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?

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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!

Shared Bloodlust: When inter-species pacts go horribly right

Killers of Eden

We’re comfortable with our position on planet earth. As relatively new to the scene as we are, it does appear as if we’ve taken to the role of World Dominators with peculiar ease. We’re not exactly imposing in and of ourselves. Hell, we’re not even from predatory stock! No claws or fangs… though yes, we do tic the “forward facing eyes” part of the checklist, but that’s only thanks to some ancient ancestor that needed to be able to hop to the next tree over. It was only after we came up with a novel little weapon of our own that we started staking our claim.  We’ve adopted the predatory lifestyle with much gusto; but really, we’ve only been at it for a few million years. We’re really just glorified banana eaters. But I digress, the enemies that we haven’t hunted to extinction have been relegated to wildlife reserves or zoos. It was once thought that it was in our nature to elbow everything else out of the way. Our modern sensibilities tend to look down on this view of things, claiming that it’s done nothing but alienate us from the natural order.

We’re at the top of the ladder and, looking around, it’s pretty lonely up here. Or is it? Are there animals that would do the same thing, given the specific sequence of random events that might culminate into what we’d refer to as a chance? I’ll take a step back. Are there animals who find it in their nature to help man further his diabolical ends? Yes, actually. Plenty.

I could go on and on with a list of ‘Budding World Dominators’, but we know how that would end. My posts tend to be long enough as it is! Today, I’ll focus on one of my favorite groups of creatures. The cetaceans. Not only do I like the subject of whales and dolphins, but I like the subject of whales and dolphins acting like completely heartless killing machines. It’s much more fun, and probably closer to reality. So really, we’re not so different.

The advent of modern science has only recently shown us just how intelligent some of our fellow earthlings are. From tool use to culture, the list of candidate creatures continues to grow. One of the more popular entries is, of course, the dolphins. They’re up there in what I call the Famous Four: apes, elephants, corvids, and cetaceans. Communication is key when we’re talking about interaction between species. And not only interaction, but coalitions as I’m proposing. Luckily, it has been recently found that just such exchanges are well within their capacity. Dolphins are expert linguists. Just ask Brin.

Fishermen and bottlenose dolphin coordinate in an attempt to catch mullet.

Is it just me, or is the thought of an animal intelligence reaching out to communicate with us really freakin’ cool? Let’s begin in Brazil. Off the Atlantic coast of a small town called Laguna, the local fisherman have taken advantage of a strange outreach program doled out by a group of bottlenose dolphin. They (meaning the dolphins) drive shoals of mullet into the shallows near the beach, where they come into the range of the humans and their fishing nets. But it gets better; the dolphins actually signal when and where the fishermen should cast their nets. By thrashing their heads or slapping the surface of the water with their powerful tails, the dolphins appear to be communicating the presence of the fish. On the face of it, it seems a selfless act on the part of the bottlenose pod. Why would they act this way around humans? Please.. don’t get your rain sticks and prayer crystals out just yet, brethren. It turns out that the escaping fish are easier for the dolphins to scoop up individually. It’s a fully fledged, everybody wins, exercise in teamwork. Everybody but the mullet. This isn’t a new behavior either. This collaboration has been going strong since 1847.

But in a post touting blood pacts and promising heirs to earth’s destruction, this may seem kind of weak. What’s the big deal about coordinated fishing? Aren’t they just fish after all? It’s not much of a reach for dolphins to want to fish. Well, yeah – but if you don’t see the fact that dolphins having created a culture that integrates another intelligent species, our species, into the equation as extremely cool, I can certainly up the stakes.

An orca leads a group of whalemen to a baleen whale.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there had been a particular pod of killer whales that would journey to the mouth of the Port of Eden every year during their annual migrations. For over one hundred years, these over-sized predators visited the south east coast of New South Wales, Australia. They came to be know as the Killers of Eden and they were unlike any other pod of orcas known, before or since.

Old Tom featured with his primate pack-mate in 1908.

The killers of the Port of Eden were transients; meaning, they were the variety that have a taste for mammalian blood. For generations, these killers would chase baleen whales up and down the coast of Australia, as they had throughout the rest of the world. While all other killer whales were happy to keep their hunting “in-house”, the Killers of Eden fell upon a very interesting strategy. They would herd their quarry into Twofold Bay before commencing to attack. And this is where things got weird; several individual whales would peel off and cross the bay. Oddly, they would then begin to display at the mouth of the kiah river. Same story as before. The orcas would breach, crashing onto their sides, or pump their flukes through the water. This behavior was called ‘flop-tailing’. All of this was to gain the attention of a certain group of whalers, who would row out to, and be guided by the whales.

That’s right, the killers would inquire for the assistance of human whalers to help bring down their prey. The two deadliest super predators of their respective domains joining forces for mutual, bloodthirsty gain. The humpback whales never stood a chance.

After the deed was done, the killers were allowed first access to the carcass. A kind of accord was made between the whalers and the killers. It was called the Law of the Tongue. It was called this, I’d guess, because orcas feast mainly on the lips and tongue of their kills, leaving most of the valuable portions of the whale untouched. It was only later when the humans would return to the scene, having lashed an anchor to the rotting body, and claim the rest of the remains, such as the valuable bones for scrimshaw and the blubber. It was claimed that this was a kind of subsistence hunting, where the humans rarely took more than what the killers brought in themselves.

As you might imagine, the whalers grew very fond of their fellow hunters. The men went out of their way to free the orcas from fishing nets and in return, it was said that the killers would protect the men from sharks when their boats capsized. Some even called them family, going as far as naming some of the regulars. Names like: Skinner, Hookey, Jimmy, and Montague. This was pretty impressive in itself, as the whalers would usually recognize the whale by it’s particular fin shape and notch pattern of scars. This is the same procedure modern day naturalists go about recording individuals in a pod.

Carcass of Old Tom, found in 1930.

The most famous killer, however, was called Old Tom. He was said to be one of the most outgoing of the killers. Old Tom was usually at the forefront when it came to alerting the whalers to another kill. Because of his proximity to people, many legends sprung up around Old Tom. It was rumored that he was over eighty years old and that (naturally) he was the leader of the pod. He was said to be clever, even pulling the row boats out to the site of an attack by hooking the whaler’s tow lines in his mouth. Old Tom would also grasp harpoon lines after they had been thrown and appeared to play with them. Out of joy or blood lust, we’ll never know. It turns out that such activity might have doomed Old Tom in the end. His corpse was found after it drifted into Snug cove in 1930. When it was studied, it appeared as though his jaw had become infected due to the damage done to his teeth. Some had been worn to the gum line. *It was also discovered post mortem that Old Tom was closer to 35 years old when he died.

Because of overhunting of their prey species, it was theorized that the Killers of Eden eventually disbanded. Breaking up into several pods, they eventually moved on. The last of the original killers to be seen was none other than Old Tom.

The consequence of chewing on tow lines. Viewing the skull, it’s easy to make out the damage done to Old Tom. Also note the teeth on the left side of his lower jaw.

It’s interesting to see just how successful such ventures can be. A stable arrangement was made for more than a hundred years at the Port of Eden. It’s fun to speculate just what kind of legends might have sprung up on the other side of the waterline. Did the killer whales have their own equivalent to the Law of the Tongue, and did we somehow break the pact, causing their eventual dispersal? We have learned just how intelligent these creatures are in recent years, but perhaps the whalers of Eden knew so all along.

What sorts of arrangements would we find ourselves fostering when we finally break the language barrier with other intelligences? Would we stand back in horror when we realized how violent they really are? Would we stand by and allow them the right to pursue their own traditional or social ends? Would we even concede that they’re intelligent at all?