The rise and fall of our Neanderthal cousins.Jun 1, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 36 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
Pity the poor Neanderthals, our prehistoric cousins. The first Neanderthal fossils were discovered in a place of that name in Germany in 1856. Archaeologists have since turned up fossils ranging from Protoneanderthals and Transition Neanderthals to Classic Neanderthals at about 75 sites from Western Europe to Central Asia. In examining the recovered fossils, tools, and other remains, archaeologists have attempted to reconstruct the lives, habitats, and habits of these archaic humans. Since all living non-Africans share, on average, 2.5 percent Neanderthal DNA, the question of their relationship to modern humans has fascinated scholars and the public alike.
There have been two theories concerning the disappearance of Neanderthals from the archaeological record about 30,000 years ago. One ascribes a primary role to the effects of radical and wildly fluctuating temperatures during a climate phase known as Oxygen Isotope Stage 3 (OIS3) on the environment and, thus, on the lives of Neanderthals. A climate downturn from 40,000 years ago coincides with their decline. Since Neanderthals had already lived in Eurasia for up to 200,000 years, during which time they had experienced and adapted to many glacial cycles, we are talking about really extreme weather, the likes of which Earth has not again experienced.
Modern humans moved out of Africa and into Europe about 40,000 years ago, during OIS3. Thus, Homo sapiens plays a major role in the second theory, which posits that the short, stocky, barrel-chested Neanderthals were forced to compete for woolly mammoths and cave bears with the more agile and leaner humans, who also carried assault weapons in the form of spears and other projectiles. Human-mediated extinction is the premise of The Invaders, with a twist. As the hyperbolic title proclaims, it was the “invading” humans and their dogs that did in the Neanderthals. Homo sapiens, Pat Shipman writes, is “unquestionably predatory.” We are in the territory of Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent Sixth Extinction (2014).
In this paleo-anthropological approach, Shipman, a retired professor of anthropology, marshals a benumbing amount of research on radiocarbon dating of fossils, chronology, genome sequencing, isotope stages, and such subjects as intraguild competition (“competitive exclusion”) and canid domestication. (This book is not for the fainthearted, and it is much in need of tables and graphs.) Shipman discusses what these new investigative techniques reveal about Neanderthal demise. She concedes, for instance, that “the severe bout of climatic deterioration” that began occurring about 45,000 years ago and that wiped out much of the vegetation behind which Neanderthals carried out their hunting gave the newly arrived humans and their projectiles a “substantial edge.”
She draws support for the human-mediated theory from the current field of “invasive biology,” which studies the effects of introducing species into (or removing species from) an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, there is invariably an “apex consumer” whose predatory habits keep the food hierarchy in circulation, while invasive species, as Shipman writes, disturb the balance and are “a major contributing factor in many and possibly most extinctions.”
Her proxy evidence for the effect of a new “apex predator” within an ecosystem, and thus for the disappearance of Neanderthals, is contained in her chapter on Yellowstone National Park. Before Yellowstone’s designation as a national park in 1872, most of the indigenous tribal peoples had been driven off the land. The incoming white humans eliminated their chief remaining rival, wolves, according to a policy endorsed by ranchers and the federal government. The removal of wolves, however, led to an overabundance of elk, which, in turn, caused degradation to rangeland. The number of coyotes also soared, since they were freed from suppression by their main competitors for prey. In the mid-1990s, 31 gray wolves from two Canadian parks were “released into [Yellowstone] to restore the natural balance of the original ecosystem before settlement by people of mostly European ancestry.” Elk numbers fell, while coyotes were immediately killed and driven away by the wolves, improving (among other things) “the survival rate of fawns of pronghorn antelope considerably.”
I am a layperson, but it strikes me as specious to compare the Yellowstone ecological “event”—which took place within a little more than a century and, moreover, was orchestrated by humans—with events that occurred over a time span of millennia and that cannot be directly observed.
The not-so-secret Chinese strategy for global supremacy. Jun 1, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 36 • By ALEXANDER GRAY
Warning against the threat from China has been a staple of national security literature since at least the late 1990s. This genre typically begins by compiling a list of the most alarming statistics related to China’s economic potential, military advancements, and global misdeeds—environmental degradation, cyberattacks, support for rogue regimes, and human rights abuses, to name a few—before informing readers that the United States must act now before it is too late.
Backstage at the Renaissance was a dangerous place to be.May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
The most famous improvised lines in the history of the movies are the ones Orson Welles came up with while playing Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949): “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Meeting at Potsdam but thinking of Versailles.
May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
Some treaties put a definitive end to wars and establish an enduring new order among states. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30 years of religious warfare that ravaged Europe in the early 17th century, was one of those. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which concluded World War I without setting up lasting stability on the European continent, was of another kind.
A second introduction to a master of the mysterious.
May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By CATHY YOUNG
A middle-aged company man on a business trip in 1970s England gets lost miles from the nearest town and, running out of gas near nightfall, takes refuge at a hostel, where things go from weird to worse.
The irresistible rise of Saul Bellow.May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Saul Bellow died in 2005, a few years after he was accorded full biographical treatment by the critic James Atlas. In 700 pages, Atlas provided a crisply written, fair-minded account of the novelist and fellow Chicagoan up through the publication of his final book, Ravelstein (2000). With some notable exceptions (Richard Poirier and James Wood), the biography was well received.
Words and pictures for your parents’ Constitution. May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By TARA HELFMAN
In explaining the process of design to an audience at Harvard, Charles Eames once resorted to parable. In India, he explained, people of the lowest caste would eat off banana leaves. People a bit higher up the social scale would eat off a ceramic dish whose shape was inspired by the banana leaf. Moving even farther up the social scale, these dishes—talis—might be elegantly glazed or made of fine bronze.
The good, the bad, and Magna Carta. May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By ANN MARLOWE
In Ivanhoe, Prince John is thoroughly repugnant, displaying “a dissolute audacity, mingled with extreme haughtiness and indifference to the feelings of others,” as well as a “libertine disposition.” According to Stephen Church, Walter Scott’s character is “almost wholly a later concoction”—except, presumably, for the love of fine clothes and jewelry that Scott depicts and Church’s archival evidence proves. The reality revealed here is even rougher.
On the trail of Tobias Wolff’s debut novel.
May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By GRAHAM HILLARD
In the spring of 2011, I ditched the academic conference that had brought me to Washington and took the Metro to the Library of Congress. With apologies to the Lincoln Memorial, the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building is surely the most beautiful structure in that great city: a marvel of Italianate brilliance rising out of the First Street bustle.
Newman the educator, in theory and practice. May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By EDWARD SHORT
In the debate about what needs to be done to make university education more coherent and more effective, no figure is cited more frequently than John Henry Newman, whose classic study The Idea of a University (1873) tackles educational questions that still exercise would-be reformers.
Arthur Vandenberg and the end of GOP isolationism.May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
It may be counterintuitive to imagine cheers for a conservative midwestern Republican senator from Democratic partisans, but during the early years of the Cold War, Arthur H. Vandenberg routinely received such accolades. Breaking with the isolationist right of his own party, the Michigan senator functioned for six years as the Republican enabler of Harry Truman’s efforts to contain Soviet expansionism. Lawrence S.
A memoir of Martin Walser’s coming-of-age.
May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
Since 1945, the top echelon of German literature has been dominated by a cadre of writers and critics who were children when Hitler came to power and on the brink of adulthood when the war was over. After two years in limbo, it fell to them, as members of the fabled literary Group 47, to restore the moral credibility of Germany’s high culture. And they executed this task in a tense pas de deux with the man who had been appointed Germany’s literary pope: Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Polish Jew born in 1920 who had survived the Warsaw ghetto.
The scientist as public intellectual.May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
This year is the centenary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and the occasion for revisiting that momentous discovery by paying tribute to one of the most famous scientists of modern times. Steven Gimbel’s brief book is a welcome contribution to that event, placing Einstein in his “space and times,” as his subtitle has it. “It was relativity,” he declares, “that made Einstein Einstein”—that gave the scientist the authority (the standing, a jurist might say) to pronounce on public affairs.
The biographical drama of Eugene O’Neill.May 4, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 32 • By JOHN SIMON
Tolstoy’s famous dictum—the second half of it, anyway—that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” certainly applies to the O’Neills, in spades. Though our concern here is with the playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), the miseries of his father, James, his mother, Mary (known as Ella), and his sibling, Jamie, were spectacular enough in their respective ways, as Eugene’s supreme autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, makes abundantly clear.
Efficiency shrinks while government grows.
May 4, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 32 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
I had my first reckoning with big government in a small town in New Jersey. The incident remains startlingly fresh in my mind, although it was years ago. A traffic island on a main road, perhaps 20 feet in length, was being demolished. Perched above the brightly vested construction workers was a white metal sign with black letters. The cost of the project was close to $500,000, much of it provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation. I was gobsmacked. The community’s average household income was north of $100,000.