The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers
It's a rare book that delivers more than it promises, but Juan Luis Arsuaga's _The Neanderthal's Necklace_ does just that. The book jacket presents it as a story of the 10,000-year-long encounter between the Neanderthals and our own Cro-Magnon ancestors, a story that ends with the disappearance of the Neanderthals some 27,000 years ago. Arsuaga discusses that epochal culture clash at length and with many fresh insights. However, he weaves that narrative into a much grander story--his expert take on the evolution not just of the Neanderthals and our own very young species, but of all the other walking primates that preceded us back to whatever great-grandparent species we shared with organutangs, gorillas and chimpanzees some 6 million years ago. For good measure, Arsuaga throws in his original and highly readable takes on many key evolutionary issues, on the nature of consciousness, and--really the theme of the book--on when, where and how our own "hypersymbolic" human consciousness emerged.
Arsuaga, a leading Spanish paleoanthropologist, has strong views on many topics. He's convinced that modern humans are unique. "Anatomically, we are but erect primates . . ." he argues. "At the same time, we humans are radically different from all other animals due to the astonishing phenomena of our intelligence, our capacity for reflection, and a broad self-consciousness of all aspects of our behavior." Accordingly, he denies consciousness, at least as he defines it, not only to non-human animals, but even to many of the upright, tool-using species that preceded us. " . . . animals lack both self-awareness and perceptive awareness, or consciousness. They are no more than biological machines." (Immediately after this hackle-raising statement, Arsuaga is perceptive enough to apologize "to all cat- and dog-lovers," whose beloved pets, he concedes, may possibly have "perceptive consciousness.")
After in-depth discussions of almost every line of evidence, Arsuaga comes to several very interesting conclusions about the development of the fully human consciousness he so highly values. Surprisingly, he grants first membership in the consciousness club to a truly ancient ancestor, _Homo ergaster_, whose 1.8 million-year-old fossils have been found in modern-day Kenya. Not only did _H. ergaster_ have a body closer in size and shape to our own, but a brain that was a significant chunk larger than our first tool-using ancestor, _Homo habilis_. Unlike _habilis_, _ergaster_ fashioned biface stone tools--"chipped on two surfaces with obvious skill and concern for symmetry. "These primitive human beings were conscious of what they were doing, and they cared about the tools they carried in their hands," Arsuaga writes.
Like most current researchers, Arsuaga is clear that Neanderthal's were not our direct ancestors, but a relatively recent, parallel, and ultimately extinct human branch. Still, he grants them a mental world nearly equal to our own. After all, he points out, they made tools just as carefully as their archaic human neighbors, made fire, and buried their dead. Still, he concludes from anatomical studies that they could not produce fully articulated speech, and that they never entered the richly symbolic world that we inhabit (with rare exceptions such as the necklace-wearing Neanderthal referred to in the book's title). Arsuaga focuses on two clues to this consciousness gap. It was the Cro-magnons some 32,000 years ago who began to represent the world they saw and imagined in those haunting cave paintings, and who devoted enormous amounts of time and effort to personal adornment. That's when, he writes poetically, "the world was made transparent." By that he means that with their newly re-tooled minds, our immediate ancestors projected all their intuitive understanding of each other, all of their deep immersion into symbols, onto the entire world. "All of a sudden and unexpectedly," he writes, "the spirit of our land, old _Europa_, came alive. The rocks, the rivers, the sea, the trees, and the animals, also the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars above; all sang to humankind, and the wind carried their song."
It's a lovely summary of a lovely and deeply informative book. Anyone who is interested in a well written, well thought out and non-standard view of how we came to be the way we are will enjoy it thoroughly.
Robert Adler, author of _Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation_ (Wiley, Sept. 2002), presenting highlights in the history of science from the ancient Greeks to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep.