Why Bug-Eyed, Furry Neanderthals are Stupid

Sometimes it's easy to forget what came before.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget what came before.

I’m late on this scene, but I don’t care:

Being a blogger – and to a greater extent; human being – that constantly emphasizes strange and preposterous things, you’d think I’d be pretty accepting of harebrained theories. I’ll readily admit to the left-field ideas I throw out in my free time.

I should be the last person to tell you that, well… maybe speculation can get a little out of control.

Maybe it’s this close affiliation with spec fiction that leaves me so protective of the subject; but when I heard about a certain “hypothesis”, I couldn’t help but get a little worked up.

It goes like this. A gentleman by the name of Danny Vendramini came up with this idea that ‘radically alters our perception of our closest hominid relatives.’ Immediately, I’m fully aboard with the idea. This is the crap I live for. Physical Anthropology! Let’s come at this puppy sideways!

However, I was thusly, and rather rudely thrown from the bandwagon. You can view his website, Them and Us here and immediately see why. Just one click in and my blood pressure did things god never intended it to do.

Danny posits some fairly (to put it mildly) outlandish interpretations about Neanderthal evolution, physiology and behavior, while throwing caution to the wind and completely disregarding scientific facts built up by paleontologists and anthropologists since science began compiling them in 1856.

All this from a man with no formal scientific training; from what I could glean on his site. Other than being an ‘armchair researcher”, Mr. Vendramini claims to be a member of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia Incorporated.

Well hey! I’ve been doing the same kind of stuff all my life. Sure, I never signed up for any fancy associations, but I’ve done plenty of layman-level reading on the subject of hominid evolution! I collect replica hominid skulls too!

Anthropological street cred? I got that.

Anthropological street cred? I got that.

I’ve got as much credentials to tackle the subject as he does. As much Wikipedia “hangin’ ten” time. I can also claim to have “studied” Neanderthals for longer than Mr. Vendramini’s own “ten years.”

So when I finally viewed the youtube video featuring his theory, I felt compelled to stand up for the science-buffs, speculators and average-joe-anthropologists of the world. Someone has to show those real scientists that all of their hard work isn’t totally in vain. Most of us actually listen to what you guys have to say.

Without further ado; here’s my take on the credulous ideas put forward in Danny Vendramini’s video. As it stands, I’m not particularly impressed to read his book. The flag is a little too red for my tastes.

Again. This is a review of the man’s video linked above.

Right off the bat: We have Danny asserting that “There is no sound archeological evidence that Neanderthals looked human,” and “soft tissues aren’t preserved in the fossil record.”

So far so good.

He then firmly readies his foot and his mouth by proposing to use Archeological, Genetic, and Foresic Evidence! to help prove his theories.

Anthropomorphism is tarried out to explain why all modern interpretations of Neanderthals feature “human-looking” and “shaven-faced” reconstructions. I find it funny that he himself describes anthropomorphism as “Humans attributing human characteristics on animals” when Neanderthals are indeed placed within the genus homo: ergo, human. But that’s beside the point.

Mr. Lok asks, "Why so stingy with Armani, bro?"

Mr. Lok asks, “Why so stingy with Armani, bro?”

This is when we reach the first of the video’s blatant misdirections. Vendramini claims that Neanderthal eyes “were in a different position in their skulls compared to humans.” As persuasive as his ‘reassembled George Clooney’ argument tries to be… Neanderthals most certainly didn’t have their eye sockets located in the middle of their foreheads.

Neanderthal skulls were shaped completely differently from their h. sapiens counterparts. They didn’t have chins for one. The crown of the skull was also much less pronounced. The bulk of the brain was situated in a much more horizontal plane when compared to the more vertical sapiens arrangement.

Prognathous jaws also stretched out the face, increasing its comparative size to sapiens. Neanderthals were much more robust. Less neotenized than our monkey-baby faced selves.

When Vendramini shows his side by side comparisons: top of head to bottom jaw, he fails to take these characteristic differences of the skulls into account.

Covert distortions like this are common throughout the entire video. I caught a point where the articulated skeletons of neanderthalensis and sapiens were shown shoulder-to-shoulder; Neanderthals depicted as the larger of the pair.

They weren’t. I always thought that short and stocky Neanderthals were common knowledge. Has ignorance crept up on me again?

Next we branch off into all out falsities. If I weren’t so nice, I’d call them straight up lies.

Vendramini proceeds to describe the particulars of sapiens/neanderthalensis evolution. He claims that the two hominids diverged and evolved in total isolation over the course of “over half a million years.” Fact check time. If you grab any book on the subject, you will learn that it is currently thought that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals branched off from an ancestral form of homind, probably homo heidelbergensis. Neanderthals diverged from a population 300,000 years ago in Europe while sapiens evolved from a group that had remained in Africa some 200,000 years ago.

Doesn't this scream out scientific integrity?

Doesn’t this scream out scientific integrity?

That’s 100,000 years. Kinda strengthens the idea of similarity a bit, don’t it? Vendramini’s whole argument on this point seems to hinge on the fact that Neanderthals were so far removed and in a ‘naturally inhospitable’ environment, that evolutionary change would have favored dissimilarity. I’m all for variation, but the science is clear on this point.

We’ll touch on this, as Vendramini comes back to this later.

Vendramini goes on to solidify the blindingly obvious by saying that “Neanderthals were members in the order of primates.”

His usage of the term here is vague. I’m certain he’s aware that modern humans are primates as well. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, but it seems to me like he’s trying to steer the topic (not so gently I might add) into his Neanderthal’s similarity with apes.

But we’re categorically apes as well, so I’m not sure what he’s trying to prove here by saying Neanderthals would look like primates. This highlights an apparent disconnect that Vendramini has with the subject of human evolution. Either that, or he’s trying to play to the public’s misconception and ignorance of primate phylogenic diversity.

Then he states that humans no longer look like their “primate ancestors” because of completely unique ecological and environmental circumstances. He doesn’t elaborate. Thus, according to Vendramini, humans evolved non-apish hairless bodies within the last 500,000 years; the time of diversification which he stated earlier. If I have his hypothesis straight, of course.

This is all kinds of wrong. Hominid nakedness has been traced to long before.

Note: The Neanderthal skull fitting into the chimpanzee profile falls apart when you realize the spinal column is all outta-whack.

Next, he brings up his consultations with Arturo Balseiro: a freelance artist and obvious FX maestro. Balseiro has no apparent history of forensic reconstruction, and no background in the field of physical anthropology. But his works do look amazing. Moving on.

Do you really need to sensationalize this badass?

Do you really need to sensationalize this badass?

Environment: Ice Age!

So we’re back here again. Vendramini likes to describe the “frozen glacial wasteland” that was ice age Europe. He does so a few times, as it draws heavily into his ‘Neanderthals be fuzzy’ argument. It’s “the most inhospitable environment ever occupied by hominids” after all. The way he expounds would have you believe Europe was all but a popsicle back in those days. But let us stray back towards the facts.

The words Mr. Vendramini uses over and over is the colloquial term, Ice Age. However, the scientific term for an Ice Age is an extended period of Earth’s geologic time where sheets of ice cover much of the globe. What Vendramini is undoubtedly referring to in the video is the ‘last glacial period’. Also called a glaciation. The most recent period began some 110,000 years ago and ended 10,000 or so years ago. ‘Maximum glaciation’ or, the furthest reach of the “frozen wasteland” was achieved 22,000 years ago.

Ancestors of the Neanderthals probably arrived in Europe during an interglacial period around 300,000 years ago, between the 2nd and 3rd Pleistocene glaciations, working back. Early members of neanderthalensis were undoubtedly molded by the advancing and retreating glacial waves, but most of Neanderthal-country remained open, unlocked and untouched by glaciers.

But yes. Things did get pretty nippy.

The whole problem of body hair is kind of a non-issue. Vendramini’s assertion that “Well since all the European animals were furry, Neanderthals were too” comes across as lazy. This falls into the category of the thin eye-slits featured in his reconstruction. I’m sure the idea is, “So, like, nocturnal predators like cats got ‘em. Why not my super-thals?”

Having recently read All Yesterdays, I’ve been left me with an extremely high bar for speculative reaching. All Yesterdays did it right. What’s more, the book has supplied me with some fantastic ammunition against not-so-good attempts at guesswork. Namely a section where future-extinct iguanas are deduced to be furry because… “Like, all the other animals around were furry!”

Moral is, you can’t ignore phylogenic placement, no matter how awesome an iguana would be to comb.

Rapid fire time:

Neanderthals ate meat. Yes. A lot of it. But not exclusively. They also got cooked vegetables stuck in their teeth.

The rest of the video degenerates into a slew of hypotheses and proclamations that have no basis.

Cannibalism makes them monsters. Nevermind the Donner party was pioneered by human beings.

“Neanderthals were six times stronger than humans,” pulled out of thin air.

Theory of hunting at night, harkening back to ‘proof’ of large eyes that Vendramini made up earlier.

Maintains that raping and pillaging is the only explanation for Neanderthal genes in the modern human genome.

Vendramini’s only real ‘proof’ of any of this is legends and myths of monsters. A kind of ancestral neurosis passed down to us from those gory days of yore.

At this point I’d had enough. Strange when I think about how much I’d love to see a gorilla with weapons. I should really be in heaven, but instead I feel drained. There’s something ‘inventively sapping’ about the Them and Us hypothesis.

toony-neanderthal

I like imagination. I can give a guy points for trying something new and interesting. He’s obviously put a lot of time into this project… though he’s obviously overlooked (ignored) a few (major) details. Shaking up the status quo is always healthy, but I kind of imagine a little bit of merit and artistic integrity should go along with your suppositions.

That’s why I came away from this with so much spite. The betrayal of it. The nerve of spouting lies unabashed.

I’ve always found that truth supplies the real depth of meaning and authenticity to works of fiction. In wildlife, biota, behavior – truth is stranger than fiction. There’s so much wonder to tap into in the natural world.

Just be honest with it.

The thin veneer of science is pretty wobbly on this one.

I mean, how serious can you take a mug like that?

Outward Reviews: All Yesterdays

You know that kid who screamed out the scientific names of dinosaurs he saw during a movie trailer? That kid whom everyone smirked at and whose parents and sibling leaned away from a little too casually? That little guy was me. So with that knowledge, I give you my first book review —

If anything, we dinosaur fans are gluttons for punishment. It’s not like we have anything better to do than slog through the latest iteration of Cretaceous Battle Royal for the umpteenth time. For us, it’s just another day at the office. We really don’t have much of a choice. Hollywood movie monsters garner attention and sadly, that’s about all the seriousness popular media wishes to bestow on the subject of ancient reptiles.

Well known creatures in ways you’ve never seen them: par for the course with All Yesterdays. A plesiosaur uses a camouflage hunting strategy here.

It’s a precipitous and very slippery slope. You’re pretty much guaranteed schlock, even from heavy hitters like the Discovery Channel and the BBC.

Yet we come running every time. It’s like an abusive relationship. It’s the only show in town. We’ll put up with nearly any amount of punishment to get our fix of X-treme archosaurs, shot through the corneas to a soundtrack of overdone roars and bellows.

With stereotypes and clichés so ubiquitous, us paleo-buffs have had to produce some pretty thick skins over the years. I myself have become jaded; bracing for the parade of Mesozoic tropes I know are in store. I’ve got my checklist, derisive snorts at the ready.

How many of us have gathered around our TV’s to chuck popcorn and soda cans at every single tired and over-the-top “seen-it-a-million-times” moments? Rolled our eyes at the scientific inaccuracies *where are the goddamn feathers?!* and taken too much joy in pointing out facts nobody cares about?

Almost any recreation will focus on the Hollywood aspect of the animals. Predators bellow victoriously over fallen enemies every other second. Herbivores are nothing but glorified redshirts, glancing around fearfully before the clawed hammer falls in the next scene. It gets to be a bit much.

Animals do strange things seemingly outside their bodily adaptations, hence Protoceratops forage in a tree to get some tasty morsels.

So when such a cool, tall glass of sanity broaches the genre; I sit up and take notice.

All Yesterdays is the first book to confront these overblown notions and call it out for the nonsense that it is. That’s what stood out to me immediately upon reading it. The level-headed assuredness with which it builds a case for what a younger, Mesozoic earth might actually have been like without all the flashing neon. There is a boldness to openly and beautifully speculate within this book. Couple this with a sound scientific foundation for each and every idea and you have yourself a rare cocktail indeed.

It’s a marvel. It’s addicting. And might I reiterate again: It’s so damn refreshing.

But I need to backtrack from here:

All Yesterdays is the brainchild of several well-known names in the field of paleontology and paleontological artistry. Paleozoologist Darren Naish, known for other dinosaur publications such as Walking with Dinosaurs: The Evidence as well as his unbeatable blog Tetrapod Zoology; and artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen combine their talents and ideas with inspired success.  All Yesterdays is a book that does more than celebrate paleoart. It joyfully turns the subject on its head and forces the reader to look at it from a new perspective.

Some of my most memorable sections were the quiet moments. Several entries juxtapose the incessant carnage seen elsewhere with the doldrums we almost never hear about. A lethargic tyrannosaur, sleeping off its latest kill. Allosaurus and Camptosaurus (mortal enemies in any other light) exchanging an unobtrusive glance at a watering hole. The best was a Tenontosaurus simply walking through its wooded habitat with nary a sickle-claw in sight.

How much of the “external bits” would cover up that familiar dinosaurian outline? If this ain’t too weird for you, you can handle the rest. Think of fluffy Antarctic dinos as the whack-a-zoo bar for entrance.

What All Yesterdays does exceptionally well is the speculation. Obviously my favorite. The authors lead you into each piece of art confidently. They lay out the thought process behind each one, comparing behaviors based firmly in reality, but at the same time making it clear that any such proofs would be impossible to confirm without a time machine at hand. In a way, I found it exciting to finally think of these ancient creatures as animals again.

Knowing that there’s plenty of boisterous mating displays, mud-rolling, unanticipated climbing, and chronic sleeping mixed in with all that unrestrained killing really levels the playing field. What is usually so one-sided becomes illuminated. Its horizon made colorful.

All Yesterdays doesn’t impose to preach about “What it was really like”. It simply gives you the tools and insight to realize that there are many facets of the past that we’ll never know. Brilliant, stunning things that are forever lost in time.

In the end, this is All Yesterdays’ achievement. It’s its sheer power to change your perception using pretty (and at the same time deeply thought out) pictures of awesome dinosaurs.

In the latter half of the book, All Yesterdays even turns a mirror onto itself. It projects a future where the next intelligence of earth discovers long extinct ‘currently extant’ species. It postulates what sorts of reconstructions these beings might produce: a cat, a hummingbird, a baboon etc. (Human killer/parasite/venomous predator, respectively) This is the most tongue-in-cheek segment of the book**, highlighting the kinds of mistakes modern scientists and artists make when visualizing extinct creatures.

It’s expertly done, eye-opening, and I loved every minute of it.

**I adored how everything was tainted towards the vicious and merciless. Baleen whales and elephants became the stuff of nightmares. Also, hippo based on the skull: Just back away slowly and hope it didn’t see you.

For those of you in desperate need of a reprieve from DinosaurusX style programming, you should jump at this chance. As a fellow dino-nazi, I can’t recommend this book any higher. The artwork is stunning. The ideas are fresh and thoroughly backed up, leaving your head spinning with the sheer ingenuity involved.

Even familiar faces aren’t safe. Here, Triceratops sees a facelift thanks to recent quill-nob discoveries way down its ancestral line.

There are lessons here that should absolutely be taken to heart.

If only more would.

Oh, and snag a printed version. A kindle’s black-and-white just doesn’t do it justice.

UPDATE: I’ve just been informed by one of the ‘high ups’ (holy crap actual feedback!) that most of you lovely people will get to see the artwork generously colored. Smartphones, tablets and computers are the way to go. Don’t let my Black and White Kindle shriveled heart dissuade you. Now there is literally no reason for you not to get this book.

So off with you! Go find Majungasaurus.

The Florida Monster Eye is Probably Not What We’re All Hoping For: A Completely Biased Report

This haunting beauty came awash on a beach in Florida.

And in other squid-news: A massive, unidentified eyeball washed up on a beach in Florida.

A passing beach goer discovered the eerie object glaring up at them from the sand. Instead of following the gut compulsion to make the thing into a hood ornament, they promptly handed it over to the good people at Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. You can’t blame the beachcomber.

You don’t want to be the dude holding the kraken’s eye. I’ve read enough nautical horror to know what happens to that guy.

So what is it, exactly? Does it have a squiddy origin? Further, is it worth our attention if it isn’t? (No. No it isn’t)

Like any washed up monster piece worth its salt, the eye has scientists divided as to its actual identity. Though the size denotes a cephalopod, (squid have notoriously gigantic eyes which can see 200 times better than a human; squid rock!) the presence of bone around the orbit have some casting doubt.

It’s likely that it might belong to a deep sea fish or swordfish of some kind. Only of considerable size.

As cool as an unidentified and gigantic fish might be, I’ll still hold out for the squid explanation. I’m biased. We’ll just have to wait until a definitive answer is discovered via DNA analysis.

Sherlock Crowlmes and the Case of the Threatening Stick

Maki over at Sci-ence.org has come up with another funny and informal comic about ingenious animals. Crows are amazing, and their intelligence appears to be on-par with that of apes in some regards.

Sci-ence is jam-packed with riotous works like Caw-sal Reasoning, so check them out.

We’ll have to stay tuned to see what befalls Crowlmes when he faces of with Magpieiarty at Reichenbeak Falls!