Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Neandertal Grooming

Last night while doing my anthro homework I came across this picture of a sculpture of the Roc de Marsal Neandertal child (who was between 3 and 4 years old at time of death).


Photos courtesy of Don's Maps

AWW!!!!  [squeals]  How adorable is this little Neandertal baby???  I am so tickled by this representation.  Don't you just want to reach out and give this baby a hug?  Those fat little wrists!  Those little footsies!  Oh my goodness, so sweet.  I really like the position that the sculptor, Elizabeth Dayn├Ęs, chose for this kid.  Having lots of experience with small children myself, this pose looks very realistic to me.  But I do think the tip of the nose should be a bit smaller.  Yes, Neandertals had big noses, but all children have tiny noses--even proboscis monkey babies!  Anyway, overall, this sculpture is AMAZING.  The detail, the coloring, the shaping...just incredible.

I am always happy to see Neandertals represented with fair hair and fair skin, because that's what they really had.  Scientists had suspected so even before the Neandertal genome was sequenced, because fair skin is an adaptation to cold climates.  (It allows for enough vitamin D production during limited sun exposure.  Dark-skinned people don't do well in cold climates without vitamin D supplementation, and light-skinned people don't do well in UV-intensive climates without long flowy clothing or copious amounts of sunscreen.)

Here is the other half of the display.  The child is positioned to be listening to the man telling a story:


While I think the body proportions and skin detail are WONDERFUL, I think the clothing and hair are questionable.  First, Neandertals lived in extremely cold climates, and they could not have possibly survived without many layers of furs wrapped tightly around them, including their feet.  I am confident they had some sort of footwear, even if it was just long straps of leather wound around their feet and shins like mummy wrap.

But I know that it's important to show as much of their bodies as possible, so people can be educated about the anatomical structure of Neandertals.  Okay, so let's say this display is supposed to represent Neandertals sitting next to a fire in a deliciously warm cave...

There is no reason for them to be dirty, with their hair all matted.  Neandertals are almost always depicted as very scruffy and scuzzy-looking, and to me that doesn't make sense.  Even chimpanzees spend massive amounts of time grooming each other.  There is no reason that Neandertals shouldn't have partaken in basic grooming behaviors.  They had controlled fire.  They had nifty Mousterian tools.  They had clothing.  They had bigger brains than we do.  They probably didn't have combs and certainly not mirrors, but they should have been able to run their fingers through their hair and either cut it off with their sharp-edged stone blades or keep it out of their face somehow, like by wrapping it with strings of leather or dried sinew.

As for cleanliness, even monkeys and apes wash their food before they eat it, and chimps even ball together clumps of leaves to make water sponges to drink from.  Assuming that Neandertals, like most primates (including modern humans), preferred to live near convenient water sources, like rivers and lakes, they undoubtedly would have had the mental capacity to dunk a piece of fur in some water and run it over their faces and bodies when they got dirty.  If even apes can wash things and invent sponges and groom each other, why would we assume Neandertals weren't doing the same?  Not just for cleanliness, but for social bonding.  Chimps don't really get that dirty, but they groom each other for hours just to show friendship and alliance.  And because primates, modern humans included, wither away without the touch of others.

So I think Neandertals were cleaner than most artists draw them out to be, and I think they looked more like this:

  (I don't remember where I got this photo...sorry!)

And that's where I stand on the issue of Neandertal grooming.