Research into the lives of Neanderthals is progressing at such a pace that National Geographic could probably produce a new documentary like "The Neanderthal Code" (airing Sunday, September 21, at 9:00 pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel) every couple of years and still fill it with new breakthroughs. This program covers a vast amount of science, both old and new, and serves as a thorough and entertaining summary of the latest interpretations and data on our species's closest fossilized relatives. The show addresses several important questions: Did Neanderthal's make art? Were they tougher than professional bull-riders? Did they have religion? If so, were they such a bunch of Puritans that they wouldn't mate with the Homo sapiens who invaded their territory in Europe roughly 40,000 years ago?
The last question receives the most attention because of data coming from newly sequenced fragments of Neanderthal DNA taken from a piece of bone found in Croatia's Vindija cave. The DNA evidence reveals some tantalizing clues about the relationship of modern humans to Neanderthals--we share a language gene--but stops short of being able to definitively tell us whether the two groups produced any hybrid offspring. John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides much of the commentary on what the genetic evidence means. Some of the ideas he talks about were mentioned in the interview I did with him back in February. The analysis of the Neanderthal genome is still a work in progress, and there is every reason to believe that important insights will take place over the next year or two, and I hope the National Geographic Channel will take this topic on again when the Neanderthal genome has been completely sequenced.
The discussion of hybridization includes data from some important sites like Lagar Velho in Portugal and Pestera cu Oase in Romania. Both sites are being investigated by Joao Zilhao of the University of Bristol and Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in Saint Louis who layout a fairly convincing case that the combination of features in the skeletons found at those two sites are the result of hybridization. Trinkaus and Zilhao's interpretation is controversial to say the least (click here for a brief account by Zilhao), and the documentary gives short shrift to the opposing view point, which has been articulated by Jean Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute in several articles published on this website (see "Brothers or Cousins?" and "The New Neandertal") that any interbreeding had little effect. Another problem with this otherwise excellent documentary is that the discussion limited to Europe. Neanderthals in the Middle East and Asia are mentioned only in passing, and it creates the impression that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens only interacted on the European continent. That, of course, could not have been the case.
The program does a good job of showing the anatomical differences between modern humans and Neanderthals. It avoids getting bogged down in a comparative anatomy lesson by throwing in some dramatizations of Neanderthals meeting modern humans in a faux 40,000-year-old European woodland, but the modern humans shown in the reenactment of this momentous first meeting seem to be carrying the wrong tools. The first anatomically modern humans in Europe, the Aurignacians, used tools and ate a diet that was very similar to the Neanderthals'. Differences between the two groups' technologies and diets don't show up until several thousand years later, and this important fact is missing from the documentary.
I was, however, amused by the scenes of a guy wearing Neanderthal make-up riding the subway through Queens and walking around midtown Manhattan while people stroll by ignoring him. The whole thing is a riff on something anthropologist Carleton Coon said in 1939: if a Neanderthal were given a shave and a haircut he wouldn't get a second look on the New York subway. I guess the scenes were supposed to make the point that Neanderthals could blend in with a modern population, but it's more likely those New Yorkers thought that Geico was filming another commercial.
Some of the most interesting parts of the documentary were the insights it provided into the lives of Neanderthals. The placement and preservation of certain Neanderthal remains indicates that they may have buried their dead, If that interpretation holds up it would show they believed in an afterlife. Likewise, chunks of the black pigment manganese dioxide have turned up at some Neanderthal sites showing signs of use. If the Neanderthals were using pigments to make paintings or to adorn themselves, it shows a previously unknown capacity for creating art. Another interesting comparison is that Neanderthals show the same patterns of bone breakage that is seen in modern day rodeo-riders, which has led researchers to believe that they lived very rough and dangerous lives and that their hunting methods probably involved coming into close contact with large game.
I strongly recommend the "Neanderthal Code," it is a concise introduction to some important science that is reshaping not only the image of Neanderthals, but how we humans define ourselves as a species.
Zach Zorich is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.