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?

The Next Big Thing

With National-Novel-Writing-Month drawing to a close, many writers have their attention locked securely on current projects. Those masochistic enough to succeed with their 50,000 have my sincerest — congratulations. I’m very proud of you guys. Witnessing your progress over the month has been more than a little inspiring. You all deserve a round in celebration: alcohol or applause, your choice.

I found this the perfect time to strike out with my own round of The Next Big Thing. I’d love to learn a little more about what you guys have in store for the future. This is, after all, when things start getting interesting. Edits upon edits, peer reviews. Shining stories are hammered out of the laborious molds you’ve crafted in November.

What better time than the present?

I wasn’t brave enough to undertake the rigors of Na-No-Wri-Mo this year; but in true writerly style, I’ve got my own ongoing project knocking around. I need to put something up here in order to get the ball rolling after all.

So lets see what we’ve got.

1.)    What is the working title of your next book/short story/project?

Yoan ex Novo.

2.)    Where did the idea come from for the book?

Sparks of inspiration trace back well into my childhood. I could try to pin it down to some philosophical fascination I have with the unknowable and the fathomless depths of time… but it’s more likely that I’ve always had a thing for monsters. I always found myself identifying with the stop-motion beasts or poorly hidden men in furry suits. They were my protagonists. They captured my imagination. The original germ of the idea arose a long time ago. I’d always wondered how different things might be if beings like them were running the show.

3.)    What genre does your book fall under?

Solid Science Fiction, if you wanted to paint with heavy brushstrokes. Probably Anthropological SF if you wanted detail.

4.)    What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

What was that I said about guys in suits earlier? I would probably have a seizure if an effects company like Jim Henson Studio or Stan Winston Studio to tackle some creatures portrayed in the story. Though knowing how far motion capture has come, I’d absolutely love if Andy Serkis were involved in any kind of iteration. Gotta have your pipe dreams, you know?

5.)    Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’ve always imagined Yoan being picked up by an agent, but as I am currently amid the throng of the unpublished, it shall remain in the aforementioned pipe dream category. I do have goals for future self-publishing schemes as well.

6.)    What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A human consciousness from the 21st century is cloned by the next dominant species of a future earth. Bonus sentence: shenanigans ensue.

7.)    How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

How can I answer this without sounding more like an amateur? I can’t? Oh. Well – I’ll tell you when it’s finished.

8.)    What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Yoan ex Novo would draw its strongest parallel with Jurassic Park. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a parabolic retelling. The ‘once rulers’ of the planet find themselves miraculously resurrected only to butt heads with the new head honchos; though it isn’t meant to be a Crichtonian cautionary tale about scientific hubris. Yoan aims to ask more questions than it answers. Who has the intrinsic ‘right to exist’ in a situation like that, etc?

I’d also compare it to William Golding’s The Inheritors, as it chiefly features a nonhuman intelligence and its means of coping with a very human threat.

9.)    Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Once again, I can’t really narrow it down to a singular cause. Not one person in particular inspired me to buckle down and pull my head out of the clouds. There’s an amalgam of motivation, from my love of sweeping Attenborough documentaries to deeply paranoid Science Fiction about the human condition. Ultimately, it’s a story that I’ve kept bottled up for so long, I feel a bit guilty keeping it out of the sunlight.

 

10.)     What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s an adventurous coming of age story about a single person who becomes the focal point that decides the fate of two terrestrial alien cultures. It’s got giant talking neo-monkeys and imprinting corvids that could ace an IQ test. There’s love, genocide, extinction and climate change – long-spanning and epic travails seen through a modern day lens.

I’ll nominate a couple very talented writers to take it from here. Chris J. Randolph, Jeff Ellis, and Scott Zachary (whose teasers for a post-apocalyptic thriller look plain awesome). These are three guys we all need to read a lot more of.

Keep writing everyone. Never stop creating.

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.

Whittlesey is an asshole but we need more douchebag monsters

So recently I was going through one of my favorite monster stories. It’s called Relic and it’s by the thriller genre’s very own dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

Going back through the years, I’ve probably read the thing half a dozen times. What can I say? I was one of those kids raised on Godzilla, Jurassic Park, and any other abnormally sized or scaly monstrosities put to film. Novels are a great time sink for kids who can’t get enough of the stuff. Actually, it was probably that Jurassic Park benchmark blurb of Booklist’s on Relic’s cover that hooked me in the first place.

Relic

I would literally read the thing summer after summer. There was a large swath of my young life dedicated to these books. If it wasn’t Crichton’s two stories, it was Relic. The book is insanely readable, so it isn’t a surprise that after catching a viewing of the movie adaptation on Netflix (I’ll just hurry past that subject for now…), I found myself refreshing my familiarity with the novelization. (I needed to get the taste of the movie out of my mouth! …Moving on…) Once I peered in, there was no going back. It turns out those old shackles that held me so firmly back in ’96 were still in place.

I couldn’t put it down.

It’s always fun to see what you remember, or just let that nostalgic wave wash over you. You can usually get more out of a book you’ve read as a kid by reading it again. I did all of those things. I devoured the thing in three or four days, and I found myself coming away with something I didn’t expect. Warning: Here there be spoilers.

Whittlesey, the novel’s main antagonist, is a complete and total fuck. If you haven’t read the story (how dare you) seen the film (can’t blame you) and decided to plow through my meager warning above (can’t blame you there either), let me explain. In the story, Whittlesey’s an anthropologist with the single minded drive to discover a South American tribe that was thought to be extinct called the Kothoga. As you might imagine, he was dead right, and the Kothoga aren’t really up on public relations with the outside. I’ll brush over the particulars and tell you that Whittlesey ends up getting captured after attempting to rescue one of his colleagues. Well, the rescue plan was secondary. The man’s a jerk, remember?

So Whittlesey ends up being transformed into a bloodthirsty beast after being fed this virus-laden genetics-mutating lily pad plant. The infamous mbwun monster is born! The reasoning behind this is left mostly in the dark, but wherein the mystery lies the heart of the book’s coolness factor.

Whittlesey/mbwun becomes a super huge, super strong gorilla/lizard/bear on crank. We’re talking about a very strong addiction. One that impels him to commit hideous acts when his fix is taken away. He needs the plant fibers to produce the necessary hormones to keep his diabolical internal workings humming. If he can’t have it, his only substitute is lodged securely within the craniums of many would be victims.

It would be a bad day to meet this dude in a dark alley. Don’t even bring up cold turkey..

But! It turns out his first murders weren’t even brought on by his junkie’s relapse from hell. The mbwun’s first victim is early on in the book. A poor chump whose alias is Ven. Poor Ven. Ven is a thief who decides to tag a shipment of archeological discoveries bound for the Museum of Natural History in New York. This displays some very poor judgment on Ven’s part. It turns out that the bulk of the stuff in the crate trace back to Whittlesey’s expedition. And Whittlesey isn’t happy to let his blood, sweat, tears, and humanity all go to waste. And sadly for Ven, Whittlesey never strays far from that crate. I’m sure we’re clear about what happened to Ven.

Some might argue that Whittlesey was protecting his last supply of the plant. I call bull. If Whittlesey wasn’t jonesing for the green stuff at the time of Ven’s untimely end, I’ll call him on the evil shit that he does.

Our favorite anthropologist mutant goes on to kill a bunch of sailors in New Orleans, an old colleague of his that (once again) got too close to his ‘precious’, a couple kids, some security guards, some members of a SWAT team, his former boss, and a whole mess of party-goers.

I know I know, you think I’m giving the dude too much credit. He is, after all, just a monster. Why do I condemn a beast who probably doesn’t know any better?

Here’s my case. Whittlesey shows plenty of pre-meditated behavior throughout the entire tale. He builds on previous murders. He gets bolder; maybe even a little drunk on his animalistic rage. He lets some people live (case in point, his once-friend, Dr. Cuthbert), while apparently going out of his way to kill others ( the museum’s Director, Winston Wright) when he clearly doesn’t need to.

Be it revenge, spite, self-pity, or whatever, Whittlesey goes on a rampage. And the thing that makes it memorable and endlessly entertaining, is the fact that the monster was once one of us. Just some dude with goals an foibles. Friends and shit bosses.

At one point after escaping a close shave with death, Ian Cuthbert relays a chilling message. He’s miraculously avoided getting his brain scooped out the back of his head and is barely holding onto his sanity. He rattles on about how “It knows,” and that “It hates us.” The most telling part for me was when he mentions its eyes. About how they showed “infinite sadness.”

It’s creepy, chilling, and great. It’s the many layered aspect of the museum beast that really stays with me. And has so for years. While I want to punch him in his grotesque face (for the love of god, he ate a damn puppy!), there’s an almost pitiable side to his character as well.

Whittlesey. Photo props go to helloqueen

Although his isotopes have been twisted and he’s expressing WAY too many latent or alien genes, Whittlesey is still just a twisted reflection of ourselves.

It’s always terrifying to know just how far we can fall. Given the same circumstances, could anyone do any better?

Here’s several other douchey monsters that were human once:

The Pak Protectors in Larry Niven’s Known Space series of books. If you hate pretentious supergeniuses with narrow aspirations, these guys should be at the top of your list.

Frankenstein’s monster from Mary Shelley’s timeless novel. Kind of obvious, I know. There are so many great versions, but a recent play production by Danny Boyle has Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature. This here is the granddaddy of monster pity/hate. Bring a tissue… or a punching bag.