The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel/Dance of the Tiger, by Björn Kurtén
With commentary from How to Think Like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn & Frederick L. Coolidge
After years of reading, and sometimes writing, historical fiction, I’m often disturbed by the difficulty of getting into the minds and hearts of people from eras far removed from my own. When even the deepest thoughts and feelings of people who know day to day can seem enigmatic – when even our own minds are often completely mysterious – is it even possible to get into the heads of others long gone? Maybe we can make reasonable guesses about the lives and hearts of people since the advent of written language. But those who lived before writing was invented? Or at least whose symbolic languages are now indecipherable? And what if those languages aren’t even quite what we’d call human?
It’s that adventure of turning bones and stones into heart and minds of the long-dead that intrigued writers like Björn Kurtén and Jean Auel whose Dance of the Tiger (1978) and The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) bravely ventured into a genre Kurtén termed paleofiction. In fact, they were ventures into the minds of the Neanderthals, those mysterious people who predated our own species. (Although there had been previous surveys into this unknown country, dating as least as far back as William Golding’s 1955 novel, The Inheritors, none of them had lasting impact.)
Recently, I’ve been fascinated to come across another book, How to Think Like a Neandertal, (2012) by archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick L. Coolidge, that attempts to put some science into fictional re-imaginings about the hearts and minds of the Neanderthals.
(And no, the difference between my spelling and Wynn and Coolidge's isn’t a typographical error. Despite the title of Coolidge and Wynn’s book, I’m sticking by what seems to be the most common American spelling and one still current, at least as of the June 2016 issue of Discover magazine currently lying on my desk, whose cover plugs an article entitled, “When Neanderthals Replaced Us.” The “h” is silent, whichever spelling you use.)
Last Friday, I wrote about one of the central passages in Auel’s book, in which her (modern-type) human heroine, Ayla, accidently witnesses a religious ritual honoring the totem cave bear of her adopted Neanderthal tribe. In one of the nonfiction books written by Kurtén (whose scientific specialty was Ice Age fauna) he debunked the possibility that any humans, Neanderthal or modern, had observed rituals regarding the gigantic, now extinct bears.
However, in his Dance of the Tiger, Kurtén allowed his Neanderthal characters other religious attributes, especially bird totems who lead the dead into the next world. Could the degree of abstract thinking needed to conceive of an afterlife and supernatural beings have been within the bounds of possibility for Neanderthals? If they could imagine that, might they have eventually imagined other scientific or philosophical abstractions?
“The archaeological record of Neandertals provides us with nothing comparable (to figurative symbols),” Coolidge and Wynn report, "but to be fair we must also note that . . . unambiguous examples of symbols are pretty rare for modern humans until well after 30,000 years ago. . . On the other hand we cannot attribute symbolic culture to Neandertals just because it would be fair. There needs to be evidence, even if it is indirect."
Their conclusion: that what is known about Neanderthals’ use of symbols, including the ultimate symbol of language, suggests only minimal ability to imagine abstractions. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but unfortunately for those of us who’d like to get into their minds, there’s no hard evidence that those minds would have been very spacious dwellings.