There’s recently been a move within the fields of archaeology and anthropology to downplay the capacity for symbolic thought of the Neanderthals, and to think of them as brainless, club-carrying buffoons from the Planet of the Apes. However, it is only our post-hoc value judgements that equate symbolic expression with ‘progress’.
Others think it may be a step backwards. It just depends on your point of view. And in the end, it all comes down to what we think it means to be human.
But let me start at the beginning.
Not so long ago the cultural critic and philosopher John David Ebert wrote a highly controversial piece on his blog: The Dehumanisation of the Neanderthals. In it, he claimed that we weren’t being objective in our view of the intelligence of the Neanderthals mainly due to our proclivity for always needing a scapegoat ~ an ‘Other’ who was less human than us.
He says that scholars are dehumanising Neanderthal man as a way of distancing him from us Homo sapiens sapiens. And that in itself is a mythic way of structuring scientific narrative: it’s the myth of the battling brothers that we find throughout history in which the one who emerges as the winner is symbolic of the true human while the Other who is always the loser is always more like an animal.
And so, he continues, the search for evidence of intelligence or symbolic thought of the Neanderthals among scientists is dictated by the subconscious desire to be the civilising Gilgamesh to the Neanderthal’s closer to Nature Enkidu.
“You notice, if you pay attention, that the loser is always hairier, as in the story of Jacob and Esau, when Jacob goes into the tent and the only way he can trick their blind father Isaac out of the birthright is by putting a goatskin on his body because his brother Esau is so hairy. Or with Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Enkidu, the one who is closer to the animals, is the one who dies, while Gilgamesh survives to carry civilization forward. And the Japanese define themselves as more civilized than their barbaric cousins the hairy Ainu, who also practice a bear cult, specifically with the criterion of hairiness in mind as a distinguishing mark.
“So the academic degradation of the Neanderthals is really a kind of modern version of that myth of the discredited Other who lost out, and the reason he lost out is because he was obviously less human than those who survived him; there was something evolutionarily dead end about him. And I think that that is the myth now surfacing in the minds of these academics and controlling their perceptions of the evidence now so that it’s assumed that the reason Neanderthal man was displaced was because he was more like an animal."
So it’s vitally important that we help to explain why he lost out by making him seem less human through stripping him of his burials and his belief in the afterlife and his inability to paint and articulate himself. None of this, of course, is true; it’s just how paleoanthropologists distort the evidence with prejudicial theories, or in this case, a myth.
But is there really enough evidence to support this view?
It is true that experts in the field find very few signs of independent symbolic thought among the Neanderthals’ remains, and when they do find it ~ for example, ritual burials such as those at Sima de las Palomas in Murcia, Southeast Spain, and colour pigments and shells for body decoration ~ they assume that these were just copied from Cro-Magnon man, the forerunner of modern man or homo sapiens.
Academic scholars partly base this view on the (unproven) idea of Charles Darwin’s that intelligence evolves. However, there is another point of view, and it very much depends on whether one thinks that modern homo sapiens sapiens (Latin for “wise man” or “knowing man”) are the roaring success they sometimes crack themselves up to be.
There may be very good reason why we find so little figurative symbolism during the Middle Palaeolithic period, 300,000 – 30,000 years ago, which is as far back as we can trace the Neanderthals. There may have been behaviourial differences driven by a completely different, but not less intelligent, mindset.
That is the stance taken by this article which was published a year or so ago in Pleistocene Coalition News, by the German researcher Jörn Greve and Lutz Fiedler, who discovered the Venus of Tan-Tan (300,000 – 500,000 yrs old).
Does symbolism represent progress?
Not necessarily ….
By Jörn Greve and Lutz Fiedler
Why do we rarely find figurative symbolism in the Middle Palaeolithic?
It is not because of any hesitation in the scientific world over identifying these objects, in our opinion. Neither is it due to the destruction of archaeological remnants over time.
Instead, it is probably because these inconspicuous products, compared to the more typical and extraordinary hand axes, might be evidence of a different kind of thinking experienced by the Neanderthals and Homo erectus at this time.
In other words, some believe that man before the Upper Palaeolithic had little need to mark out specific places as holy or to be revered because to him, all of the Earth was sacred. Thus, naturally occurring items — known to us as ‘geofacts’ — were used as ritual objects, often with little or no enhancement or embellishment.
From this idea, we can see an image of early man living at one with Nature and regarding himself as part of the natural abundance of resources.
But then this balance between man and Nature was disturbed, if only partially, by adverse climate conditions. This disruption led to social as well as cultural changes which could have become fixed by different rules — those of mastery over Nature. We see this symbolised in the so-called “cultural” signs that we call “art”.
It is at this environmentally challenging time of the Upper Palaeolithic that we start to see an artistic expression appear in symbolic form. This symbolism is connected with religious differentiation and abstract concepts, at first by painted figures of mighty beasts and then with dominating anthropomorphic images, such as those found in the caves of Europe. This style of symbolic and ritual expression goes on into the Late Upper Palaeolithic and the Epipalaeolithic, finally merging into the technology of the Mesolithic.
We see this thesis supported in the work regarding “evolutionary” aspects of the ecology of religion by A. Hultkrantz. In addition, the Durkheimian thesis states that growing social and systemic complexity goes hand-in-hand with increasing population and loss of empathy regarding religious thinking.
And so back to the question: does symbolic thinking represent progress? It does not only depend on what we call or define progress. As we look back on our deleterious history as “modern” man, we are confronted with a frightening ambiguity.
Venus of Tan-Tan
300,000 – 500,000 years old.
Geofact or artefact? It’s probably both.
So Greve and Fiedler are positing that Neanderthal man (and Homo erectus, who also lived at that time) were aware of the sacristy of Nature and felt sufficiently One with it not to have to separate bits off and call them holy. This would seem a bizarre idea if it weren’t the fact that this is exactly the experience of the person who enters the shamanic state of consciousness.
There has been much controversy about whether the Venus of Tan-Tan is an artifact (crafted by hand) or a geofact (the result of Nature). But I think it’s both, and that it is just one example of what’s known as simulacra, or seeing spirits in Nature. I know from my own practice shamanically that, over the last few years, I seem to have automatically developed the ability to see simulacra. Or should I say, re-developed the ability? It seems that the more I commune with the Fae, otherwise known as the Spirits of the Land, the more my eyes are ridding themselves of the blinkers that were put there by the purveyors of consensual reality.
This is the Faery Seer Orion Foxwood on the subject in his book: The Faery Teachings.
“There are many ways to approach the early steps of building a relationship with the Faery beings and the ancestral spirits. Remember, the majority of humankind has neglected the inner pathways to these worlds for long periods of time. Therefore, there will be brambles and thickets that must be cleared. Most of these thickets exist in our mental and emotional processes; few are actually in the gateways to Faery. The gateways have never completely closed. There have always been wisdom keepers on both sides of the hedge that have kept the ways open. However, humanity did exert aggressive attempts to close them. So the argument raging within Western archaeology and anthropology about whether the Neanderthals copied the rituals and symbols of modern Homo sapiens, or whether their so-called ritual items were created by natural forces or fashioned by hand (geofacts vs. artifacts) is just a huge distraction from what is really at stake. It distracts us from asking what may have been the perceived reality of the collective consciousness of man back in the Middle Palaeolithic, and could he have been so much more in tune with Nature that he didn’t need to create his own separate ritual items?
“Our species has used belief systems and sciences (which are often one and the same) to build an iron fence between ourselves and the realms of the spirits and creative forces. The foundations of this fence were reinforced with inquisitions, racism, sexism, ageism and strategically-manipulated social norms that insured that the bulk of the human population would never attempt to tear down the fence. Indeed, most of our kind does not even realise that the fence exists, though so many humans we know feel trapped somehow in a life absent of depth, meaning, worth and inner substance.”
Maybe this (below) was what he saw when he looked around him.
This example of simulacra, of a cloud forming over Canada, was published just today in the Daily Mail. You can watch it forming
To our ancestors, wherever simulacra formed ~ whether mountain, sky or sea ~ would be considered by them to be holy and sacred.
For example, many ritual caves from the Upper Palaeolithic period are found in clefts in the rock which naturally resemble a vulva opening between two legs.
Mount Rushmore in South Dakota used to be called The Six Grandfathers by the Lakota Sioux, because the faces of Elders could be made out naturally occurring in the rock face. It was part of their processional route which they took to make a pilgrimage to their sacred site of Harney Peak. The faces of the grandfathers were hammered into those of the six US presidents in an act of desecration, in my view, on a par with the burning down of the Library of Alexandria.
Along with the Venus of Tan-Tan, Lutz Fiedler was also the discoverer of the Erfoud Manuport, which looks like a penis. This is also about 300,000 years old and here is a link to some further information about it by another Pleistocene Coalition member, Jim Harrod of OriginsNet.
The same debate rages around this geofact/artifact which is entirely missing the point. To me, it’s the most obvious piece of simulacra I’ve yet to see.
So to sum up, could it possibly be that symbolism of expression and ritual activity is not necessarily a sign of progress at all, and could it even represent the opposite… in spiritual terms? Perhaps, as Homo sapiens developed, the spiritual/shamanic experience had to be externalised to some degree and rituals performed with appropriate symbols to reach the Spirits of the Land across an ever-widening divide.
I don’t want to paint a romantic picture of early man as the Noble Savage – but perhaps the symbolism we find beginning to be expressed by modern man in the caves of France during the Upper Palaeolithic was the first signs of his wish for mastery over nature instead of living alongside and in harmony with it, which, ultimately, would prove to be not the most intelligent choice.
And so to address the title of this article, perhaps we need to ask ourselves: if we are living on the Planet of the Apes, which kind of apes do we want to be?