Neanderthal Nostalgia

Part of a series of blog posts I wrote on the Anthropocene for Umeå University’s Forskarbloggen in 2013.

Over the last year or two, I’ve noticed how both Neanderthals and the distant human past have started appearing over and over again in discussions of life in the modern world. At the core of this Paleo-revival is a belief that the distant evolutionary past holds lessons for how we should live today. Since evolution works on very long and slow time-scales (the theory goes), our bodies are quite simply not well adapted to life in the Anthropocene. All we need to do is to copy the diet/lifestyle/habits of Stone Age man and we can avoid the negative effects of the modern world on our bodies. Neanderthals, on the other hand, seems to have become a kind of evolutionary noble savage, a distant and exotic Other upon which we can project our ideals and wishes for how a simple life outside of the Anthropocene might be.

A red thread running through this argument is pure nostalgia, a desire to go back to when things supposedly were simpler and when the problems we had to deal with were not quite as wicked. If the current state of the world is a result of human activities, then Paleolithic man is only marginally complicit, having existed at a time when we still had a choice. The Neanderthals, on the other hand, are completely innocent and can not be blamed for the Anthropocene. The illustration below – one of many “evolution of man” spoofs that circulate on the internet – demonstrates this idea wonderfully.

The Paleolithic age, more commonly called “the Stone Age” started about 2,6 million years ago and ended about 10000 years ago, during which humans evolved from Homo habilis to Homo sapiens sapiens, in other words what is fundamentally modern humans. Today, consumers can emulate Stone Age life in many ways. For instance, the Paleolithic diet started appearing as a modern nutritional plan in the 1970s, and its proponents argued that since Paleolithic humans did not seem to have suffered from the affluence-related illnesses, their diets must have been much healthier. The Paleo diet encourages lean meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots and nuts as the mail food groups, while cereals, dairy products, salt and processed fat and sugar should be avoided.

In her book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live, Marlene Zuk dissects this modern Paleolithic dream. Zuk writes:

Julie Holland, a psychiatrist writing in Glamour magazine, counsels that if you ‘feel less than human,’ constantly stressed and run-down, you need to remember that ‘the way so many of us are living now goes against our nature. Biologically, we modern Homo sapiens are a lot like our cave woman ancestors: We’re animals. Primates, in fact. And we have many primal needs that get ignored. That’s why the prescription for good health may be as simple as asking, What would a cave woman do?’

This is a good question indeed. How would a cave woman deal with the Anthropocene? What would a Neanderthal man see if we managed to de-extinct this extinct species? We can only speculate, and both scientists and science fiction writers have done so recently. For instance, in David Brin’s at times mindboggling novel Existence, dealing with the question of life in the universe, we have succeeded in bringing Neanderthals back from extinction. They are very few, and do not play a major part in Brin’s book, but they represent a different perspective, a somewhat alien wisdom that Homo sapiens seems to have lost. They know what we have forgotten, and thus becomes a model for how we can move forward.

The problem is that we don’t know much about the Neanderthals. Scientists have quite recently finished the first draft of the Neanderthal genome map. From this we know that due to interbreeding, most modern humans (that is, us) have 1-4% Neanderthal in our genomes. What does that mean? There has also been much interest in trying to figure out who the Neanderthals were and how they interacted. Some scientists tried to decipher the social lives of the Neanderthals from the size of their skulls and eye sockets. For instance, some researchers at the University of Oxford theorized that the Neanderthals devoted less of their brain mass to social cognition. In other words, they could not handle social complexity well and had much smaller social networks than modern humans. Other scholars have criticized such theories as crude attempts at paleo-phrenology (after the thoroughly discredited and, frankly, racist early 19th-century pseudo-science of classifying people based on their head shape).

We are in other words dealing with some strange kind of futuristic nostalgia for a past that we really can’t say all that much about (which is a familiar working situation for many historians). The modern Paleofantasies and Neanderthal nostalgias illustrate how we tend to think things were better in the past, bemoaning the modern condition. Such a mindset has its roots in ideas of technological progress, I think. We seem to depend more and more on increasingly advanced technology. Progress becomes an arrow that moves from the past and into the future. The only way to resolve the problems caused by this progress becomes to look to the past. As I see it, the problem with such an approach is that we tend to forget the actual progress we have had. Life expectancy is so much better than it used to be, for instance. The cavemen that our Paleofantasies revolve around had a life expectancy at birth of 33 years. Children’s mortality rates have plummeted. And so on. So did things really use to be better? They certainly were different, and perhaps less complicated in some ways, but then again, perhaps they were not.

We can only speculate about the lives of Neanderthals based on genetic traces and found material artifacts. But through this speculation, particularly the kind that takes place in popular culture, we can find another interpretation of the Anthropocene: human evolution is over, and devolution has begun. It’s certainly true that lifestyle-related health issues have become a massive problem in the Anthropocene. Diabetes and obesity have replaced starvation in the western world (though poverty remains an important cause for all). Sitting is the new smoking, or, as Neal Stephenson so strikingly calls it, arsebestos. The wave of standing desks that have appeared in my department over the last year is an indicator of this trend.

The debate over human evolution and the distant past has much in common with the ongoing discussion of rewilding and de-extinction that I wrote about here last week. Rewilding, and ecological restoration for that matter, is an attempt to bring nature back to how it used to be, before something – most likely humans – ruined it. Again we see how the ideal and the baseline we use to evaluate environmental change, becomes a nature without people. Is Neanderthal nostalgia simply a dream of life on Earth without people? Are Paleofantasies in essence a dream of life without technology? If so, how useful are these concepts for resolving the wicked problems of the Anthropocene?

The past holds its lessons, but there is no going back. The past is past, and every day that passes is another day beyond the point of no return. The Anthropocene is full of problems and opportunities, of loss and creation, but we can only move forward, through problems and into the future. Having the wisdom and mandate to step right, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. What are we to do with ourselves, with each other, with the world of the Anthropocene? A wicked problem indeed, and one where we need to look for possible answers in small details and large narratives, in the everyday and the extraordinary. More on this in my next post.

Originally published 5 April 2013 at the Umeå University researcher blog.

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