The ideas corner: Neanderthals

Marek Kohn on how a view of our ancestors helps us to define an image of ourselves

A new endurance record has been set for the Neanderthals. According to a report in the journal Nature, they hung on in a Gibraltar cave until 28,000 years ago, or even later, long after modern human beings had spread across Europe. It remains to be seen how long the record will itself endure: similar dates for the "last Neanderthals" have been advanced and subsequently rejected. But we can say that the Neanderthals occupied Europe between roughly 300,000 and 30,000 years ago; and we can say with more precision that Neanderthal Man is 150 years old.

Scientists in Germany have been celebrating the discovery, in August 1856, of the original specimen from the Neander Valley. It was the first fossil to be identified as an archaic form of human being, and a form that was to become one of prehistory's most celebrated inventions. A plastic idea, it has adapted readily to changes in the scientific and cultural climate. Unlike its prototypes, it has integrated itself with the most advanced technology of the day: this year, a German research institute announced plans to reconstruct the Neanderthal genome.

In this project the Neanderthals will continue to play the principal role in which they have been cast, as beings through whom we may reflect upon ourselves. They are fitted for the part by their profound ambiguity. Their basic characteristics - robust build, modern-sized brains - do not in themselves suggest fundamental difference, but the lesser differences add up, for many scientists, to a separate species. In effigy and image they have been by turns bestial and noble, shambling and upright, brutish and soulful. They have served as a uniquely obliging Other.

A century ago, the bones of one specimen were read to indicate an apelike posture; half a century later, they were rearranged, and the figure stood upright. The Neanderthals of the 1900s, snarling and shambling, were replaced by the gentle innocents of William Golding's The Inheritors. Simple but spiritual, these prelapsarian humans could not survive the advent of the moderns, technologically superior and intrinsically destructive. This vision was the product of two world wars as well as improvements in anatomical analysis. Supporting evidence was offered later, when pollen grains found with a Neanderthal skeleton were interpreted as the remains of a flower-strewn burial.

These days scientists pride themselves on having a more objective understanding of the Neanderthals. But behind the question of how long the Neanderthals lasted hangs the question of how much the moderns had to do with their extinction. Now the talk of a genome project offers new opportunities for guilty reflection about what modern humans can do with their technology. Having fretted over whether our kind drove or squeezed the Neanderthals from the face of the earth, we can now brood upon whether we might one day bring them back again.