A Further Look At The Cousins

Kage Baker was fascinated by the Neanderthals.

Her initial introduction to them was via cartoons and comics. Walt Kelly dealt with “cave men” in several strips and books (notably Prehysterical Pogo), which featured lots of grunting, head scratching brutes with pronounced foreheads; and, in keeping with classic Edwardian adventure tropes, decidedly modern and intelligent wives. On the other hand, the comic strip exploits of  Alley Oop, which Kage also loved, featured a canny, brave, clever Neanderthal – despite his pronounced orbital bones and Popeye forearms, as well as the requisite lovely Homo sapiens wife.

So she was predisposed to like Neanderthals. Nothing endeared a topic more to Kage’s heart than well-drawn familiarity. When, in her late 20’s, she had to have a skull x-ray for a dreadful sinus abscess, she was somewhat horrified by her own skull. Gazing at its neotenic rounded brow, total lack of eyebrow ridges, almost rectangular eye sockets and pronounced chin, she exclaimed in mock horror: “Oh no, I have such a Cro-Magnon skull!”

And she did. But she may have gotten the red hair from some other, older Northern European ancestor. Or the left-handedness. Or the Asperger’s. Who knows?

What she got from me, in my pedantic anthropology mode, was a recap as to why the common perception of Neanderthals was wrong. After reading over the available literature,  looking through my books of skulls and tools, and hearing me rave about Hermann Schaaffhausen and Marcellin Boule, she gradually also came to the conclusion that they were far more human that popularly supposed. And as time went on and more research was done, we watched in fascinated approval as more and more paleo-anthropologists agreed with us.

It never occurred to either of us that we lacked any qualifications for holding an opinion. We were only studying for our own amusement. And Kage’s admiration for the underdogs.

All this led to Kage placing Homo sapiens neanderthalensis firmly on the human line. She made one of them Mendoza’s high school career counselor; she added them to the mix of the hybrid Enforcers, and even into the convoluted genetic inheritance of Nicholas/Edward/Alec. To her delight, she did live long enough to see these much belittled cousins rehabilitated in the press and the formal literature of anthropology: they finally became completely human.

To my own sorrow (for sooo many reasons!) she didn’t live long enough for the announcement that modern people do indeed share Neanderthal genes. Especially Northern European and Eurasian people. But Kage predicted it – not out of mere faith and affection, but because she thought she could see the markers in the bones of living men. And whether or not she really could – which would not surprise me – she was correct.

And the hits keep rolling in! The genetic material has been a huge triumph, of course, but one of the other things that kept dissenting scholars shaking their heads was the question of Art. Or ART, to put it greater emphasis; the intangible indications in representative ornamentation that abstract thought might be present in the makers’ minds.

Personally, we both felt that the Homo heidelbergensis  rose-quartz hand axe found at Atapuerca, Spain was as fair a candidate for being made for sheer aesthetics as anything we’d seen at MOCA.  Since Homo h. was the common ancestor of both modern humans and Neanderthals, it seemed likely to us that the capacity for art and abstract thought was thereby already present when the two sibling strains split.

However, for decades people have been unable to get over or past the astonishing impact of the Paleolithic painted caves in France and Spain. They are truly superb art, with the great dancing herds stamping deathlessly through the darkness of Lascaux and Altamira. They were painted too late to be done by the Neanderthals, though, and so it was declared that the Neanderthals had no art … the staghorn pendants, the strung deer teeth, the shells with bored holes to accommodate necklace-cords found in their shelters: all  isolated flukes, or acquired somehow from “real” humans.  If you didn’t paint on cave walls, it was implied, it wasn’t real art.

Which at least proves that the urge to be an art critic is inherent in Homo sap.

Gradually, slowly, this prejudice has yielded to the evidence. No, Neanderthals did not paint on walls – not, at least, in the same heart-stopping way of Homo sapiens 20 or 30 or 40 thousand years after them. They painted outlined hands on the walls; they painted their dead, and probably themselves, too – they certainly used ochre, though they preferred black for their designs rather than the red favoured by the Aurignacians.  They made and wore jewellry. They sketched idly on surplus bones; squiggles and scratches known by their technical name: meanders. (Kage howled with laughter at that one.)

And now it seems clear they also used feathers as well. Individually, possibly as jewels (as some MezoAmerican cultures did); and also in fairly complex headdresses and capelets made from entire, deboned vulture and eagle skins. Just as in their choice of which ocher to use, they chose dark and black feathers: vultures, hawks, ravens. It must have looked positively badass, to have their heavy shoulders draped with the black and pewter plumage of Bonelli’s  eagle and those lowering brows surmounted by the sabre beak; raven feathers stark against pale skin and red hair …

It appears the Neanderthals may have invented Goth culture. (And I’m looking at you,  Mr. Westlake!) Kage would be laughing her ass off.


About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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12 Responses to A Further Look At The Cousins

  1. Steven Gillan says:

    Cathy Jacobs, always insisted that Bill was tarred with the Neanderthal brush. And she could lay out all the evidence writ there on his body.


    • Kate says:

      Steven – I am not surprised, knowing Mr. Jacobs; although his skull is a perfect round Cro-Magnon dome.

      I would love to have my own genes checked; I don’t exhibit any spectacularly non-Homo sapiens traits, but I come from the right part of the world. I build muscle muscle very easily, and my bones are thick and don’t break easily; so were Kage’s. And, of course, I am short. I have a slight occipital bun. Being female, my occipital bones, like Kage’s, are nothing much – but the men in our family all have pronounced brows, and sometimes with the double arch that was so typical of the Neanderthals.

      Welcome to paleolithic family tree mania!


  2. Mark says:

    Hey, I went to college with a buddy who had “Neanderthal writ in his bones.” A low and sloping brow with prominent ridges above the orbits, he was just a little bow-legged….and while not a classic ginger, his brown hair and beard were shot with red streaks. Did I mention he was hairy? Very hairy. Like with hobbit feet and slightly cocked big toes that he could pick things up with. But I’m not sure of all this goth stuff…he was a hippy pot-head, and he loved his Grateful Dead. Especially the extended drum or bass solos. And his closet was not black, but rainbow colored with tie-dye.

    I haven’t seen him in years…but I’d guess that DNA study would be interesting as heck.


  3. Kate says:

    Well, you know, Mark – there’s been a lot of inbreeding with plain old vanilla Homo sap. over the last 30,000 years. A lot of genetic assimilation under the blankets … so the passion for black ocher and raven feathers may have gotten a little thin with some folks. But if your buddy was descended from families in the Levant or Northern Europe, he might indeed have some Neanderthal genes.

    Do you know what most Asian cultures had in common with one another in their initial descriptions of Europeans? That they (the Europeans) were unnaturally muscled, unspeakably hairy and had big noses. There was evidently a general lack of those characteristics in the rest of the world over the last several millennia. Kind of interesting.


  4. mizkizzle says:

    William Golding wrote The Inheritors in the 1950s before any of the DNA research you mention was known. He was a clever guy.
    The definition of what constitutes “human” is always changing.
    Today we know that some animals use tools and make art. My standard poodle understands a surprising number of words and phrases, so much so that it’s a little alarming sometimes. Her brain is about the size of a walnut but she’s spooky smart, maybe she’s not as smart as an African grey parrot, but then what is?


    • Kate says:

      Is your dog a toy poodle? Standard poodles are among the brightest of dogs, and something we are just now discovering is that small brain does NOT equal stupid brain. Animal behaviourists are having to completely remap the avian brain, because – tiny as it is – it doesn’t work like a mammal brain, and in fact works a lot better. Parrots and corvids (ravens, crows, etc.) are the brain trusts of the bird world, and they are scary smart. I love this stuff. Not only is it intrinsically fascinating, it makes living with cats, dogs and parrots even more interesting than it already is.


  5. Medrith says:

    Art critters: you can’t kill them but you would like to….Now they’re picking on the Neanderthals? Fie to them, I say, and fie to their ridiculous theories too!


    • Kate says:

      Art critics – Kage hated ’em. But it was in her blood. Momma was an artist, and Kage made an effort to make a living with her own art before writing and Renaissance Faires took over her life. We spent a lot of weekends at art shows, listening to baboons critique paintings they could not have duplicated had their lives depended on it.

      Critics of all sorts are one of the curses of being a generalist species, I think. Along with the majority of people who are good at lots of things, you get a vocal minority who are good at nothing. Except kvetching …


  6. Athene says:

    Alas, strictly vanilla homo sapien here, although my mother was a red head…


    • Kate says:

      Red hair is not, of itself, diagnostic … anyway, your revered mother was Irish in descent, and they’ve got their own special red-head genes. The Greek end of the Mediterranean is in the historic range of some of the Neanderthal populations, but looong before your dad’s folks got there. Rejoice in your vanilla! It’s a exotic in its own right!


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