“By saying that Neanderthal was like us, we limited it to us”

CNRS researcher Ludovic Slimak has been tracking Neanderthals in the field for thirty years. Three decades in the caves examining the productions of these creatures and trying to understand who they were before their disappearance forty millennia ago. The result of these observations and reflections is a book, Neanderthal no (Odile Jacob, 240 p., €22.90), which revisits the image we have of these other humans.

After having been seen as a rough brute, Neanderthal has been the object, for several decades, of a rehabilitation enterprise which presents him more and more as another ourselves. Why ?

In the 19the century and at the beginning of the XXe century, it is believed that the morphology of human bones makes it possible to differentiate populations, to see races, some of which would be closer to monkeys and others more evolved. After the Second World War and its horrors based on this classification of human populations, we realize that there is only one man on Earth and we become inhabited by this taboo of otherness and difference. Because of this fundamental trauma, we must unconsciously all be the same and this also applies to ancient populations such as Neanderthals. We are going to deny any form of difference, we are going to make them up in ourselves at all levels. At the level of appearance, we have transformed the Neanderthals into beings who are more and more us and in which we no longer see anything but us, in fact.

This temptation of rapprochement between Neanderthal and us is also made at the level of the behaviors that we attribute to him…

Since the end of the 1990s, there has indeed been a frantic search for the slightest clue showing that these people thought like us. We made a sort of kitchen list to determine whether or not Neanderthals had what is called symbolic thought. Among the items on this list, the most important are certainly burials, ornaments and art because they would come under our conception of being in the world.

What evidence was found for these three elements?

Even if it is much debated, for the question of Neanderthal burials, we really have robust elements with bodies that have come down to us because they have been protected. This goes with the issue of caring for the weak. We see completely toothless old people who are going to be fed by making them porridge, who are going to be helped to live even if they can no longer hunt or ensure their subsistence. It has therefore been said that this care given to individuals by Neanderthals was properly human. But I give the example of a 2010 study that talks about a female chimpanzee, Pansy, whose last moments were filmed. When they feel that she is going to die, the relatives of her group and her daughter come around her, hug her when they had never had this behavior with her. When she dies, her daughter stays close to her, deprives her, gives her a veritable wake.

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