Monday, January 27, 2014

The Neanderthal within us

In January I referred (Lewis on the Indo-European controversy) to my feeling of discomfort that came from reading Martin Lewis' posts on the Indo-European controversy. My discomfort came from the realisation that elements of the controversy and the underlying models had affected the things I studied and hence my thinking in ways that I hadn't quite realised. On this, I said in part:

Lewis's central focus in this chapter is on linguistics and the way that linguistic analysis has influenced and been influenced by other debates. His time period extends to the present day. This is where the discomfort came in, for I studied some of the things he talks about at school and university. I used those atlases. I looked at some of the concepts in my studies. Now I wonder a little about the possible distortions created in my own thinking.

Anatomical analysis, the differentiation between peoples based on physical appearance and especially on skeletons, has always been problematic. It continues to be used because in many cases skeletal remains are the only evidence we have, despite the advances in DNA technology.  Yet the classifications used actually derive from and in turn influenced the debate that Lewis is talking about. You see my problem?

When I wrote this three weeks ago, I hadn't properly realised how much science had moved on, in so doing turning our views of the human past on its head.

Over on Helen Dale's Facebook page a commenter, Brian Hanley, directed me to a blog that I had never seen, John Hawke's blog. John described his blog in ways that I could identify with:

I started writing this blog for two basic reasons: first, because there are some really interesting issues in paleoanthropology that are not well covered in the mainstream science press, and second, because I needed a good way to organize my notes.

It turned out that the solution to the note-taking problem also made a nifty solution for writing about interesting issues. Blogging software is one of the best methods of content management around. It became very simple to take notes on things I was reading, spice them up with a bit of information and context, and blog about them. In large part, what you see here are my own notes, the very ones that I use to write my research papers and books.

This is a very, very good blog written by a highly skilled academic who makes the results of new work in his field accessible to the lay reader. And what work that is. It is turning our understanding of the evolution of the human species on its head.  As a simple example, Neanderthal man is not dead but living within us in our genes, if in varying proportions between human groups.

Do have a browse!


Anonymous said...

Neanderthals are alive and well and running this country.

Me man! Big club! Smash foreigner! Ooh ooh ooh!

Jim Belshaw said...

I suspect that you are being grossly unfair to Neanderthals, anon!