What humans can learn from Neanderthals

By | September 10, 2023

Michael Segalov writes:

“We might not know much about Neanderthals,” [says Ludovic Slimak], “but through what they created, we can see something incredible. When you take Home Sapien tools made of flint, spanning tens of thousands of years, in different parts of the world, they’re always the same. Standardised. It can’t be cultural.” There was likely little contact between these different settlements. “There’s something innate within the behaviour of Homo Sapiens – within our behaviour – to act and think in a certain way. It’s in our nature.” Neanderthal crafts, though, don’t share this pattern of standardisation. “Look carefully at Neanderthal tools and weapons. They’re all unique. Study thousands and you’ll find each is completely different. My colleagues never realised that. But when I did, I saw there was a deep divergence in the way Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals each understand the world.”

Historically, he believes humanity has had a problem. “To truly understand something, you need to be able to compare it to something else. But us as Sapiens? We’ve never had a species to compare ourselves to.” Yes, there are other animals: great apes, chimps, gorillas. “But we diverged from these creatures maybe 10m years ago. Of course, compared to a gorilla we have more creativity and skills. It gives us a certain image of ourselves– one of superiority. But what happens if we compare ourselves to something far closer – something far more like humanity, although different, that only disappeared 40,000 years ago?” Imagine, he suggests, how differently we’d see ourselves if confronted by hyper-intelligent aliens.

Slimak feels this comparison can and should be made with Neanderthals. “Their tools and weapons are more unique than ours. As creatures, they were far more creative than us. Sapiens are efficient. Collective. We think the same, and don’t like divergence. And I don’t just mean western culture. Go to any Aboriginal society: there are clear rules and customs, and shared styles of clothing. Expectation to act in a certain manner; to follow regulations.” Our ancestors, he says, lived like this instinctively. “You don’t see that with Neanderthals.” By seeing Neanderthals as a reference point against which we can measure ourselves, Slimak reckons humanity is offered a gift: “We have an opportunity to look in a mirror and see ourselves for what we truly are. To help us redefine, which we must do urgently.” [Continue reading…]

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