When remains of a different human species, Neanderthals, were first identified in Europe, they were seen as brutish, stupid “cavemen”. One early find of a skeleton of an old man with arthritis, who could not stand up straight, was misinterpreted to conclude that no Neanderthals could stand upright! Even some twelve years ago I remember it being asserted on a scientific programme that Neanderthals had no art – but since two pieces have been discovered that can hardly be interpreted except as a carving of an animal head and a kind of lute. Then they were inflexible in their food-gathering methods and had a limited diet – but that seems less true now.
One long debate has finally been settled. Did Neanderthals, who developed in Europe and spread, as far as we know, only as far as Iraq, ever interbreed with Homo sapiens spreading out of Africa? Genetic scientists have now established they did, and very early in our species’ spread out of Africa, so all present-day humans except pure Africans carry some Neanderthal genes. The other long debate has been over why Neanderthals went extinct. It now looks as if massive climate change hit them hard, and though they might have adapted and hung on till things changed again, the niches they might have moved into were now occupied by sapiens.
Whether our species attacked and killed them on any scale, we just don’t know. My notion is that some of our myths of semi-human creatures might have roots in memories of Neanderthals and perhaps even earlier hominids. Trolls seem to be quite a good fit.
I feel immense sorrow that we’ve lost the music and the thoughts of the Neanderthals.
I have found an old guilt:
By scrabbling in the dirt with callused hands
Brushing away the low lying deposits
Stories of murderous giant and cackling troll
Caressing away the grime I find the skull
It grins at me as if to say: what I lost
You lost, my killer friend.