Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Neandertal Bones, Chimpanzee Tools, and Museum Wonder

May 13, 2011

Tuesday afternoon I spent suffused in delight, surrounded by bones and stones. As an end-of-semester reward-to-self, I visited the Hall of Human Evolution at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington. Opened just last year, the Hall is teeming with up-to-date skeletal material, cultural artifacts, and contextual information in the form of graphics, mini-videos, and a welcoming “Time Tunnel.” As museum-goers enter the exhibit space through the Tunnel, we see moving images related to the last 7 million years of human prehistory—an approach that I loved for its invitation to view our ancestors as mobile, dynamic, and social-living creatures.

The Hall itself is organized beautifully as a series of compelling answers to the question, What makes us human? No shock, given my own work, I was drawn most to the “social life” and “symbolic communication” displays. Yet as the inevitable hordes of field-trip-giddy students flowed around me, I stood for an equally long while at the bones of Shanidar 3, a male Neandertal who had lived in Iraq sometime around 60,000 years ago.

I learned not only the man’s height and age at death (5’6”, 40-50 years), but also that his diet had been plant-based—judging both from the composition of the plaque on his molar teeth and from the chemical analyses of his bones. On his 9th left rib, a partially healed stab wound was (barely) visible. The museum graphic explained, “He suffered from arthritis and most likely died from a stab wound to his chest,” and speculated that he might have been the world’s first victim of homicide (or attempted homicide).

For someone like me, who goes around saying “Within bioanthropology, it’s not anatomy but behavior that I’m into,” the presentation of this skeleton was a brilliant reminder of the behavioral signatures left on bone.

Unexpectedly, I was most moved at a display case that featured chimpanzee tools from West Africa: a spear for hunting bushbabies in Senegal; a dipper for capturing ants in Guinea; and a hammerstone-and-anvil for cracking nuts also in Guinea. All the tools had been actively used by chimpanzees. Staring at them, I felt a singular connection – one of resourcefulness, purpose, and intelligence - with individual apes in the wild I’ll never know.

What powerful moments these were. By far, most of the materials exhibited in the Hall of Human Evolution are casts, models, and replicas. It could hardly be otherwise, and the exhibit curators are to be commended for arranging these items in a coherent and evocative manner. Still, I was most flooded with feeling when standing in front of Shanidar 3 or the chimpanzee tools (or the occasional other original item, such as an inscribed piece of ochre from prehistoric France).

It’s akin to climbing a spiral staircase, though, in thinking this subject through. Consider the worlds of art and literature. I agree with Christiana, a reader who left a comment in a 2010 blog post written by Christine Spier of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Christiana said, in part:

Even if two works of art are physically the same — an original, say, and an exact copy — they feel profoundly different to me. The fact that I know it’s a [genuine or original] object makes me actually take the time to stop, look, and appreciate. Maybe that’s the real difference between real, fake, and replica — it’s the observer that’s different, not the object.

This rings true—we desire to see Monet’s waterlily paintings and not copies of Monet’s work, however expertly rendered the copies might be. And yes, in front of the chimpanzee tools, my observer’s mind kicked in, and supplied for itself images of chimpanzees bushbaby-hunting, ant-dipping, and nut-cracking. The “thing” of each tool, a static item behind glass, became under my gaze part of a very dynamic complex – a Batesonian complex (see Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson’s 1972 book) where the tool was not a mere item wielded by an ape but instead an inextricable part of an ape who had become a tool-maker growing up in a social community.

But there’s another spiral turn, because my imagination flares just as readily every single day when I hold a sort of replicant in my hand: a book. I’ve just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. For 600 pages I’d been enthralled with the fantastic doings in a young man’s Tokyo life. But the book I held was, of course, mass-produced, and never touched by Murakami’s pen. Further, in my paperback copy there’s a note: the novel was “translated and adapted from the Japanese by Jay Rubin with the participation of the author.” Creativity went into this replicant, then, making it a not-replicant-after all, but something different again, something even more removed from “the original.” And yet none of this diminished my love of the story.

Tuesday’s museum visit set me to thinking about all sorts of issues beyond human prehistory--and to feeling about our intensely social, clever, techno-savvy chimpanzee kin.


  1. May 13, 2011 11:48 AM EDT
    I just read your Smithsonian blog and it made me homesick! I have not gone to NMNH for some time, and have hesitated to go because the renovated Hall of Mammals includes a beautifully prepared mount of Tucker orangutan, who I knew from birth. The museum people were incredibly thoughtful, and called the zoo to warn us that Tucker would be on display - so touching that they would understand our relationship and consider our feelings, even though he had been dead for many months at this point. I have seen photographs, and the preparation is incredibly beautiful, and doesn't really look like the Tucker I knew. But it seemed ironic to me, as I wrote this, that this may be one of those rare cases where seeing the original is not the preferred experience...perhaps I will be able to go one day...
    - Melanie Bond
  2. May 13, 2011 12:07 PM EDT
    Melanie- I had no idea Tucker was in the Hall of Mammals. You are so right, seeing the original in this case could be emotionally searing. It's interesting that you mention this whole aspect, because after leaving the Hall of Human Evolution, I stood for some time at a gigantic and beautiful bison in the Hall of Mammals. I thought a bit about how I of course didn't know him as an individual, but that I know enough to know he WAS an individual with a personality, etc. Charlie and I are returning to the Smithosnian at some point in the next few months and I will, I think, pay my respects to Tucker.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. May 13, 2011 3:42 PM EDT
    You write such good thoughtful blogs, Barbara. I see how dull my imagination is. I went to that exhibition and got quite different thoughts and feelings, but I did not think to write them down. I was tremendously impressed at the large numbers of visitors who wanted to be photographed with the bronze sculptures of Australopithecines. The sculptures were an outstanding feature of the exhibition. So my feeling was quite different from yours in that something that was two steps of production away from the original (cast of skeletal remains, 3D reconstruction in bronze), and three away from the "real" original (the animal itself) was evidently more moving to the general public.
    On the other hand, I could not forgive them for repeating the flower bit of the Shanidar corpse (and not mentioning that it may have been killed by the falling roof) but that is just me (and Rob Gargett for the roof fall, and many others for the flowers).
    Then again, returning to the replica versus original question, the replica of Lascaux is, I was once told, the second most popular tourist destination in France after the Pyramidal entrance to the Louvre. Of course there is a bias about what is a destination: "Provence" is not quite so easily tied down. But here a replica does have fantastic force (not as great as the original, but it seems likely few will ever see that again). On the other hand the replica of Niaux in the Pyrenees has little force because the emphasis has been on the replication of the paintings and not the emotional experience that is provided by the experience of getting to see them and the feeling of the space they are in.
    - Iain Davidson
  4. May 13, 2011 4:08 PM EDT
    I wonder if you, Iain- or anyone!- know(s) how much we bloggers yearn to be (intelligently) prodded to rethink-- or outright disagreed with. Thanks for the great response. It's funny that you mention the tourists' response to australopithecine sculptures; on my day at the Hall, the most popular exhibit wasn't an exhibit at all, but the photo booth where a person can see "what you'd look like as a human ancestor" by some sort of transformation process. I'm not sure what THAT says exactly.

    More importantly, I think you're completely right: some replicas would move me clear to tears, and Lascaux II would be one of them I am sure, should I be lucky enough to see it. As with most things, then, I'm inconsistent- but then again, that was kind of the point of my post, to acknowledge a sort of inconsistency.

    Lastly, I am still in 2011, when I teach, fighting the Shanidar flower burial "factoid"! WHY won't that die... anywhere?! But now, at least, the graphic in that display case DOES offer this: "Shanidar 3," it says, "was buried either by his group or by a rockfall."
    - Barbara J. King
  5. May 13, 2011 4:37 PM EDT
    I missed that text about Shanidar 3.

    What you raise is tremendously important about the whole business of the uses of the past. I have done a lot of stuff recently about cultural heritage preservation. We routinely preserve stuff because it is now/still pretty and has a "good" story attached to it. Cambridge MA is full of that stuff. There are two classic stories: the Paul Revere house is there (well, Boston, not Cambridge), and is now a popular tourist destination. I did not know until I went to Cambridge that the story of Paul Revere and the Old North Church (also still there) was almost unknown for nearly a century until Longfellow wrote his poem (and people somehow got past the poor scansion of the first stanza). Then the Paul Revere heritage took off. So the story is really important (hence the Shanidar flowers).
    The second place is the Longfellow House on Brattle St. It is quite pretty, and has a nice garden and a great view. And I suppose if you are into Longfellow it is important. And even I had to read bits of Hiawatha as a kid in England (though mostly enjoyed the parody "furside inside"). What blew me away was that one of the reasons Longfellow wanted to buy the house in the first place was that it was Washington's headquarters during the revolution. That is SO much more moving than the "under this tree Washington received his orders" on Cambridge Common--the tree is 20 years old. So why is the Longfellow House not more of a place of reverence. I do not know. And there is a tiny area devoted to Washington in the house. It includes a discussion of the Washington family crest from England. I first saw that in the stained glass of Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, near where I grew up. It has a couple of stars and a couple of stripes. But the commentators are keen to say that this was not the inspiration for the US flag. REALLY? How can you know? Why are people so insistent on protecting that little fact when they are not so keen on other little facts being correct. I do not know.
    But I am damn (can I say that on your blog?) sure it is an important part of our understanding of the nature of the story telling that we are all engaged in. How do we select the facts that get into our stories and how do people decide that they want to hear our bunch of facts and not someone else's? And sure, emotions come in to it. I had a shiver down my spine knowing that Washington had lived in the Longfellow house but no emotion at all about Longfellow, fine poet though he may have been. And then, the old north bridge at Concord is one of the most moving places.
    But outside the Old North Church was another little memorial which moved me. It consists of rack where vets have hung their dogtags. All very recent. I think it is really important and a place that I will surely go back to. Curiously I took a photo of it which is on my Flickr page. Hardly anyone has looked at it. Why? Well, at least one reason is that there is no story attached to it. These things do not sell themselves, any more than those people would be excited by Australopithecines if they had never been sold to them as human ancestors rather than the apes they really were.
    - Iain Davidson
  6. May 13, 2011 5:55 PM EDT
    Oddly, perhaps, the more I read about Washington and Longfellow the more I thought about chimpanzees and bonobos. (You see my mind does tend to veer towards apes rather readily.) My students (when they come to me, less so when they leave me, I hope) know all about "chimpanzees make war, bonobos make love" because that is a story about our closest living relatives and our past that has taken root nowadays. It's so much more interesting than "chimpanzees and bonobos on average may differ in their temperment, but no creature lives 'on average' so what's important is understanding the individual ape in his or her local context'". My second response is that it's been far too long since I've been in New England (for more than a day for a conference in Boston) and that I need to get to the Longfellow House-- for reasons not-so-Longfellow. All this IS anthropology....
    - Barbara J. King
  7. May 13, 2011 6:33 PM EDT
    Indeed. The whole question of memorialising is something that may need revisiting--or maybe I just do not know an existing literature. I think my take on it would be very anthropological and it is one of the ideas I am ruminating on for a book
    - Iain Davidson
  8. May 13, 2011 9:23 PM EDT
    For ease of finding the dog tags photo I have put it into the set of pics called Boston May 2009.
    - Iain Davidson
  9. May 13, 2011 9:40 PM EDT
    Iain, do you know the work of Paul Basu? You may have to cut and paste this
    I have colleagues who are really into this literature. As you know I'm interested in your book ideas. Will seek out photos in the morning; thank you!
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.