C.W. Gusewell


A fossil ponders the fall of the Neanderthal

Granted, I’m a creature of another time. I do not blog or tweet. I own a cellphone, but I don’t play games or listen to music on it. And I consider typewriters to be far superior instruments to computers.

I will go to my grave never having laid hands on an electronic book, much less read one.

Changing a light bulb is the absolute limit of my manual skills.

Which is to say that I am lacking in a great many of the capacities by which ordinary folks define themselves as normal citizens of the present day. In short, I am a fossil.

What I amnotis a Neanderthal.

I know that from an article I came across last week in a May issue of the magazine Science News while having a coffee and cooling down from a half-hour workout on the stationary bike at my local YMCA.

According to the article, scratches found on the teeth of excavated Neanderthal remains were caused by sharp stone tools used in cutting meat, with one end stretched tight and the other clamped in the teeth.

The scratches were seen to occur mainly at an angle suggesting right-handedness.

So there are the two telling differences between us. The Neanderthals were tool makers. I not only don’t make tools, I can’t use them. What’s more, I’m left-handed, and I have been in spite of the efforts of a savage third-grade teacher who beat my hand with a ruler, trying to make me change.

What caused the Neanderthal line to diminish and disappear – whether the species was absorbed through interbreeding with early Homo sapiens or whether, being adapted for frigid weather, they were undone by global warming – no one can surely say.

I’ve read of a recent genetic study that suggests people of European and Asian extraction carry in their DNA a tiny fraction – perhaps 1 to 4 percent – of Neanderthal genetic material. The implication is that there may have been a little hanky-panky between our very distant relatives along the way.

I find that believable, for one finds marked differences among people who, to all appearances, would seem to be very much alike.

Take my own family. My wife and our daughters clearly are Homo sapiens – modern human beings in every way, happiest in temperate and regulated surroundings.

But I am more of the brutish sort, preferring on the coldest nights of winter to sleep with the wind howling and the window open beside the bed. It has put some strains on the relationship.

Yesterday I was back at the Y for another ordeal on the stationary bike. And as I pedaled, I was thinking again about those long-ago Neanderthals.

Until quite lately, it was assumed that they were almost exclusively carnivores.

Then archaeologists found some cooked vegetable matter between the teeth of a fossil skull. But only a little bit. Barely a trace.

And that’s not good, my wife keeps telling me. So maybe it explains what doomed the Neanderthals after all. They neglected their veggies, and they didn’t spend near enough time at the gym.