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"Horizon" on the Neanderthals

The BBC broadcast a Horizon programme yesterday on the Neandertals. Like a lot of Horizons recently, this was something of a disappointment. It said nothing about the origins of the Neandertals and didn't even mention the (admittedly minority) view that they were ancestral to ourselves. It assumed, without qualification or explanation, that we and the Neanderthals were separate species and that modern humans had arrived in Europe fairly recently (the "out of Africa" hypothesis, in fact).

The main focus of the programme was on reconstruction. First we saw a composite skeleton, assembled painstakingly over more than a year (no complete skeletons are known). The resulting body shape was broad-chested to the extent that it lacked a waist altogether. This, it was suggested, was an adaptation to cold. To test this theory two volunteers, one short and stocky, the other more gracile, were placed in ice water; not surprisingly, the thinner individual got cold quicker.

Next came an attempt to say something about the Neandertal life style. They were meat eaters - necessarily so in order to obtain enough calories for their mostly cold environment. So what was their hunting technique? The Neanderthals' spears were said to be used for thrusting rather than for throwing, because their right arms were more developed than their left. (The equally interesting fact that the Neanderthals were evidently mainly right-handed was not discussed, however.) The reason they used this technique was that they apparently lived mainly in forest margins where there would be insufficient room for throwing spears.

As for intelligence, the Neanderthals' brains were as large or larger than ours and had equally well devloped frontal lobes, so it was concluded that they could think. They could also talk, to judge from one hyoid bone that has been found. In an amusing sequence a man demonstrated what a Neandertal voice might sound like: loud, high-pitched, and nasal.

Why had they become extinct? The programme discounted the idea that they had been slaughtered by modern humans or even that they had been out-competed in any direct sense. The suggested cause was climate change, resulting in the conversion of much of their forest territory into tundra. The lack of cover meant that they could no longer stalk close enough to their prey to use their stabbing spears. Modern humans, in contrast, had lighter throwing spears and had also invented spear throwers, which increased their range. Hence they could survive in the changed climatic conditions whereas the Neandertals couldn't.

The obvious objection to this idea is that the Neanderthals might have copied the newcomers' technology. The programme conceded this but said that the Neanderthals' short legs and wide pelvises made them less efficient runners than modern man and hence less able to pursue prey in open country. This has been said before, but an interesting new idea came from an anatomist who specialized in measuring the size of the semicircular canals in the inner ear. These are balance organs. He claimed that the size of these structures correlates with the degree of activity that a species goes in
for. Apparently, the size increases progressively as the hominid line approaches the human lineage, but the Neanderthals are an exception because their semicircular canals were smaller than would be expected. Hence, he thought, the Neanderthals were less given to running and similar athletic pursuits.

The over-all conclusion was that the Neanderthals' extinction was mainly due to bad luck and not to any innate superiority of modern humans.

The main aim of the programme seemed to be to redeem the Neanderthals from the popular impression of them as hirsute ape-men lacking in culture and intelligence. (The actors who represented the Neanderthals, looking stolid and somewhat puzzled at the new landscape developing before their eyes, were conventionally hirsuite, however. ) I found the programme interesting as far as it went and the item about the inner ear was particularly intriguing, but it was too short to give a balanced picture of its subject. It should have either been longer or have formed part of a two-part series, but that is not how Horizon works.


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