Tuesday, March 10, 2015

We Are the Neanderthal

Oscar Wilde once said, "Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power." This mantra is perfectly upheld in the way in which research on neanderthals permeates the public sphere. Much news of early Homo sapiens remains from Israel has been triggered on the notion that it could have been among the first anatomically modern humans to have sex with neanderthals. This fascination with interbreeding comes out of the precariousness of a competitor to modern humans, commonly viewed as the teleological end point to evolution. Any threat to that clean viewpoint has difficulty gaining acceptance. It is for this reason that neanderthals have for so long and continue to endure the cave man brute stereotype.

If it was not the humans who engaged in a bloody war to defeat the neanderthals to gain their rightful place as rulers of this domain, then what happened? This is the question that surrounds much publicity of middle paleolithic archaeology. Dying out quietly for a species is not exciting however, but sex is. Thus, there is relatively extensive media coverage of that encounter. It is an implicit desire by contemporary society to still see the human species on top (no pun intended). In accordance with the statement of Wilde, inter-species sex is about power. The encounter between a neanderthal and human may have been peaceful, but nevertheless, a modern human, rather than a neanderthal was born from it.

There is also an academic and public rhetoric that is uncomfortable with seeing anything other than humans having agency and cognition. For much of human history how humans have distinguished themselves: agents and actors with high-level cognition. Everything else is secondary and the other. But evidence problematizing this notion is difficult to reckon with because it gives way to the much feared identity crisis of humankind.

The resulting conservative treatment of hominids in the Middle Paleolithic is one akin to the socially conservative rhetoric observed in America, and the perversity of sexuality. However, this mindset crucially dictates the mindset with which we deal with the study of these early hominids, or 'photo-humans.' It becomes a perverse discourse in the media realm whereby readership is secured through the alluring taboo of the sexual encounter. This defines the rhetoric and regard to which the subject is considered by the public. This narrative captures the erotic imagination and succeeds as a public image: the fair-skinned maiden encountering the chiseled, dark, hairy beast of a neanderthal. Thus, neanderthals are kept in their brutish quarters by the means with which we described them. Perhaps this is a purely a narrative that plays to our sexual imaginations. Or maybe it is an instantiation of fulfilling humanity's desire to tame the beast. Through sexual encounters, humans tamed the brutish race, overcoming them and displacing them, giving way for the eventual and destined rise of humanity. Regardless, through this narrative, the neanderthal remains the other, even if in fact we are the neanderthal.

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