Neanderthal Lute

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

The Forest

I was saying a bit about various environments or scenes that helped me think up poetry and which appeared in my poems. I’ve had my say about the sea, the shore, estuaries, rivers, skies and hills. There isn’t an endless list of such things, but I felt there was one more worth mentioning – forests or woods.


Living in lowland England, I walk in woods far more often than on the hills. In Britain the higher hills are generally covered in grass or heather and not trees, though many such areas were once forested. The open hills, like the sea and the sky, convey a sense of great, perhaps limitless, space. This makes some people scared, but for me it signals liberation and “the oceanic feeling” of linking with something bigger.


Among the trees, though, vistas are rare. You feel encompassed in the forest as you might feel underwater. In reality, after a while you’ll find a view of fields or moors or even houses, but it’s quite easy to forget this and imagine an endless or inescapable forest (I mean one that, once you enter it, allows no exit). Forests are full of life, both plant and animal, but they are dark (small woods are often less dark both because of light entering at the margins and because they’re often managed to provide spaces). We know that much of our land was forest, that once forest stretched from the English Channel to the southern Highlands of Scotland without break. In England there is no primeval forest left, and in Scotland only small, straggly fragments of the great Caledonian pine forest, but we remember and imagine the primeval forest and perhaps imagine the ghosts of those who inhabited it as elves and the rest.  Real primeval forest, for example the Bielowieza Forest in Poland, is immensely powerful, living, rotting, foetid, pulsing with birdsong, peopled with wolf, beaver, lynx and bison and, in imagination, with extinct animals such as the aurochs and our own Neanderthal Man.


Forest appears in my poems less than the sea or the open hills, but it appears as a place of strange life and suprises, of whispers and shadows. This is the forest of fairy story where children may get lost and find strange things.





If we deconstruct these poems, we can put all the letters in a different order!

OK, I know “deconstruct” doesn’t quite mean that, but it has a chilling, dehumanising sound. I don’t want to dehumanise my poems, though maybe throughhumanise them. Here’s some more with comment.


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.

This could relate to a number of things and I wouldn’t want to close off those avenues for people reading it. However, what I had in mind was Neanderthals. These close relatives of “homo sapiens” were specialised to survive cold and hostile conditions and lived in Europe and South-west Asia through a period of ice ages and interglacials. After Homo sapiens, having spread out of Africa into the Arabian peninsula, reached the main mass of Asia and Europe, Neanderthals disappeared, though hanging on for some time in Spain and Portugal.

When Neanderthals remains were first identified, they were characterised as brutish “cavemen”. Bit by bit the stereotypes were knocked down. They were not unable to stand straight – that was a careless conclusion from the skeleton of an old man with arthritis! Their hunting methods showed a high level of ingenuity, planning and co-ordination. Their brains were on average slightly larger than ours (but their body mass was somewhat greater, and some think the brain/ body mass ratio is what counts). They had the physical equipment needed for speech, and given the evidence of rapid development of co-ordinated hunting, it is very likely they had speech. About twelve years ago I remember a TV programme confidently asserting that they had no art – but since then two examples have been discovered, of an apparent flute and a worked stone with bone inserted to make a face, that are hard to explain otherwise than as art. Their extinction in the face of competition from sapiens was attributed to a limited diet short on fish and seafood – but for some Neanderthal colonies, even that no longer stands.

What happened between the two species is largely a mystery. They were so close ecologically that they would certainly have competed for limited food and shelter resources. Drastic climate change in Europe around the time they disappeared will have worked against them as they were best at hunting in forest and much of the forest vanished. The two species may have fought: we just don’t know, but it seems likely over scarce resources. It was long disputed whether they might have interbred and it is only in the last few years that DNA analysis has proved they did – but very early in sapiens’ spreading out from Africa, so all humans today except pure Africans carry some small Neanderthal genetic heritage. Maybe some day we’ll find out what it is.

This poem is written on the assumption that our species did play a part in the extinction of our close siblings. The skull is a Neanderthal one. The deposits removed are of low-lying soil but are also low, lying sapiens stories about neanderthalis. I suspect some mythical beastly and threatening human-like creatures may contain representation of other humanoids, in particular neanderthalis, and trolls seem quite a good fit.

We have lost from the loss of an allied species. “No man is an island…therefore do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” (John Donne).


In random clash of chemicals

Hot flow over new rocks

There are no palisades or names

Tall fires burn

A thinning smoke is lingering;

In the anonymous wash

Something has happened.

Something begins to pulse, divide,

Feed, organise,



Water is life: the oceans, the one body

Teem with a writhing dissonance of life

Creatures are born and die

In this world are no boundaries or strongholds

No sharp hard barriers but always danger

But here and there dead hardness meaning death

To anything washed up there: barren land.


In the half-dead, half-living place

Something survives and changes.

Life finds land.


Among the crumbling bones of the giants

That fire struck down in sea and marsh and forest

Under the dark and smothering, strangling sky

Small creatures scurry: one line is broken, but

Another rises for a while.

The giants’ cities hang with tumbling flowers.

Some titles don’t tell you much, being more a first line of the poem than a description of the subject. This is a straightforward title: the poem is about evolution. It starts with chaos before life. Life organises to perpetuate life. Multi-celled organisms are organisations of cells which still resemble unicellular creatures. At first life is only in the seas – a fertile source of food and of predators, living and barrierless. Land means death. But then living organisms find ways of adapting to live on land.

We then jump to a disaster that has destroyed “the giants” but left small creatures as successors. It’s natural to think the giants were the dinosaurs  and the successors were mammals, our ancestors – but did dinosaurs have cities?

The poem is deliberately rough-edged and irregular to help convey that early chaos.


This valley is thick with time

It seems to coagulate in my hands

Only to slip through them

The sarson stones lie randomly round an axis

Or clustered in small groups like some

Ambushed patrol. The hillside terracing no longer

Cares for the crops, only sheep manoeuvre

Round the stubborn lines

Who came here when the glacier withdrew

Who farmed here, that is in the time

That laps round these soft hills and asks for questions.

What will be here, I’m deaf, I cannot tell

Is it there somewhere in the swirling

And slowly settling time, or on the wind

There to be caught or dropped and in the balance?

The Valley of the Stones (that’s its name) is in Dorset. I may be wrong in suggesting a glacier reached that far south in England. It’s a remarkable place because big oblong stones called sarsons are scattered across rough grassland. It would be natural to assume that they were man-made and abandoned there, but they’re not. Standing there, I felt a strong sense of time and past, almost palpable. I try to convey that here. So if somehow I can sense the past, what about the future?

all text copyright Simon Banks 2012

Digging Down

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.