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Our Long Lasting Relatives

Neandertals are all the rage these days. People can get their DNA analyzed and learn about their genetic background, including whether or not they have Neandertals – we’ll stay with that spelling – lurking in the family tree. Even if you haven’t checked your DNA, you may be interested in Beebe Bahrami’s Café Neandertal.

Cafe Neandertal cover imageThis is a dense romantic, fact-filled, roaming account of a dig on a Neandertal site in France. Beebe Bahrami, is probably best known as a travel writer, but she’s also a cultural anthropologist with a deep affection for Neandertals and a love for the land and the people of the Dordogne. She has a unique perspective on the Neandertals and a unique way of telling the story of the dig. I’ve not read a book which was simultaneously so fascinating and annoying as this one. It’s a kind of memoir about Neandertals, about the places they lived in France, about the people who live there nowadays, about wine and good food and paleoanthropologists. It leaps back thousands of years and also confusingly shuffles time in the past decade. No matter, this is a book worth reading.

The writer begins her account by saying, “Seven bodies lay scattered across the cave floor like leaves in the wind. Some were missing limbs or parts of their torsos or craniums. One’s detached head had rolled a few feet away.” And she continues:

Even though this was a cold case, one that I was reconstructing from black-and-white photos while the actual bodies were now in a lab in Paris, it was hard not to feel the visceral presence of these seven. I immediately connected to their humanity through what I imagined were their emotions in their last moments of life. My thoughts burned with a single question. What had happened to them?

No one who reads the title of the book or glances at the flyleaf will be taken in by the pretense that this is a contemporary crime. What’s important here is that Beebe Bahrami feels the visceral presence of these long-gone Neandertals and she connects to their humanity. Early in this work she confesses to carrying a flame for these pre-historic people. “My love affair with Neandertals,” as she calls it, flows through her writing, a constant in this shape-shifting narrative.

Beebe Bahrami author image
Beebe Bahrami

In 2014 — I think it was 2014; it’s sometimes as difficult to date events in this memoir as it is to date Neandertal sites — she joined a team of scientists at a dig in La Ferrassie, in Dordogne in southwestern France. Her participation began by a fleeting glance as she was shopping for shallots at the market in the nearby medieval town, Sarlat-la-Canéda, in May of 2010. Bahrami had been drawn to that area two winters prior when she was exploring spiritual experiences and sacred roots. She had eventually landed in Sarlat and “found it had a pull on me like no region I’d ever inhabited.” As she explained later, “I actually felt as if I had come home.”

And there, while shopping for shallots, she caught, out of the corner of her eye, a glimpse of a familiar figure who “sped past garden stands, olive sellers, foie gras tables, jarred black truffles, and walnut liqueurs,” hurrying along with a companion, another man. After paying for the shallots, Beebe Bahrami was unable to find that familiar figure in the market. She thought it must have been Harold Dibble, a name the reader had come across in the book’s first chapter, a paleolithic archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania. Now he emerged in the narrative as a mentor and friend -–“no one else had that figure, an archaeologist-foodie’s figure of a man unafraid of cooking with butter, cream, bacon and duck fat, all in the same dish. Harold was famous for hosting digs where he cooked for everyone and the wine flowed as if at the Wedding of Cana.”

The change of scene and especially the difference in tone, the brief sketching of Harold Dibble’s character and the increased richness of language, suggest that this book is actually a memoir with characters as fully developed as figures in a novel. But that doesn’t quite happen, and this alteration in tone is merely the first of many such shifts and turns that Beebe Bahrami takes in this work.

I began reading Café Neandertal because I was interested in these early human inhabitants of our planet. As the book unfolded I went with Beebe Bahrami’s story of the bodies at La Ferrassie, the paleolithic archaeologists Harold Dibble and his colleague Dennis Sandgathe, and –-briefly — filmmaker Sophie Cattoire in her “low-cut dark blue spaghetti-strap top,” and “her long, flaming red hair atop her head, accentuated further by the cherry-toned lipstick that she pulled off with the easy elegance so common among French women.” And I took in the plain, well-written information about Neandertals that surfaced now and again from the broadening narrative stream.

Neandertals lived in the Dordogne for a very, very long time before the arrival of the Cro-Magnons, our closer ancestors, the people who did those beautiful Lascaux cave paintings. The Neandertals emerged around 430,000 years ago and lasted until, say, 35,000 years ago. So they were around for about 400,000 years. The early modern humans turned up around 38,000 years ago. We know from genetic evidence that they not only overlapped with Neandertals for a few thousands of years, they also had sexual encounters with them. We who are now the sole human inheritors of the planet were preceded by a people who died away 35,000 years ago, at which time they had lived here ten times longer than we have.

There are Neandertal remains scattered from the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, eastward and northward across Iran and deep into Asia, and northward and westward into Europe, and down again to the shores of the Mediterranean. There are far more Neandertal sites – way more – than there are sites of early modern humans. The Dordogne has attracted visitor for thousands of years and, in that sense, is one of Europe’s most ancient places. Indeed, there are farms in that region where the endless annual heaving of the soil by frost and thaw, plus the seasonal plowing by farmers, leaves Neandertal stone tools lying here and there and seemingly everywhere on the surface.

But despite the Neandertals amazingly long tenure on earth we know remarkably little about them. They left their stone tools, the hacked bones of animals, and their own Neanderthal skeletons or, more precisely, their skeleton parts — sometimes an almost complete set of bones, sometimes only a few scattered pieces, a molar or the end bone of a finger. It’s hard to know how they behaved in an ordinary day, hard to make an informed guess as to whether they talked or whether they had a culture, a way of living and doing things that they shared among whatever groups they formed.

Beebe Bahrami conducts a campaign throughout this book to see the Neandertal as a different kind of human, not an inferior kind and not a twin whose humanity is so much like ours. And she tells an interesting story to illustrate her point.

In 1905 in La Chappelle-aux-Saints, in the rural foothills of the Massif Central, two Catholic priests, Jean and Amédée Bouyssonie, who were brothers and also amateur prehistorians, unearthed a complete Neandertal skeleton in a small cave. The skeleton was in a fetal-like position in a shallow pit and was surrounded and covered by stone tools. When the two country priests announced their discovery, they also reported that the internment, the position of the body and the tools left with the body in the grave – all these showed it was an intentional burial, a ritual that implied a belief in an afterlife. In other words, in the view of the Bouyssonie brothers, the Neandertals were not half-animal predecessors to us humans, they were very much like us. But when the sophisticated Parisian paleontologist Pierre-Marcellin Boule analyzed the bones, he took the skeleton’s arthritic deformity as the Neandertal’s usual stooped stance and constructed an ape-like figure.

Bahrami points out that the Bouyssonie brothers on one side, and Pierre-Marcelllin Boule on the other, were viewing the evidence through the lens of their own biases. Viewed objectively, Neandertals did not have an ape-like stoop, the so-called grave was a natural declivity covered by dirt accumulated over thousands of years, and the stone tools found scattered around the cave floor were typical of Neandertal sites which were used by different groups, sometimes separated by thousands of years, over a 400,000 year period.

Beebe Bahrami rightly dismisses the notion of Neandertals as stupid “cave men,” and goes much further, saying that to call someone a Neandertal “is known as wrong and inaccurate – indeed, racist.” Racist? On some occasions she wants to avoid our thinking of Neandertals as “others” and sub-human, and other times she wants us to view them as other, but without making them less than human. More than once she asks, “Why do they have to be like us to be smart?” She recurs again and again to the idea that Neandertals were good at adapting to nature, whereas in her view we change nature and adapt it to ourselves. Neandertals figured things out afresh when facing a problem – which is presumably good – whereas we have invented a set of rules that we follow to figure things out – which isn’t so good. Neandertals are impressive in that they were the dominant human species for 400,000 years, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they appear to have lived the same way without improving their lives much during that time.

A little more than half way through the book there’s a chapter, “Piper at the Gates if Dawn” that begins in the early morning when fog had settled into the valley and was still low, covering the ground and trees. Beebe’s friend, Didier, picks her up and they drive to a farmer’s field on a plateau outside of town. It’s a lovely passage. The field had recently been plowed and Didier shows her how, if she looks closely, she’ll be able to find stone tools that had been brought to the surface. In the soft morning light they walk the fields, picking up and placing back, stone tools from the Neolithic, Mesolithic and Upper Paleolithic. Both Beebe and Didier have the same sense of kinship with the Neandertals, they toss aside the stone tools of early modern Homo sapiens – maybe 38,000 years old – with the same indifference they feel when they came across a cigarette lighter. It’s one of many magical passages that occur in this work, story-like passages which are interrupted to introduce information on the same subject, but which have their own story that takes place elsewhere in France or at a different time.

We all make excuses for people we love. Bahrami defends the apparently gray unchanging life of Neandertals and suggests that they may have been innovative, but that they may have been bound by a conservative culture that suppressed innovation whenever it appeared, or that individual Neandertals did use symbolic thinking, symbolic acts and art, but that others refused to go along with such novel endeavors. She cites with approval the remark by an anthropologist who asked, rhetorically, “How many of us, honestly, could invent the iPhone?” A question which has no relevance whatsoever to a discussion on the unchanging life of Neandertals. “Les Homo sapiens, ils sont jamais contents,”says Didier. He goes on to say that we know very little about Neandertals and probably will never know much more:

“We have their stones,” he set the one in his hand back on the earth, “and every now and then we find a skeleton. And that’s it.” He shrugged, looked at me, and smiled gently again, and together we walked in contented silence deeper into the morning fog.

One of the curious facts that have been uncovered about Neandertals is that although they did have fires, examination of their fire pits shows that the fires occurred only in summer. Presumably, summer lightening strikes started the fires which Neandertals were able to control and maintain for a while, but they weren’t able to carry fire forward into winter. Neandertals, stocky in stature, were built with less surface area to mass than modern humans, so were able to stand frigid weather better than we can, but – face it – it would have been a step forward to have fires in winter. The Neandertal skeleton, when properly put together, shows no reason to believe they had no speech. That’s not the same as saying they had a language; so far as we know, they had the possibility of speech, but we have no way of knowing whether of not they did speak.

Ever since the discovery of Neandertal bones and artifacts in the 19th century, archeologists and paleoanthropologists have debated how Neandertals and modern humans are related. Scientists unraveled our human genome in 2003 and the sequencing of the Neandertal genome was completed in 2010. Since then we’ve learned that we share 99.7 percent of our DNA with Neandertals. On the other hand, we share 99 percent with chimpanzees, and we’re really quite different from chimps. By the way, we share 70 percent with oak trees and 50 percent with bananas. Genetics is as complex as quantum mechanics and the sheer percentage that we share with any other living thing is only the beginning of the story.

The 99.7 that we share with Neandertals is our common ancestral stock. We split from the Neandertals thousands upon thousands of years ago, and when we met again 30 or 40 thousand years ago we had evolved differently and that difference is .3 percent. It turns out that – so far as we know – we’re more closely related to Neandertals than to, say, Denisovans or any other hominids that we know about. Our early modern human ancestors not only met Neandertals, they interbred with them and each of us today has, in that .3 percent difference, inherited between 1.5 to 2.1 percent from our Neandertal ancestors. The particular Neandertal DNA in us can vary from person to person, and if you were to gather all the bits and pieces available, you’d have about 40 percent of a complete Neandertal.

There’s no way to know how many readers of Café Neandertal will feel the same kinship and love for Neandertals that Beebe Bahrami expresses. She doesn’t gloss over those early humans; she tells us about those cut marks on many Neandertal bones that indicate a stone cutting tool was used to slice away the flesh. Maybe they removed flesh as part of a funeral ritual – anthropologists know that other tribes have done so – or, as Bahrami says, they cut the flesh the better to eat it. Readers will certainly know a lot about those vanished people and, thanks to the way the author has written this book, they’ll also have a good sense of what it was like to participate in the dig at La Ferrassie.

Even the most attentive reader will have difficulty keeping the book’s calendar straight. Bahrami shifts from one year to another and yet another, then back again in order to round up pertinent information. Furthermore, as she does this she reports who gave her the information and often tells us the locale where her conversation with that person occurred, whether she’s in a café in the Dordogne or in New Jersey talking to someone by Skype. This is admirable in in a scholar, but the people talking are often mere names and such citations would be less distracting in an endnote. Unfortunately, because this book has no index, it’s virtually impossible to revisit certain passages once the page is turned.

Despite my churlish quarrels with it, Café Neandertal is a unique and important contribution to the growing literature about these forerunners of our species. Yes, this book is confusing, but only because it strives to present a multidimensional dynamic picture of the actual coming together of us and them, of the paleoanthropologists and the Neandertals in the stratified dirt of the caves, of the scientists from the United States joining those from Europe, along with the farmers and ordinary citizenry of Sarlat-la-Canéda and La Ferrassie, and the ancient landscape of Dordogne – all of these, including the mystic sensibility of the author, mixing and interacting at the same time. Beebe Bahrami is a cultural anthropologist, but as a popular writer she’s probably best known for her books on travel, and I fear that this volume will be overlooked and not seen for the remarkable work it is.

Café Neandertal is, among other things, a memoir, and though Beebe Bahrami is everywhere present in this work, she’s nowhere knowable. Of course, this book is not about Beebe Bahrami. Agreed. But in a story where the narrator takes such pleasure in the people of the Dordogne, in food, in wine, in conviviality, in working in the dirt, in handling stone tools and bone fragments, in the sound of ice cubes rattling against a whiskey glass, in certain caves, in the Dordogne – in such a book it’s simply frustrating not to know who this woman is. At one point in discussing origin stories, she mentions her Iranian mother or grandmother (I can’t find the passage) and again, near the end of the work, she alludes to the lands of her Iranian childhood. That’s interesting, isn’t it? And without being nosey, we’d like to know a little more – just a few sentences on how her life moved from Iran to the United States and to a love of Neandertals.

Fortunately, there are some winning lines in the three full pages of happy acknowledgements. I especially liked, “Thank you Birch Miles, my husband, who supported all this research even though it took me away from modern Homo sapiens and him (and even when he claimed with exaggeration to possess 5 percent Neandertal DNA to entice me to stay). She also provides a way to listen to the song Birch Miles wrote, “Neandertal Blues” which was “cut in one take in the studio with his fellow musician friends.” Bravo for that!

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.