The quest for non-human intelligence has captivated the popular imagination lately, from charismatic cephalopods playing peekaboo on the seafloor to AI chatbots that long for love and revenge. Now the search for other minds is turning to the deep time of the human past, when Homo sapiens was not the only intelligent hominid stalking the landscape.
Enter the Neanderthals, those stocky, prominent-browed creatures that roamed Eurasia for some half a million years until around 40,000 years ago, when they mysteriously vanished, leaving only cryptic clues about their lives: bone fragments, some feathers and shells, the occasional stone tool. In “The Naked Neanderthal,” Ludovic Slimak, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toulouse who has spent decades excavating those traces from French caves and Siberian riverbanks, argues that “Neanderthals were never other versions of us — not brothers, not cousins — when it comes to mental structures, but an utterly different humanity.”
Let’s get one thing straight. No matter what your 23andMe report tells you, “the Neanderthal was not genetically subsumed within us: the presence of a few genes revealing interactions with our ancestors cannot be interpreted to mean that this population somehow survives,” Slimak explains. “That humanity is extinct, totally extinct.”
That hasn’t stopped moderns from using Neanderthals to illuminate ourselves. Slimak’s book responds to 150 years of investigation by artifact hunters, racial theorists, and professional archeologists into how “human” Neanderthals really were. Maligned in the early 20th century as primitive, knuckle-dragging brutes, more recently Neanderthals have undergone a makeover. Archeologists have uncovered tantalizing evidence of sophisticated “Mousterian” cultures, complete with burial rituals, jewelry, even painting and music.
Not so fast, Slimak cautions. Neanderthal researchers fall into two camps, “those who are sure they know what it was and those who have questions and doubts about its true nature”; he’s firmly with the skeptics. We don’t know whether Neanderthals buried their dead, he insists. We don’t know if they had religion or if they were even capable of symbolic thought. Evidence indicates they practiced cannibalism, but we don’t know why, for calories or ritual. Oh, and that “Neanderthal cave art”? It too is “more an article of faith than a matter of hard science.”
So what do we know? Slimak makes two claims based on his own fieldwork, and this is where “The Naked Neanderthal” takes flight.
In 2008 Slimak and a team of researchers excavated a cave near the Ouvèze River in France. After weeks squeezed into a flea-infested fissure 2 feet tall, enduring nosebleeds from silica dust and slicing fingers on fossilized shark teeth, they hit pay dirt: a few square meters of sand studded with bones from beavers, lynx, hyenas, and more, along with the flint tools used to butcher them and the coals used to cook them. This glimpse of a teeming forest ecosystem was just the beginning. The team ultimately uncovered 15 distinct archeological layers, a continuous record that Slimak calls the “Rosetta stone” of the interglacial period, the global warm spell that lasted from 130,000 to 80,000 years ago. Among the Neanderthal subsistence strategies preserved in those layers, their selective hunting of “fully mature male deer” and collection of “trophies of skulls with antlers still attached” provide concrete evidence of hunting rites, the cultural signature that distinguishes humans from other predators. “Now, for the first time, we have hit upon ritual, that is to say on characteristics and behaviour that are uniquely human.” Burials didn’t make Neanderthals human: hunting did.
Slimak’s second, more explosive claim comes from what he calls “fire memory.” Analyzing soot deposits from 8,000 years of campfires in Mandrin Cave in France revealed that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens inhabited the cave within a year of each other. “The two humanities must have physically met right here.” Following this contact, traces of Neanderthals abruptly cease, a process that “repeated itself across every region of Europe until the species was completely extinct,” wiped out not by climate change or a natural disaster, but by “fully fledged conquest.”
What distinguished Neanderthals from their Paleolithic colonizers? For starters, they made few weapons; without propulsive technologies like bows, they were at a competitive disadvantage in hunting and war. But the difference was not simply what they made, but how: “they were never interested in a normalized, standardized form of production” that enabled Homo sapiens to pound out projectile points on an industrial scale. “Each Neanderthal tool is a creation in itself. It plays with the natural forms of the raw material, with the texture of the rock, with its colours, with its touch. There is a balance, an absolute perfection to the Mousterian object, almost indefinable but nonetheless present, which reveals a remarkable way of seeing the world.”
Sadly, none of these “artisanal objects” is reproduced in Slimak’s book. But his response is a familiar one in the annals of colonization. In the early 20th century, when Euro-Americans began to feel oppressed by industrial civilization, some turned to Indigenous cultures as an alternative to modernity — more aesthetically unified, communally oriented, and environmentally attuned. Practicing what scholars call “imperialist nostalgia,” whites projected a fantasy onto the peoples they had displaced. Perhaps Slimak is right that the impulse to see Neanderthals as “the same as us” is “at once a prejudice, and, scientifically speaking, a lie.” But the desire to see them as entirely different may itself be an ideological projection. In our quest to find other minds, we still can’t quite escape our own.
THE NAKED NEANDERTHAL: A New Understanding of the Human Creature
By Ludovic Slimac
Pegasus Books, 208 pp., $29.95
Jerome Tharaud is associate professor of English at Brandeis University. He is the author of “Apocalyptic Geographies: Religion, Media, and the American Landscape.”