Last Saturday was the Big Saturday event for the Rediscovering Neanderthals exhibition. This temporary exhibition, which is supported by the Natural History Museum opened to the general public on 22nd April. On Saturday 30th April a number of us set up tables with Neanderthal or Neanderthal related objects, including casts of human skulls, animal fossils and stone artefacts.
One of the attractions that seemed to go down very well with small children was the selection of ‘day-glow’ skulls created by PhD researcher Tom o’Mahoney. Tom helped the Museum by providing 3D prints of scans of Neanderthal skulls in a section that compared Neanderthals and modern humans. Tom’s research shows that Neanderthal children grew up more quickly than modern human children. They appear to have had a faster metabolism to help cope with cooler temperatures.
We were also fortunate in being able to draw upon some educational specimens kindly supplied by the Natural History Museum. We also put out the casts of skulls of Homo heidelbergensis, the ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals, a Neanderthal and a modern human skull. We pointed out some of the differences between Neanderthals and modern humans: Neanderthals have elongated rugby-ball shaped crania whereas modern human skulls tend to be more spherical like a football.
Neanderthals needed roughly double the recommended calorie intake of an adult today. This seems to have been an adaptation to living in cold temperatures. They also had more robust bones, perhaps another adaptation to their preferred hunting strategy of ambushing prey, getting close to the animals to stab them with a fire-hardened stake (a copy of a 300,000-year-old-spear from Schöningen is shown in the Rediscovering Neanderthals exhibition) a flint-tipped spear, even jumping on the backs of the animals concerned. It used to be said that Neanderthal skeletons showed a similar pattern of breakages and fractures to that of modern rodeo riders, but this seems to be typical of most hunter gatherers who get close to their prey, so perhaps it isn’t saying much about Neanderthals per se. Although Manchester Museum doesn’t have Neanderthal bones in its collection we do have plaster casts and they show how powerful the Neanderthals were. A thigh bone or femur from Spy in Belgium is much more robust than a modern human femur.
We also showed stone tools used by Neanderthals including a 50,000-year-old worked quartzite flake from the cave sites at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire and a 130,000-year-old Levallois point from a Middle Eastern cave site. It came as a surprise to some visitors that the younger object appeared to be more crude than the older example. Of course, this was not because the Neanderthals were less skilled at working stone. It was because the quartzite is considerably harder and it simply wasn’t possible to create a carefully-shaped tool, even with Neanderthal lithic technology.
It was also interesting to see the reactions on visitors faces when we explained that when modern humans entered western Asia and encountered Neanderthals about 130,000 BC it was the Neanderthals who had the edge. It is not clear why, unless the Neanderthals were better adapted at that time to the climate in that part of the world. When modern humans left Africa and entered Europe about 40,000 BC they seem to have had the edge and the Neanderthals became extinct relatively quickly. Perhaps modern humans were better at hunting. Pat Shipman has suggested the domestication of dogs made them more effective hunters. Recently it was argued that modern humans brought with them diseases from the Tropics to which the Neanderthals had little or no resistance. At some point modern humans mated with Neanderthals. This much seems to be coming from the DNA analysis. Some of us have inherited red hair, freckles and certain addictive behaviour from Neanderthals.
During the conversations we had with the visitors we often referred to the depiction of Neanderthals in popular culture. We showed a DVD and a music CD featuring Neanderthals. There was even a postage stamp of the supposed ancient musical instrument made by Neanderthals from Divje Babe site in Slovenia but this is no longer accepted as evidence of singing Neanderthals.
There was a steady influx of visitors throughout the day and many went away saying they would go up to the third floor to see the Rediscovering Neanderthals exhibition. Many were families with young children and one father even wore a themed sweatshirt. It’s an entertaining take on the old chestnut about humans becoming more advanced as they evolve, the weaponry evolving from a handaxe to a spear to a Kalashnikov to Darth Vader’s lightsaber. It was an ironic comment about human destructiveness linked to evolution and progress. From this perspective perhaps the theory of modern humans committing genocide against Neanderthals isn’t so far-fetched after all.
Thanks to all the staff and students from FLS who supported the Big Saturday and especially to Loren Souchard who talked to the visitors in what is her second language.