A second poem that reflects my fascination with Neanderthals – this time thinking about the discovery of a piece of worked bone of Neanderthal origin that had a number of regularly-spaced holes in it, so it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a musical instrument like a lute.
So they had music.
What tunes have we lost, what songs,
What thoughts? What did they think of us,
Who dreamed ourselves explorers
And, with the deadly weather, doomed them?
What is left in us, those few well-hidden genes
In which they notionally survive?
The figure lurking by the tree is a dead stump
The waves clap in the empty cave.
Two notes on this: the current view on the extinction of Homo neanderthalis is that a sudden change in the weather which destroyed large areas of forest in Europe and Western Asia had a devastating effect on them as they were well-adapted for forest hunting. As for the impact of Homo sapiens, there are still lots of debates, but we will certainly have competed for resources which will have been scarce at the crucial time, so the Neanderthals may have reached the tipping point through a combination of rivalry from sapiens and environmental changes, when neither alone would have done it. Since our own species frequently fights its own over scarce resources and non-human predators often make efforts to take out rivals, it would be very surprising if our species didn’t fight and kill Neanderthals some of the time. How much contact there was between the two species is uncertain: maybe we traded as well as fought, and in Iraq there is evidence of sapiens and neanderthalis living side by side for hundreds of years, but the interbreeding seems to have happened almost entirely very soon after the two species first met. That’s the second note – that it is now established modern Homo sapiens carries two to four per cent Neanderthal genes – except for pure sub-Saharan Africans, who have none. Oh, and some of the last neanderthalis populations lived in sea caves in what today is Spain and Portugal.
Copyright Simon Banks 2012