The field of Neanderthal studies is a famously contentious one. Imagery of (and beliefs about) our extinct cousins range from the 1909 reconstruction at
left, showing Neanderthals as brutish, ape-like creatures, to the recent
sculptures at right, which depict their humanity and imply a closer relationship
Read the preface to almost any book on human origins, and between the lines you are likely to detect veiled references to personal suffering—marital discord, mental breakdowns, painful rashes. You can only guess at the details, but it's obvious that the writer has been through some kind of ordeal. Yes, it's fascinating to see how scientists unravel the story of human evolution. But if you venture into this world as a journalist, you must be prepared for the fact that there's a lot more raveling going on than unraveling.
There are many, many arguments in this famously contentious field, not about whether humans evolved, but how. Every scientist agrees that our ancestors parted ways with the ancestors of chimpanzees sometime between five and seven million years ago, and after a lot of evolutionary tinkering involving numerous species, Homo sapiens is the only hominid species left standing. But what was the number and nature of all those species that preceded us, and exactly where do we draw the line between "them" and "us?" Neanderthals are the closest to the line of all our predecessors, and the debate over which side they're on has been going strong for more than 100 years.
Each Neanderthal expert thought the last one I talked to was an idiot, if not an actual Neanderthal.
I spoke with many Neanderthal experts in the course of making this film, and I found them all to be intelligent, friendly, well-educated people, dedicated to the highest principles of scientific inquiry. I also got the impression that each one thought the last one I talked to was an idiot, if not an actual Neanderthal.
While this may be true in a few cases, most of them have been friends and colleagues for years, and their disagreements are just the inevitable wrangling that goes on among experts in any field where big ideas are built from small amounts of evidence. They know that their science advances by weeding out bad ideas. They accept the fact that it's an inherently contentious process because it's more about interpreting facts than discovering them. But they are also human, and they defend themselves when attacked. Ideas become entrenched, yet remain flexible enough to accommodate any new facts that might come along. For the journalist, or in this case, the science film producer, näively hoping to learn the truth, this is where the painful rashes come in.
Because people sometimes believe what they see on TV, especially public TV, the NOVA producer has an obligation to try to get things right. So which one of the experts should I have believed? The more people I spoke with, the more confusing it got. Everyone was so convincing! Many others have faced this problem before me. Some have chosen the honorable but somewhat cumbersome route of trying to present the pros and cons of all the various arguments. Others, feeling the hot breath of the Nielsen ratings on their necks, have simply made a choice. "You want to know what Neanderthals were really like? Morons with big noses! Homo stupidus! And here's the expert to tell you why."
Fortunately for me, NOVA is as much concerned with how science works as with what science knows. This allowed me to get past the never ending arguments and consider why these questions are so difficult to answer. Listening to the archeologists and anthropologists talk about their work (and their colleagues' work), I heard the same frustrations voiced again and again: People are driven by their preconceptions. They see what they want to see. They find what they're looking for. One archeologist suggested that I make the film about how easy it is for prehistorians to fool themselves, not to debunk the field but to show what they're up against. I took the advice.
The history of the field is littered with brilliant scholars who completely missed the boat because of the power of their preconceptions.
I learned that what people see in Neanderthals often has as much to do with philosophy as it does with science. What does it mean to be human? Some definitions are broad and inclusive, others are narrow and exclusive. Scholars have been known to attack one another's views on Neanderthals as "racist" or "politically correct." British scientists seem more willing than Americans to see Neanderthals and moderns as separate species that never mixed. An echo of British class consciousness versus the American melting pot? In a field so influenced by personal worldviews, it's not out of the question.
What I found most interesting in all this is that every scientist I talked to encouraged me to explore the issue of self-delusion, and no one claimed to be immune. They are all aware that the history of the field is littered with brilliant scholars who completely missed the boat because of the power of their preconceptions. But modern scholars also share the conviction that the self-correcting nature of science will eventually weed out the bad ideas.
My thanks to all of them for helping me along.
Mark Davis with a Neanderthal boy sculpted by reconstruction artist Elisabeth Daynes.
Mark Davis produced the NOVA film "Neanderthals on Trial."
Photos: (1) Corbis Images; (2) Atelier Daynes; (3) Brian Dowley.