stick figures = Rembrandt Because!

Looks as if Neanderthals did some non-representaional cave drawings. Or they represent something we don’t recognize. Good for them.

I see people say this implies they were just like us. Somehow, any capability for symbolism – say, as much as an average three year old -implies that the population had just as much capacity for advanced symbolic thought as the most accomplished modern populations. ” Behavioral modernity” & “the psychic unity of mankind”

That make no sense. Not even a little bit. Instead of telling us something about the intelligence of Neanderthals (who still had a simple and slow-progressing toolkit, compared to some modern humans), it tells you something – something sad – about the mental capabilities of the anthropologists mouthing this nonsense.

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57 Responses to stick figures = Rembrandt Because!

  1. Smithie says:

    In prehistoric times…

    “Moral arc of the universe” was what they said before they threw you into a volcano. “Psychic unity of mankind” was what they said afterward.

  2. Jim says:

    Equalitarianism implies that Neanderthals are our equals. Bertrand Russell once said the equalitarianism would eventually lead to the slogan “Votes for oysters”.

  3. pyrrhus says:

    Ha! “Good for them.” Billy Bob Thornton, Fargo, Season 1.

  4. JayMan says:

    Many say the same things about animal intelligence whenever they demonstrate a newly seen ability.

  5. dave chamberlin says:

    As soon as it was announced that we have Neanderthal ancestors a funny thing happened. Pictures of Neanderthals changed from thug like apemen to ruggedly handsome guys with winning smiles and pronounced brow ridges. Their skulls hadn’t changed a bit but now that they were our ancestors magically their looks improved immensely. We bred so they were our equals, or so some people believed.

    I never bought it and I never trusted the “experts” who said this. Neanderthals and humans they bred with 50,000 plus years ago were incapable of modern behaviors. Period. If they were capable then by God they sure were good at hiding all the cool stuff they made.

    • pyrrhus says:

      On behalf of the 4% of me that is Neanderthal (according to 23andMe) I resent that…If it were 50,000 years ago, and if I had a club…..

    • another fred says:

      To be fair, some, John Hawks, e.g., had been arguing for some time before the DNA evidence that Neanderthals were getting a bad rap.

    • The Z Blog says:

      I don’t think William D. Hamilton was that bad looking. Sure, he had that unfrozen caveman anthropologist look to him, he did not look thuggish.

    • karl william liebhardt says:

      “Pictures of Neanderthals changed from thug like apemen to ruggedly handsome guys with winning smiles and pronounced brow ridges.” like david lee roth?

    • Senator Brundlefly says:

      That’s pretty much been the trend with all paleoart. Dinosaurs went from sluggish Charles R Knight reptilian failures to active, successful animals that were unlucky enough to face an asteroid in the Dinosaur Renaissance. It’s reflective of the underlying philosophy of natural history changing. There isn’t a Great Chain of Being from inferior to superior. There’s simply lifeforms currently suited to their particular time and place. I don’t think we should portray Neanderthals as stupid, inferior versions of ourselves. Granted, I don’t think we should do a whole “Noble Savage” thing either. Just show them for what they were. Neanderthals making art is pretty cool for a Neanderthal. Just like a New Caledonian crow making a tool is pretty cool for a bird or an elephant possibly mourning its dead is pretty cool and profound for an elephant. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that the minds of other animals are more complex than we’ve given them credit for in the past. It certainly doesn’t make them our equals deserving of rights, but I do think it entitles them to a certain modicum of respect.

  6. Bob says:

    Would be interesting to get your thoughts on Robert Zubrin’s recent essay critiquing the Drake equation. Zubrin reworks the equation to argue that there should be lots of aliens out there:

    • Ursiform says:

      This suffers from the same problem as the original Drake equation: there are parameters we don’t know to the right order of magnitude. The answer you get out is the answer you assume in.

    • Smithie says:

      The trouble with the Drake equation is that it is tempting to add in almost infinite variables that must represent fractions, but for which we have no real data. Do you need a Luna-sized moon to stir the pot? No one has any idea.

  7. Enjoyable comments thus far, but let me dissent. They were at least at the level of performance artist Sandrine Schaefer

  8. MawBTS says:

    Lots of animals exhibit artistry. Bowerbirds decorate their nests. Elephants paint and draw. In the 60s, the art world acclaimed the paintings of Pierre Brassau as masterpieces of the avant-garde. Much embarrassment ensued when “Pierre Brassau” was revealed to be a chimpanzee from the local zoo. (No, I’m not kidding.)

    It’s interesting, because it indicates that art-making might be an adaptive behavior. Ellen Dissanayake wrote a book called Homo Aestheticus, arguing that art is a way we keep assign importance to things in our environment. It could be true. What are common subjects for art? Food. Animals. Natural disasters such as floods and fires. Beautiful women.

    But I don’t think artmaking is intrinsically human. It wouldn’t matter if the Neanderthals
    really did make paintings as good as Rembrandt’s. Neural nets produce paintings that look similar to his. So what? They’re still machines.

  9. Warren Notes says:

    You just haven’t read enough pre-modernist art theory.

  10. wilson says:

    Stick figures my ass:

    There are old people who wander out of the house in the same general direction night after night, and their adult children or, if they’re wealthy and lucky, their attendants, have to keep getting them and dragging them back to the house. This blog is starting to be like that.

    • gcochran9 says:

      The ones you mention are not the ones dated back to Neanderthals.

      “Ladder-like shapes, dots and handprints were painted and stenciled deep in caves at three sites in Spain.”

      ‘Stick figures’ was being generous. You were saying?

  11. Yudi says:

    Greg! Psychometrician Heiner Rinderman has just authored a book about IQ in history and today, and its role in economic development. Since you’ve reviewed some of the books he discusses in his work, it’d be great if you could read and review it. Set up a Patreon and we can help you buy it, since the price is steep.

  12. Joel says:

    These don’t quite look like childlike stick figures. Either the dating is wrong, or we’re wrong about when modern humans showed up, or Neanderthals are smarter than we thought.

    Or there was somebody else around.

    • Joel says:

      My money is on bad dating. At least in the early 1900s drawing of the picture (was it better preserved then?) it looks a hell of a lot like an animal pen next to some crops and water. The man next to it has some sort of complicated kit too.

      • Smithie says:

        TBH, I just formed my opinion from the photos. Probably a bad move on my part.

        The Mona Lisa would look pretty bad in 60,000 years. But based on the drawing, I’d say either the dating is wrong, or we are vastly wrong about the era.

        • Colastrim says:

          Comparing renaissance portraiture to Jackson Pollock 60,000 years from now could lead to some serious questions about dating too.

          To be fair cave scratchings are probably the only thing that would last that length of time. Leather canvases and wood carving may have been the standard artistic mediums, but they would never survive six-hundred centuries. And if they did, they’re now buried in sediment 40 miles offshore.

      • engleberg says:

        @it looks a hell of a lot like an animal pen next to some crops and water. The man next to it has some some sort of complicated kit too.

        Yeah, I’m trying to remember Ragnar Benson’s and Tom Brown’s animal trap designs. Neanderthals could be pretty dumb and still notice it’s easier to spear a deer after it falls in a hole with a pointed stick at the bottom. Stick figures don’t equal Rembrandt, but they could equal blueprints for a simple trap.

    • another fred says:

      If you take the figure on the right and rotate it 90 degrees CCW and then squint just right it looks like a helicopter.


    • Greying Wanderer says:

      stone age HP Lovecraft story – sitting in a cave hiding from Mi-Go

    • TWS says:

      It’s a plow.

  13. Anuseed says:

    Do we know for certain that they were made by Neanderthals? Is it possible that there were some small populations of Homo sapiens in Europe at the time?

  14. Smithie says:

    If we knew this was the best that they had to offer, I think that would be pretty definitive proof that they did not have the same faculty for language – no artists and no art critics.

    Devil’s advocate though: humans also scribbled and did hand stencils. They probably took over all the old neanderthal sites and may have scraped the paint off to rid themselves of neanderthal juju.

  15. Cpluskx says:

    Greg Cochran is so anti-Neanderthal.

  16. dave chamberlin says:

    Regarding our interbreeding with Neanderthals this paper by the Reich team fascinates me.

    I am sure Cochran can interpret this better than I can but it makes my pet theory that our hybridization with Neanderthals helped to make us quite a bit smarter thanks to their intelligence enhancing alleles much less likely. Basal Eurasians had little to no Neanderthal DNA and not only did they survive they contributed greatly to the first populations that kick started the agricultural revolution.

    Besides that another piece of evidence further deflates my pet theory, Neanderthal DNA was selected out of our modern day DNA in multiple areas influencing intelligence. Oh well, so much for my being anything more than an interested dilettante in these complex matters.

  17. dearieme says:

    I have no views on representations by Neanderthals. But ever since I was a boy I have been highly sceptical of representations of Neanderthals and of sundry other varieties of humans and near-humans, and even just of historical humans, and of the likes of Cheddar Man.

    There’s a recent book called something like “What Did Jesus Look Like?” Assuming Jesus is a historical figure (which I think quite plausible) the answer is still “we don’t know, we shall probably never know, and anyway why on earth would it matter?”. I know of only one clue in the NT and it’s not a very interesting one. And anyway you’d have to assume that that particular bit of the NT is a historical/biographical bit rather than a theological/folkloristic/fictional bit.

    • MawBTS says:

      I know of only one clue in the NT and it’s not a very interesting one.

      Yes, in 1 Corinthians 11:14 Paul castigates men who have long hair. Improbable if Jesus himself had long hair, as is popularly depicted.

      But Paul never met Jesus, so maybe he didn’t know either.

      • dearieme says:

        I discount Paul for just the reason you gave. The bit that someone I was reading commented on was that to identify Jesus to the cops Judas had to kiss him. That wouldn’t have been necessary if Jesus had been out-of-the-ordinary for his time e.g. particularly tall, short, fat, crippled …..

      • syonredux says:

        “But Paul never met Jesus, so maybe he didn’t know either.”

        True. But Paul did know people who knew Jesus (Peter, etc). One assumes that he would have asked them about his physical appearance.That being the case, I think that it’s reasonable to assume that Jesus did not have long hair.

        • dearieme says:

          Ah yes, he’d also met James, Jesus’ brother.

          A letter in this morning’s Telegraph claimed that Josephus described him as a 4’6″ (3 cubits) hunchback with a frighteningly ugly face. How tall were Neanderthals?

          Whenever people ask why if aliens are common they never visit us I usually say that it’s because the last one who came was nailed to a cross.

  18. epoch2013 says:

    The fact that FOXP2 in humans is a Neanderthal “desert” while it looks like it is selected for in Neanderthals with human admixture (see Kuhlwilm) speaks for itself.

  19. skid says:

    The thing on the upper left / middle looks like a guy doing an “upper decker.”

    Maybe pigs are humans, too “pig casso” LOL:

  20. brokenyogi says:

    Much of our Neanderthal DNA is in regions of our genome that are relatively inactive, and are being slowly weeded out by natural selection.

  21. jamzw says:

    The brain is a major consumer of precious calories. Neanderthal had a very large brain in a calorie challenged environment, which he negotiated for several hundred thousand years. Work that out for me. So I assume, for the moment, that he is very intelligent. Still, we have reason to believe he had no art, was in no way artistic. Since it is judged from the tendon grooves worn on his shoulders that he evolved strength two and one half times greater than homo sapien, it might be seen that his breeding selected for strength and all things related to strength, while homo sapien selected for characteristics that included those that might arm the weak.
    Goethe observed the nature of women to be closely allied with art. What we assume to be a sign of intelligence (no doubt it is) is also a signature of the feminine (indeed homosexual males are not unfamiliar with all the arts.) Neanderthal culture was surely, if nothing else, entirely masculine. The meek did inherit the earth, artistically and cunningly. Thanks, girls!

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “The brain is a major consumer of precious calories. Neanderthal had a very large brain in a calorie challenged environment, which he negotiated for several hundred thousand years. Work that out for me.”

      like big cats maybe – make occasional very big kills and sleep most of the rest of the time

    • Marshall Lentini says:


  22. Greying Wanderer says:

    neanderthals don’t need to have been smarter or even as smart to have been a critical part of the evolution of intelligence – they just need to have had something which when combined with something else had an explosive effect i.e. genetic C-4.

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