Toastmasters Speech: Homo neanderthalensis, How Science Got it Wrong

Notes for my speech on August 27, 2019 at the Toastmasters Club Toast of Berkeley.

The cave I discovered as a kid is just a couple of miles from my home. Only later did I learn that the cave is not very old. The Nazi dug it in 1944-45. It was part of a project to create a military stronghold to protect the retreat of German troops crossing the valley while going back to Germany. Luckily, it was never used because of the sudden capitulation of the Italian front in late April 1945.
The cave I discovered as a kid
is just a few miles from home.

In this speech, I will talk about Homo neanderthalensis, commonly known as Neanderthal and how our perception about those early humans changed over time.

I’ve always been fascinated by prehistory and early humans. I grew up in the Italian alps and, as a kid, I enjoyed exploring the woods around my village (at the time the kids were allowed to roam around unsupervised).

One day I discovered a cave hidden in the woods. I was so excited! I started imagining how it would be to be an early human living there, going around with a club, hunting in the woods, picking berries and mushrooms. In my fantasy, that was a much more exciting life than going to school! Only later did I learn that the cave is not very old. The Nazists dug it in 1944-45. It was part of a project to create a military stronghold to protect the retreat of German troops crossing the valley while going back to Germany. Luckily, it was never used because of the sudden capitulation of the Italian front in late April 1945.

The “Goddess Mother” stone was found in 1940 on the vineyards near my village. With several other similar stones it is now displayed by the local archeological museum located at Palazzo Besta in Teglio.
The “Goddess Mother” stone.

Just a few years later, I discovered some truth in my fantasies. A local museum was exhibiting a large rock found in the vineyards nearby with beautifully carved images created about 5000 years ago and representing a female figure. The “Goddess Mother” stone, as it is called, was found in 1940. With several other similar stones it is displayed at the local archeological museum, Antiquarium Tellinum, located at Palazzo Besta in Teglio. Maybe I was right, a long time ago someone, not a Neanderthal, lived in that cave!

My fascination with early humans and more recently with the Neanderthals never faded. I kept reading books, like The Humans Who Went Extinct by Clive Finlayson, and articles about early humans, Neanderthal, and the evolution of human species. A few years ago, I did a 23andMe test to analyze my DNA. The result came back, confirming that, like many Europeans, I am at least 3% Neanderthal. Yes, Neanderthals are not extinct, they are among us, and I’m (partially) one of them!

My fascination with early humans never faded.

The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived, by Clive Finlayson
The Humans Who Went Extinct
by Clive Finlayson

Earlier paleontologists described Neanderthals as extremely primitive, with limited intelligence and a very robust build, almost grotesque. Until recently, all the images of Neanderthals looked more like a caricature than a scientific reconstruction. For over a century, Neanderthal was synonymous with: unsophisticated, primitive, unintelligent brute human.

The way we look at those early humans is finally changing. Discoveries have been made, old Neanderthal bones and traces have been re-analyzed with a more scientific approach. Thanks to new technologies such as DNA analysis and improved dating techniques, we know that Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens interbreed. We don’t know if it was a peaceful and friendly relationship or a violent one. Most Europeans, like me, are still carrying traces of Neanderthal in their DNA.

The way we look at those early humans is finally changing.

As scientists are unraveling new Neanderthal remains, looking at the few traces left they are making some exciting discoveries about those early humans.

Café Neandertal by Beebe Bahrami
Café Neandertal
by Beebe Bahrami
  • They knew how to use fire. We don’t know if Neanderthal were able to light a new fire or only to use and perpetuate an existing one.
  • Not only were they exceptionally strong, but they were also quite intelligent to survive in such a hostile environment. Despite going through a few ice ages, they managed to survive in Europe for over 300 thousands years. As a reference, Homo sapiens have been around for about 100 thousand years, and we are getting close to the point of extinction.
  • A recent discovery of the bones of a Neanderthal man with traces of old injuries proves that they were taking care of members of their tribe not able to provide for themselves.
  • And finally, several artifacts created by Neanderthals are showing traces of abstract decorations. Nothing complex but it’s a proof of their abstract thinking capabilities, something that we liked to think as unique to Homo sapiens.

The change of attitude doesn’t stop here. According to Beebe Bahrami, the author of Café Neandertal, a few young paleontologists are proposing to get rid of the “h” in the word Neanderthal writing simply Neandertal. The intent is to highlight the difference between the Neanderthal we are learning about today and the grotesque caricature created by early scientists.

All my life, I read about Neanderthal learning everything I could about them. The last lesson I learned is that science can be wrong, but eventually, it will correct itself!

Science can be wrong, but eventually, it will correct itself!

Modern Reconstruction of a Neanderthal
Modern Reconstruction of a Neanderthal.

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