We need to dispel the arrogant and misguided idea that modern humans are superior to earlier human species. It is thanks in part to all our predecessors such as Neanderthals that we are who we are today. This is what Marie Soressi, Professor of Hominin Diversity Archaeology, will argue in her inaugural lecture on 23 May.
The image of simple Neanderthals has shifted considerably in recent decades. For long, this human species, which is thought to have disappeared some 40,000 years ago (after giving us some genes), was considered far less intelligent than modern humans: Homo sapiens, the wise human. Since the publication of the neanderthal genome in 2010, we have discovered that we all still have a piece of neanderthal DNA. We should be pleased with this, says Soressi: some of these old genes help boost our immunity and fight disease. She has had her own DNA tested: ‘I’ve got four per cent neanderthal DNA, which is double the average two per cent that most Europeans have!’
Soressi, along with other Leiden archaeologists, published about a startling discovery a few years ago in PNAS. Neanderthals turned out to have had ingenious tools: a handy bone knife with a polished side for working animal hide. Such knives, known as lissoirs, are still used by leatherworkers today. And the team of Leiden professor Wil Roebroeks recently concluded that Neanderthals were able to use fire to keep the landscape open and bend it to their will. Soressi argues that all these insights force us to fundamentally change our thinking about the outdated, hierarchically structured classification of human species.
‘New insights force us to fundamentally change our thinking about the outdated, hierarchically structured classification of human species.’
Soressi therefore argues for a ‘postcolonial’ approach: ‘Researching how Homo sapiens benefited from extinct human species makes us less arrogant towards earlier humans because it no longer puts us in a superior position.’ She also warns about reducing people to their biological identity, because they are so much more than that. Earlier this year, she and a group of colleagues published an article in Nature on ethics in DNA research on human remains.
Human identity is layered
So how should we relate to past human species? Soressi uses the metaphor of a tulip bulb: it consists of several layers, and each layer is necessary for the tulip to bloom. ‘Our human identity is similarly layered: we inherit a long evolutionary history that has shaped who we are. And we build on the web that others have spun for us.’ Time to stop calling ourselves Homo sapiens, she therefore says. ‘The wise’ suggests we are much smarter than our predecessors. French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) coined the term Homo faber, the toolmaker, and Soressi thinks that’s a good idea: the toolmaker still fits the bill for today’s humans as well.
But there is one important difference: ‘Today we probably use the same number of objects in a single day that a person used in their entire life 5,000 years ago, objects produced from natural materials that are only available in limited amounts. Our current extreme entanglement with objects is something to take into account when dealing with the current climate change emergency.’