Last night I watched the first episode in the Human Spark series in which Alan Alda goes in search of the things that make us human. I am so grateful for the fact that I can watch this stuff online at pbs.org, since I don't own a TV. Last night's show was about how and why we survived and continued to evolve as a species while the Neandertals did not. There is general agreement (at the moment, anyway!) that we shared a common ancestor and that there was a wave of migration out of Africa and eventually into Europe—the hominids that migrated evolved into Neandertals. Some of the same type of hominids stayed in Africa and evolved differently, based on conditions on the ground there. At some point they began to migrate and ended up sharing territory with Neandertals. But they were very different. And apparently, they were able to adapt much better to changing circumstances. It seems clear based on the archaeological evidence that these hominids had symbolic behavior as a part of their toolkit. Neandertals may not have—there is some evidence regarding ritual burial practices that is now in some dispute, so the picture is a bit muddy at the moment. What is clear, though, is that Neandertals were well adapted—the species did survive for 200,000 years, after all—but they were kind of one-trick ponies. Their tools show no evidence of change throughout this time period and analysis of the bone, that allows scientists to discover what they ate by looking at where the protein came from (animal, fish, plants) indicates that they ate exclusively meat. They were living in an area with abundant marine resources, but they didn't bother exploiting them because they had large mammals. They kept on as they always had, living in small groups and widely scattered over a large land area. And then our human ancestors arrived with a more adaptive way of being in the world, language, other kinds of symbolic behavior, and seemingly a wider vision of what was possible. This was the beginning of the end for the Neandertals who were unable to adapt in the ways that would have been necessary for them to continue to survive in a different kind of world. It seems to me that there is a lesson here for our own times—as individuals and societies. Things change. The ability to adapt to that change is crucial to our survival. This is why all of those people who want to move us backward into some fantasy world that exists only in their own minds will fail. People who wax poetic about how the country is being ruined and the America they grew up in is gone should wake up. Of course, since it is middle-aged white men who seem to be saying this a lot lately, I can understand. The world was probably a lot less complicated for them when they could move about unfettered by the pesky requirements of civil rights and respect and equality for those who were not white males. But for the rest of us, we can be thankful that that country is gone. Good riddance. These guys should really learn to find a way to adapt in this new world instead of crying for the old one. That's not to say there was nothing good about the “good old days.” But successful adaptation does not mean throwing everything away and starting over. It means looking at how things could be done better. If something works, you keep it. If it doesn't, you figure out what will.
I found myself feeling kind of sad as I watched the show. I began thinking about what it would have been like to be a Neandertal and seeing these new creatures appear in your world. If they lived in small groups and “people” began dying off and not being replaced, they would have seen their little groups get smaller and smaller. I know their brains worked differently than ours do. We don't know what their emotional life was like. They are sequencing the DNA and the first indications are that we share a great deal—not a surprise as we share DNA with a great many creatures that are very different from us. So I know that we can't really put ourselves in their shoes. The few genetic differences that there are were apparently great enough to cause major differences in behavior. Still, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to be the last Neandertal.