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Neanderthals ate fish sticks. Who knew?

My anthropology class recently watched a documentary about Neanderthals. One of the discoveries that was highlighted in the documentary was a site called Shanidar, in Iraq, which showed evidence of a Neanderthal burial- complete with funeral flowers. This led anthropologists to conclude that Neanderthals, contrary to the ‘brute’ stereotype, were capable of showing compassion.

Or maybe, as a classmate sitting next to me said, “They stuck the dead guy in a hole because he stunk.”

Then there’s the site called Grotte XVI, a cave in southwestern France, where archaeologists found a bunch of fish bones and some residue of smoke. From those two bits of ‘evidence,’ anthropologists assumed that Neanderthals must have had the mental capacity to plan ahead, or even the ability to imagine the future. Apparently, some ash on the side of a cave and a couple of fish skulls imply that Neanderthals deliberately preserved the fish that they caught for future consumption.

Or maybe someone forgot to put out their cigarette.  And clean up the dregs of their fish sticks.

Since anthropologists try to reconstruct cultures from thousands of years ago, it seems that everything they deduce about a given population is through reverse engineering. I’m waiting for one of them to say, “All we have is a well-preserved eye socket and some flint- how the hell could we really know if this culture valued compassion, could conceptualize the future, or had gender equality?”

Unless all the anthropologists in the documentary were the slobs of the archaeological world, I was shocked to see that when a fossil is processed- starting with its excavation, all the way up to its reconstruction- people handle it with their bare hands, without gloves. Clearly, anthropologists don’t watch CSI. Otherwise they’d know all about “DNA contamination” and the threat of “cross-contamination of evidence.” Anthropologists could learn a thing or two from Gil Grissom.

That’s the thing about anthropology: it’s the McGuiver of the science world. All an anthropologist needs is a fragment of a finger bone and a sharp rock, and they can recreate an entire culture. For example, one of the Shanidar fossils was a withered upper arm bone, a stump that the Neanderthal apparently lived with for 20 or 30 years. Some anthropologists claim this is further evidence of Neanderthals’ compassion- that they clearly cared for their injured brethren, helping them to overcome their handicaps and continue to be welcomed and functional members of the social group.

There could be a second, much more simple option: they didn’t leave the injured guy behind because he made a good water boy. Or maybe they kept him around because he was fun to arm wrestle.

That, or an archaeologist sat on the bone and broke it. Then created an elaborate “withered arm” story to cover himself.

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