It is hard to imagine that as recently as 30,000 years ago, the Earth was shared by at least two distinct human species — our very own Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis. Growing fossil evidence supported by the multidisciplinary work of researchers has created an astonishing body of knowledge about the Neanderthal. We now know that the world 30,000 years ago was a very different place, and that fact has captivated the scientific imagination of paleoanthropologists since the first human fossil was discovered approximately 150 years ago.
DreamWorks’ upcoming “The Croods” will take some of the first steps to bring such scientific inquiry into the realm of entertainment. The movie tells the story of a Neanderthal family who, after being forced to abandon their destroyed cave, are taken on a journey to see the light, both literally and figuratively, by a dashing, intelligent and skilled Homo sapien named Guy. The differences between the two human groups could not be more apparent. The names themselves carry a lot of subtext. Their quadrupedal walk, large brows and inability to possess advanced technologies certainly do not help this stereotype. These traits are completely false and undermine that Neanderthals were highly intelligent, tool-creating, fire-wielding individuals — formidable opponents to the ever popular Homo sapiens.
So why do we imagine Neanderthals as cave-dwelling knuckle walkers? Such confusion stems largely from paleontologist Marcellin Boule’s publication in the early 1900s. The Neanderthal specimen he analyzed and described was an elderly man who suffered from extreme arthritis, the loss of all his teeth and severe bone resorption. Such skeletal deformities were not taken into consideration in Boule’s analysis, resulting in a description that created the cave man image prevalent today. Despite the remarkable scientific discoveries that have been made regarding the Neanderthals since then, America cannot seem to shake this idea of the Neanderthal as a half-witted, stick-banging lunatic driven to extinction by the powerful brain of the Homo sapien. Narcissistic much?
Is such a caricature of our evolutionary past really worth advertising to America’s youth in this film? I honestly cannot give an answer one way or the other. Maybe I should just be glad there is a movie that acknowledges evolution and attempts to tell its story. But after reading the work of scientists, I cannot help but feel this film is a giant slap in the face to what has been done to create a prehistorically accurate picture of our past.
So, my advice is to go and see the film. After all, it is aesthetically beautiful and has a great message. Maybe you will coincidentally come away with a deeper appreciation for human evolution. Maybe, in that sense, this film is good for evolution education in America. Is this wishful thinking? Only time will tell.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, March 5 print edition. Christine Chopra is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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