Sixty Thousand Years Ago

The North Sea used to be a planar landscape; it was drowned as the waters rose, perhaps as recently as ten thousand years ago. Before that, who knows? Even now, as readers of The Rings of Saturn will have learned, the eastern coasts of England are slowly and inexorably subsiding beneath the ocean. For as long as this expanse has been harvested, all sorts of things have been dragged up along with the fish to be eaten at Dutch or German or Scandinavian or British tables. In 2001 the bone pictured above was salvaged from a catch trawled up along the Zeeland Ridges, recognised as possibly significant by a researcher and sent off for analysis. It turns out, we are told, to have belonged to a young Neanderthal male hunter who lived at the far northern limit of his species' range 60,000 years ago. Stone tools made by Neanderthals have been discovered previously in the North Sea - for example, 28 flint axes were netted eight miles off the coast of Great Yarmouth in 2008 - but this is the first human remain to come up. Human might seem a contentious word to use here but why not? Neanderthals at Shanidar in what is now Iraq buried their dead with offerings of flowers strewn on the grave. All Neanderthals might have been redheads and those of us who retain that hair colouring could thus carry their genes. As do we with the big noses that some scholars suggest allowed the cold adapted species to warm the air they breathed before it was sucked into their lungs. The most interesting thing to arise from the analysis of the North Sea bone fragment (part of the brow ridge of a skull) is that the fellow in question was an extreme carnivore. That is he ate mostly, if not exclusively, meat. And so was roughly analogous to a wolf, a bear, a lion or an eagle in respect of the food chain. A top predator. Some people think sapiens ate the neanderthals but then they would, wouldn't they? And threw the bones down somewhere where we, latterly, could find and obsess over them. The other thing that is perhaps significant is that the range of the Neanderthals corresponds with today's Europe and the Near East ... although some contemporary speculation places the species in the Americas as well. I reckon I've seen some on CityRail trains in Sydney ... or had 'em in my taxi. Ladies and gentlemen all.

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