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Joe Biden Owes Neanderthals an Apology

Charles P. Pierce
·2-min read
Photo credit: ROGELIO V. SOLIS - Getty Images
Photo credit: ROGELIO V. SOLIS - Getty Images

From Esquire

The President of the United States owes us a serious apology. From CNBC:

“Look, I hope everybody’s realized by now these masks make a difference,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we’re able to get vaccines in people’s arms... The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking, that, ‘In the meantime, everything’s fine. Take off your mask. Forget it.’ It still matters.”

The president, of course, was referring to the nonsensical decision by Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi to declare themselves victors in the battle against the pandemic, dragging the people of their states behind them into a grand new world of their own imagination. But the president was dead wrong in his choice of metaphor, as the Smithsonian illustrates.

“In the minds of the European anthropologists who first studied them, Neanderthals were the embodiment of primitive humans, subhumans if you will,” says Fred H. Smith, a physical anthropologist at LoyolaUniversity in Chicago who has been studying Neanderthal DNA. “They were believed to be scavengers who made primitive tools and were incapable of language or symbolic thought.”

Now, he says, researchers believe that Neanderthals “were highly intelligent, able to adapt to a wide variety of ecological zones, and capable of developing highly functional tools to help them do so. They were quite accomplished.”

These are things that cannot entirely be said of Abbott and Reeves.

Perhaps surprisingly, Neanderthals must also have been caring: to survive disabling injury or illness requires the help of fellow clan members, paleoanthropologists say. A telling example came from an Iraqi cave known as Shanidar, 250 miles north of Baghdad, near the border with Turkey and Iran. There, archaeologist Ralph Solecki discovered nine nearly complete Neanderthal skeletons in the late 1950s. One belonged to a 40- to 45-year-old male with several major fractures. A blow to the left side of his head had crushed an eye socket and almost certainly blinded him. The bones of his right shoulder and upper arm appeared shriveled, most likely the result of a trauma that led to the amputation of his right forearm. His right foot and lower right leg had also been broken while he was alive. Abnormal wear in his right knee, ankle and foot shows that he suffered from injury-induced arthritis that would have made walking painful, if not impossible. Researchers don’t know how he was injured but believe that he could not have survived long without a hand from his fellow man.

Of course, none of them were governor of either Texas or Mississippi, so what did they know?

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