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11 October 2023

Ludovic Slimak: “We cannot imagine another humanity”

The French paleoanthropologist on how the Neanderthals lived.

By Pippa Bailey

Ten minutes into my conversation with Ludovic Slimak, the French paleoanthropologist sprang from his seat: “I have to show you something!” From a brown leather satchel he drew a 3D-printed model of a near-complete set of Neanderthal teeth. “I began to find that in 2015, but each year we find one tooth, or one fragment of bone.” The jaws belong to a body that is gradually being uncovered in the Grotte Mandrin, a cave above the Rhône Valley, France, where Slimak and his team have been working since 1998. They named the individual Thorin, after the Tolkien character, “one of the last dwarf kings, and this is one of the very last Neanderthals”. Just recently, bones were uncovered from Thorin’s feet and shoulder.

We met in September in the lecture theatre at the Royal Institution in London, before he was scheduled to give a talk about his book, The Naked Neanderthal, published in French in 2022 and now in English. Slimak, 50, looks like a picture-perfect explorer, a modern Indiana Jones with a wild beard and ponytail, brown waistcoat and rolled-up shirt sleeves.

In the book, he describes the Neanderthals – with whom we Homo sapiens share a common ancestor who lived more than 400,000 years ago – as an “utterly different humanity”. They lived across most of Eurasia, from southern Spain to Siberia, until they went extinct, around the time of a significant wave of sapiens migration from Africa to Europe, 42,000 years ago. The Mandrin cave was at different times used by both species over a period of 80,000 years. Its floor is made up of layer upon layer of sediment and artefacts, some documenting sapiens activity, others Neanderthal. The oldest date back 110,000-120,000 years.

Such datations are usually made by carbon-14 dating, which has an accuracy of plus or minus 1,000 years – not much use when trying to determine whether, when and where two species interacted. (Before Slimak’s recent discoveries, the only evidence that they did was the trace of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans.) “With [an accuracy of] 1,000 years, yesterday evening you were eating with Charlemagne on your left and Julius Caesar on your right…” Slimak and his team have developed an alternative method to date the Mandrin finds using soot deposits within the cave’s layers – “to make speak these soots”, as Slimak said in his charming English. “This methodology allows us to say how much time [has passed] between the last Neanderthal fire in the cave and the first fire made by a Homo sapiens group. And the answer was: less than six months.”

Ludovic Slimak spent much of his childhood moving around France, living in the Alps, the Pyrenees, Paris, Brittany, Normandy, Marseille and other regions. His father worked in forestry; his mother lived near Paris. “On the weekend I was going into the forest to see my dad, but all the week I was in the city,” Slimak said. “I think that likely gave me a lot of questions about what our societies are.”

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[See also: The boy who would be Bond]

Now he lives in a converted presbytery an hour from Toulouse with his wife, the archaeologist Laure Metz, who also works at the Mandrin Project. The couple have two children, aged six and nine. Does either of them want to study Neanderthals? One is interested in the Ancient Egyptians, the other in dinosaurs.

When Slimak was just four years old, his father asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. “I said: to make holes in the soil to find ancient things.” By the age of ten or 12, he spent all his spare time working on digs from different periods: the Middle Ages, Celtic, Roman. But university did not appeal, so he followed his father into forestry, before eventually returning to his passion, studying at Aix-Marseille University.

Why Neanderthals, out of the at least nine different species of human that once lived on Earth? “When, for the first time, in the early Nineties, I began to excavate a Neanderthal cave, I realised this was great archaeology; this was something important: the last moment where there was another humanity… It’s not like, for example, floresiensis [a small human that inhabited an island in Indonesia]; floresiensis is fascinating, but that’s the story of a tiny island during some millenaries. When we are talking about Neanderthals, we are talking about a humanity which is just as important as our humanity, but was confronted by our humanity. And at that moment it just,” he snaps his fingers, “vanished, and we don’t know why or what happened.”

Today, the Neanderthal “belongs to pop culture. Even among the scientific community, we cover [it] with all our own fantasies. We transform Neanderthal into what we are, and we are not able to imagine that you can be human without being what we are.” In The Naked Neanderthal, Slimak shows how such projections led his colleagues to interpret pierced shells as Neanderthal jewellery, when in fact the holes were made by crabs, or to assume Neanderthal cannibalism was need-driven, rather than ritual. Slimak calls this assimilation “racism 2.0” (racism 1.0 being the Neanderthal as a savage): “The racism is: to be human, you have to be what I am.”

For Slimak, understanding who the Neanderthals were is not just academic. He quotes the French linguist Georges Dumézil, who thought that “to understand something well, you have to compare it to something else. But if we want to understand sapiens, we have nothing [with which] to compare.” In attempting to write a clear-sighted definition of the Neanderthal, Slimak hoped to create a “mirror” for humanity: “The book is using it as a tool to try to define us as humans.”

“If we compare sapiens with other animals,” for example, “we can say: look what incredible creativity we have!” But place Homo sapiens beside Neanderthals and the picture shifts. “If you see 100 sapiens tools or weapons made of flint, the next 10,000 will be the same. It’s hyper-standardisation.” Of 1,500 sapiens tools found in one layer at Mandrin, 82 per cent varied in size by just one millimetre. In contrast, no two Neanderthal tools look the same. “There’s absolutely no standardisation. It’s total creativity. Look at the chairs,” he pointed to the rows of identical, fold-out chairs circling us. “If we were in a Neanderthal theatre, each of them would be very different in morphology, in colour.”

“When you all want to do the same thing all together, you are not superior in technology [to Neanderthals], but you are much more efficient.” This efficiency, Slimak said, is “dangerous. It is something that erases all the other humans… There is something in our nature that is highly efficient, but is also highly dangerous for our own planet, for the wildlife and for ourselves, at the end.” For this reason, he describes The Naked Neanderthal as an “SOS”. The good news for humanity, Slimak told me, is that “there’s not only nature in human, there’s culture, and the culture can bite the nature”.

The moment of Neanderthal extinction has long been conceived of as an event such as that which befell the dinosaurs – climate change, an explosion, stellar radiation, or disease – or else a gradual process of dilution through interbreeding with Homo sapiens. But Slimak does not subscribe to either. Modern humans do have traces of Neanderthal DNA, around 2 per cent (even in the earliest sapiens DNA discovered, it is at most only 6 per cent Neanderthal), but no late Neanderthal has been found that has traces of sapiens DNA, meaning gene exchange seems to have been decidedly one-sided. Nor does he think it likely that an extinction event impacted only one species living across vast territories.

When I pressed Slimak for his own extinction theory, he replied: “That’s the topic of my next book, so I won’t spoil it too much.” The Last Neanderthal was published in France in May and is due to be translated into English next year.

I suppose I will have to read it to find an answer?

“Yes,” he smiled.

[See also: Myths of the miners’ strike]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits