Why is ‘Neanderthal’ still a byword for dumb brute?

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January 11, 2010 6:25 PM, Ewen Callaway, reporter

The notion that Neanderthals went extinct because they were too dim-witted to compete with humans – an idea now dismissed by most palaeoanthropologists – is finally beginning to lose its currency among the general public. It’s about time.

Scientists working in south-western Spain uncovered perforated mollusc shells, some coloured with pigments, in archaeological sites linked to Neanderthals.

Jewellery and cosmetics, the researchers contend, point to a mind capable of symbolic representation and even complex language, once thought only to reside in Homo sapiens.
“João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in England and colleagues studied shells found in two caves far from the shoreline and dating from about 50,000 years ago, 10,000 years before modern humans showed up in Europe,” The New York Times reports.

“This is the first secure evidence for their use of cosmetics,” Zilhão tells the BBC. “The use of these complex recipes is new. It’s more than body painting.”

Objects and compounds like these would have been used to “tell other people who you are,” Zilhão tells the NYT. “They are like socially recognizable identity cards.”

Add this to other recent evidence that Neanderthals hunted, painted and perhaps even spoke like anatomically modern humans, and the dumb caveman hypothesis becomes even more untenable.

But why does it persist?

“It’s very difficult to dislodge the brutish image from popular thinking,” the Natural History Museum’s Chris Stringer tells BBC. “When football fans behave badly, or politicians advocate reactionary views, they are invariably called ‘Neanderthal’, and I can’t see the tabloids changing their headlines any time soon.”

Image: Two sides of a perforated upper half-valve of a shell from the Middle Paleolithic, about 50,000 years ago. Image courtesy of João Zilhão.

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