grew “mini-brains”, with the purpose:
“We’re trying to recreate Neanderthal minds”
The autism researcher Muotri concluded that his shrivelled anti-social “Neanderoids” contents of a cell culture dish explain everything: Neanderthals were worse than autists, utterly unable of any social interaction or orientation, no wonder they kept bumping into sleeping lions and bears who then ate them all. Of course the California genius professor has great plans:
“Muotri has developed the modern human brain organoids to the stage where his team can detect oscillating electrical signals within the balls of tissue. They are now wiring the organoids to robots that resemble crabs, hoping the organoids will learn to control the robots’ movements. Ultimately, Muotri wants to pit them against robots run by brain Neanderoids.”
Neanderthal Phrenology, by Smut Clyde
Previous generations didn’t have the video games and social media and digital communication that they could conjure into dire warnings about mental deterioration and the reversion of the young peoples into Morlocks. Instead they made do with the unprecedented speed and easy availability of automotive transport, which would inevitably change the skulls of drivers into a more elongate shape, as a form of streamlining, with concomitant effects upon the mind, heralding a a future of brutish, degraded, degenerate mentalities when the asylums would overflow. ***
A natural train of thought – the local commuter train, not the fast express service – leads us to Kochiyama et al. (2018), who recently compared the Neanderthal and the Anatomically Modern Skull, to delineate the differences in shape and infer how this must have impacted on Neanderthal cognition. By “the Neandertal Skull” we mean four individual crania, each reassembled from fragments with state-of-the-art ‘guesswork’ methods to interpolate the missing bits; and the same for the four representatives of Cro-Magnon. Later steps in the guesswork logic assume that the volumes of brain lobes are linked rigidly to the shape of the skull, and only radial deformations are possible: for instance, if someone’s forehead is compressed, the frontal lobe behind it must be smaller.
This explains the absence of frontal-lobe functioning among Mayans, other pre-Columbian cultures, East Germanic tribes, French peasants, and umpteen other groups known to modify their infants’ cranial profiles with head-binding for aesthetic purposes and status enhancement.
Anyway… Kochiyama et al. are described as pioneers in this burgeoning new field of Quantified Neanderthal Phrenology:
But as SR co-author Naomichi Ogihara told Scientific American, they are the first to actually digitally reconstruct Neanderthal brains.
“Our method allows estimation of the shape and volume of each brain region, which is quite impossible just by analyzing the endocranial surfaces.”
The claim to precedence is true as long as one ignores a slightly-earlier and less-well-publicised study (Neubauer, Hublin and Gunz, 2018). Isn’t it always the same? You wait for ages for a paper on Neandertal Phrenology and then two come along at once.
It is quite likely that the notion of extrapolating from skull shape to brain function had occurred to many people in the past, but had previously been rejected as patently daft.
In the Golden Age of craniometry in the early 1900s, skull-caliper hobbyists and gentlemen dilettante-anthropologists liked to divide populations into those with bradycephalic and dolichocephalic heads… long narrow heads (the latter kind) were more common in Europe, and therefore superior. But no-one argued that the owners of wider, brachycephalic skulls also possessed larger temporal lobes and would be more skilled in language, memory and facial recognition.*
Now both studies fall within a recognised literary genre in which novelists and evolutionary psychologists and other authors of fiction speculate about the mental differences between Neanderthals and their anatomically-modern contemporaries, and about the racial-memory Original-Sin scars inflicted on the latter by the trauma of having to exterminate the former. Authors follow a roughly 30-year cycle, explaining the current revival of this literary tradition: see Wells 1921; Harness 1953; Golding 1955; Kurtén 1978; Auel 1980.**
It goes without saying that Neanderthals must have differed in some respect, for they are no longer extant and there must be some reason for this. Also no-one wants to miss an opportunity to talk about ourselves and ‘human nature’ in the guise of talking about what we are not. If Neanderthals had not existed then it would be necessary to invent them.
Avid Riddled readers (is there any other kind?) will recall the beginning of this revival with the ‘visual brain‘ theory from 2013. In this, evolution assigned so much of the Neanderthal cortex to processing visual information (in compensation for the lower level of lighting in their Northern European habitat of icecaps and blizzards and cave-bears) that no brain-power was left for social-cognition skills and they could not cooperate in groups. Larger eye-sockets were adduced as evidence, and explained as an adaptation to capture more photons. This is SCIENCE so evidence is not merely ‘provided’ or ‘tabled’, it is adduced.
It is a very silly theory even by the relaxed standards of Riddled, and I can only suppose that it was accepted into Proc. Roy. Soc. B because the third author was Dunbar (of the eponymous Number). Some people might think that if Neanderthals had enlarged light-trap tarsier eyes, this would do away with the need for special night-sight neural processing requiring half their cortex… but those people are the same nay-saying skeptics and cavilling pedants who also point out that Neanderthals lived all across the Levant and were not exclusively adapted to Northern Europe (that’s just where a lot of caves are where their bones turned up), so their opinions can safely be ignored.
Press-release-regurging science churnalists at the time dwelt on the elongation of the Neanderthal side of the comparison:
And in fact, Neanderthal skulls suggest that the extinct hominids had elongated regions in the back of their brains, called the “Neanderthal bun,” where the visual cortex lies.
“It looks like a Victorian lady’s head,” Dunbar told LiveScience.
Here at the Riddled Institute of Impure Science and Gratuitous Innuendo, we attribute this cerebral elongation to the extreme rapidity of the Paleolithic forms of transport favoured by Neanderthals (or perhaps they practiced head-binding), but other scholars are slow to accept this explanation.
Neubauer et al. (2018) went along with the elongation / globular narrative to account for Cro-Magnon ascendancy. In contrast, Kochiyama et al. (2018) (returning to them at last!) struck off in a new direction. Unable to find any convincing cerebral differences between their Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon reconstructions, they kept fishing, and eventually reported that modern brains have larger cerebellums. Or cerebella, as the case may be. This in turn led them to the startling conclusion that the cerebellum, previously regarded as responsible for ‘muscle sequencing / coordination’ computations for routine movements, must in fact be the centre of our highest cognitive qualities. I am not making this up:
“A new scientific analysis shows that human skulls are shaped in a way that suggests they encased brains with slightly larger cerebellums than Neanderthals. The cerebellum is a brain region associated with activities like planning, adapting to new environments, switching between tasks, and building social relationships”.
“And because cerebellar volume is linked to abilities like cognitive flexibility, language processing, and working memory capacity, the scientists argue larger cerebellar hemispheres may have helped humans survive and adapt to a dangerous world while Neanderthals could not.”
Neanderthals were as unorganized, antisocial, unimaginative, multi-task failures as modern-day womenfolk!
After all that, it is a relief to turn to a recent paper with a different approach to the question of Neanderthal craniometry: Gregory et al. (2017) introduced the useful concept of the “NeanderScore” and reconstructed that prototypal skull shape by measuring living people and ranking them by their proportion of Neanderthal ancestry. High NeanderScorers tended to have bigger brains, especially at the back in an “occipito-parieto-temporal patch”, and were especially endowed in the region of the intraparietal sulcus (perhaps best described as important for visual-motor skills).
There was no downside:
“It should be noted that we did not find associations of NeanderScore with smaller frontotemporal volumes38 or shortened anterior extension of the temporal lobes13, as might have been hypothesized from previous cranial analyses of H. neanderthalensis…”
The most recent, best-founded reconstructions of Neandertal appearance have an uncanny resemblance to Paula Modersohn-Becker‘s portraits of herself and husband Otto. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Artwork: Tom Björklund, with permission
* There is also Vendramini’s provocative idea that Neanderthals were superior predators while their anatomically-normal contemporaries were merely prey to be stalked and consumed. This provides a possible explanation for the extinction of the Cro-Magnons. As for Kurup and Kurup’s audacious but not particularly coherent notions about the autistic Neanderthal civilisation of Dravidian Lemuria, the less said the better.
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