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  • Reframing Neanderthals

    Penny Spikins

    Chapter from the book: Spikins, P. 2022. Hidden Depths: The Origins of Human Connection.

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    Neanderthals have occupied a rather problematic position in our evolutionary history for many years. Neanderthals and modern humans share fundamental features of humanity, such as care for the vulnerable, yet differences in their use of symbolism, adoption of innovations and intergroup relationships have been hard to explain. Evidence suggests that Neanderthals lived in small living groups with only rare connections to outsiders and high levels of inbreeding, whilst modern human populations from their first arrival in Europe were highly interconnected and maintained connections between communities stretching over large regions. It has been tempting to interpret these differences in terms of an inferior social or intellectual cognition in Neanderthals. Subtle differences in emotional dispositions may, however, be a better explanation. A more inwardly focused or close-knit nature of Neanderthal communities, and a more outwardly focused or approachable nature of modern humans, can explain previously enigmatic elements of their archaeological record without recourse to ideas of progression or advancement.

    Our understanding of Neanderthals as displaying subtly different emotional dispositions gives us an opportunity to think about human evolution differently. Rather than a ladder, or even a braided stream, here we argue that our evolutionary past is better conceptualised as a series of branching pathways which sometimes rejoin and sometimes follow different directions. Allowing past hominins to be different but equal opens up new lines of interpretation, as well as challenging us to understand that there is more than one way to be human.

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    Spikins, P. 2022. Reframing Neanderthals. In: Spikins, P, Hidden Depths. York: White Rose University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.22599/HiddenDepths.j

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    Published on Aug. 23, 2022