NEANDERTAL: NOT OUR COUSIN BUT OUR BROTHER

Poor Neandertal (Homo neanderthalsis), discovered in 1856, has been maligned for more than 150 years. He was a hunter-gatherer and lived in small bands or extended family units. Neandertal’s physical uniqueness is now understood as a consequence of having left Africa for Europe about 400,000 years ago and finding himself genetically isolated in an exceedingly cold climate, not because he was a different species from us (Homo sapiens).

Because Europe was entombed in ice from 123,000 to 195,000 years one can be pretty certain that Neandertals demand for protein was vastly higher than ours. There is every reason to believe that Neandertal women were regarded as equal partners in hunting to secure their band’s nutritional needs. The suggestion that Neandertal was an ogre that abused his women is absurd. Absolutely nothing exists in the historic record to support such an idea.

There is also evidence that suggests that Neandertal had a spiritual bent to his nature. Recent discoveries have revealed that he created decorative pendants from shells complete with processed pigments that contained the sparkling particles of hematite. It is thought that he developed ritual face and body paint as well. Exhumed graves, replete with ochre and offerings, connote his awareness of death, loss, and ceremony was as acute as our own. Neandertals longevity and the treasures he left behind that await re-discovery clearly rule out any possibility that he was a brute completely devoid of intellect and sensitivity to the world around him.

Scientific American has done an exemplary job this year bringing us the latest discoveries about ancient people, especially Neandertal. I quoted one piece by Micheal Shermer from the August 2010 edition for my title here. Recent DNA sequencing shows that 1-4% of our Eurasian DNA is Neandertal. The studies are suggesting that Homo neanderthalsis and Homo sapiens are the same species having departed from Africa for Europe some 320,000 to 350,000 years apart. Homo sapiens (once thought to be uniquely us) reached Europe about 50,000 years ago and apparently interbreeding between these two groups was widespread resulting in, well, us. Shermer contends that Homo neanderthalsis must be renamed Homo sapiens neanderthalsis. As it might turn out Neandertal is nothing more than a subspecies of Homo sapiens, the subtle differences due entirely to the separation of the groups for hundreds of thousands of years.  Once believed extinct by 28,000 years ago it now appears that Neandertal is alive and well within us.

You are probably wondering why in the world would I think Neandertal is in anyway relevant to the Neo-Pagan/Goddess/Shamanic revival. Those who are familiar with my work know full well that I wear a Mesolithic heart on my sleeve, a relatively modern people by comparison of a mere 10,000 years. The Mesolithic were deeply animistic, shamanic, embraced the Primordial Goddess, the Earth, and worshipped their ancestors. Sound familiar? Apparently so did our brothers, the Neandertal. We can now say with some certainty that we are the direct descendents of hunter-gatherers who have been around for 400,000 years. I believe that acknowledging our ancestors requires revering our entire line not just the pantheon of characters that have emerged in the last handful of millennia. It is sobering to have to accept that in the same handful of years we began ransacking the Earth Mother, especially the Greeks and Romans (Neolithic). The hunter-gatherers that proceeded the Neolithic era made no detrimental impact on our planet that has ever been found. And were it not for their tools and a few of their bones we wouldn’t have known they had even existed. These most ancient of our ancestors have a great deal to teach us about stewardship and their wisdom is rooted in the Earth. The cooperation and harmony with which they lived not only speaks to the sanctity of Earth but is extremely significant to the gender issues elucidated in features of the modern movement as well.

How many times have we heard that men are Neandertals, which haven’t evolved? Oops! There seems to be no evidence that we even became ritualistic/shamanic until we met our older brothers, Neandertal, in Europe. It may turn out that he was the icon of Pagan spirituality 350,000 years before us. So being Neandertal no longer implies lack of evolvement. Another reason that this year has been a good one for men is the discovery that the Y chromosome (male) has been found to be evolving much quicker than the X chromosome (female). This shoots a lot of holes in the assertion that men are less evolved than women.

The most contentious of all are the claims by some groups that caption their studies with titles such as “Holy Grail = Male Jealousy of Menstrual Blood”. That just crosses some magical line into offensive for me. I don’t think anyone disputes the sacredness or mystical character of menses. It is well documented historically that the most ancient of our ancestors held this belief. Hunter-gatherers and their descendents, alive today, still do. It is no revelation but rather and nothing more than a re-discovering of what we, as a species, have always known. Men have their own medicine, there is no reason for them to be jealous of ours and there isn’t anything that supports the notion. Ancient people and their living descendents regard men’s and women’s medicine as correspondingly powerful.

Although I admire women’s studies, they, like all studies, move in trends based on social change, evolution, re-evaluation and discovery. Because their theme is often compensatory male blood lust “don’t make it so”. Such a contention raises a red flag that women need to feel superior to men rather than embrace true cooperation and equality once the foundation of our ancestors’ community. So does the idea recently proposed that women were the first shamans. There is simply no evidence that validates this and if there were, I would like to see it. I have spent forty years studying shamanic cultures and thirty of those years among shamanic tribal people; I have never read or experienced any evidence of this. Shamanic cultures recognize that women’s and men’s medicine is uniquely different and equally imperative. There is no bickering about which gender was the first shaman. I would venture to say that ancient cultures would find the idea confounding if not entirely absurd.

Whether Neandertal or Homo sapiens, both lived in highly cooperative communities of males and females. Every individual was treasured and vital to the survival of the group. There is simply no reason to believe that the first shamans were women when equal cooperation suggests equal power. Isn’t it even remotely possible that the advancement of shamanism might well have been men and women side by side? Is “first” relevant to anything? Today, men and women find themselves equally lost and confused. Both struggle with identity, balance and living with some semblance of grace in their lives. Who was first, who is superior becomes a moot point in light of an imperiled planet. We may well perish and we will perish together. The sooner we return to some piece of true community, together, as equals, the better chance we have of survival as a species. I think, that our Mother, the Earth, is running out of patience with us.




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