Thursday, May 23, 2013


I wear my grandmother’s wedding ring. She was born—in, of all places, Pottstown, Pennsylvania—in 1883 and she married my grandfather in 1907. I have their wedding invitation framed and hanging on the wall of our living room. (They were married on November 10th of that year at my great-grandparents’ home at 60 East 113th Street.) I have their ketubbah as well, also framed and hanging in our home. And I have the ring they used at their ceremony, and which my grandmother then wore, as far as I know, every day of her life until she died a few months before my bar-mitzvah in 1966. The ring passed into my mother’s hands, and then, when she died, into my father’s. So my dad had two wedding rings to give us, and to this day Joan wears my mothers’ and I wear her mother’s. It’s nice being connected to the past in that specific way, feeling her presence from time to time just by noticing the ring on my ring finger.  I didn’t know either of my grandfathers. My other grandmother passed away when I was just four years old. So the grandmother whose ring I wear is my only real connection to the world from which she came, a world different in so many different ways from our own.  What East 113th Street looked like in 1907, I have a reasonably clear idea. (I’ve never seen a picture of that specific block, but there are loads of photographs of Manhattan at the turn of the century to give someone like myself the general idea.) The ghosts are surely real, but sometimes you can feel the reality of people loved and lost in their absence simply by contemplating some specific thing they left behind.

But there are artifacts and there are artifacts! My grandmother’s ring surely counts as one. But just this week there was an announcement regarding something seriously older than my grandma’s ring, something left behind by someone who lived and died about 30,000 years earlier.

When I was growing up, referring to someone as a Neanderthal was not a compliment. (One of my friends once had to serve detention for referring a bit too loudly to one of our stricter gym teachers that way.) But it turns out that, as is so often the case with respect to the language of casual disdain, that usage may have been a bit hasty. The real Neanderthals—named for the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf in Germany (the German for “Neander Valley” is Neandertal, formerly spelled Neanderthal) where their fossilized bones were first unearthed and identified—turn out not to have been such bad guys at all. Mind you, we don’t know all there is to know about them. Anthropologists aren’t even united on whether they should properly be characterized as a subspecies of Homo sapiens (the species to which we ourselves belong) or a separate species of the same genus.  But whether the Neanderthals are correctly to be called Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or just Homo neanderthalensis, the bottom line is that they were around for a very long time, appearing in Europe somewhere between 350,000 and 600,000 years ago, and becoming extinct—although not quite completely—something like 30,000 years ago. Nor is the “not quite completely” part is a detail to be passed by lightly: results of efforts to map the Neanderthal genome in 2010 yielded the surprising conclusion that at least 2.5%  and possibly as much as 4% of the genetic material carried by modern non-African human beings today was inherited directly from the Neanderthals, probably through cross-breeding between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals when the former arrived in Europe on their journey out of Africa somewhere between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago. So, like so many other things in life, they’re gone and also not gone…because, at least a little bit, they are us.  Or rather, to say the same thing more clearly and more challengingly, we are they.

Among the bits and pieces of fossilized remains that constitute all—other than ourselves—that’s left of the Neanderthals is a single child’s tooth, a molar, found at an archeological site in Belgium. That, in and of itself, is amazing enough a fact to give pause—I don’t know what happened to my own milk teeth (perhaps the Tooth Fairy still has them), yet this one tooth has survived as a sole dental sentinel still, after all these countless millennia, bearing witness to a world that came and went, to a world like and unlike our own, to a world inhabited by some version of who we are—people slightly shorter, far stronger, and possessed of brains about the size of our own who somehow became part of who we are. But it’s what scientists have managed to learn from this one tiny tooth that’s the truly amazing part.

It turns out that researchers in Sydney and New York (the locals affiliated with the Carl Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan) have learned successfully to exploit the fact that the age at which a child is weaned from its mother’s breast can be determined after the fact with reference to the presence of trace-levels of barium in the tooth’s enamel.  Why that is exactly, who knows? But by studying the data, the scientists in question, whose work was published earlier this week in the journal Nature, determined that the child from whose mouth the tooth originally came was weaned from the breast at 1.2 years of age. That’s 1.2 years of age…more than 30,000 years ago. (By way of comparison, the average age of weaning in non-industrial countries today is, at 2.5 years of age, more than twice that. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers nurse their babies for a minimum of six months. Among other primates, the suckling period is much longer: wild chimpanzees, for example, wean their young at about 5.3 years.)  The conclusions published in Nature were not universally accepted.  One Michael Richards, a specialist in the study of ancient bones and teeth at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (and clearly not the guy from Seinfeld), wondered aloud in response to the publication of the article how the researchers could be sure the barium hadn’t seeped into the tooth from the soil in which it was embedded for tens of thousands of years. Other scientists held back for different reasons from fully endorsing these new findings.  But, aware of those demurrals, I still found myself drawn to the article and its findings.

We truly do live in an age of miracles. A child loses a tooth, and 30,000 years later—or rather, 30,000 years later at least—someone in Belgium picks it up.  Instead of mistaking it for a tiny chip of stone, this person somehow recognizes it as a fossilized tooth. Then, after somehow figuring out that the age at which a baby is weaned from its mother’s breast can be determined after the fact by analyzing the traces of barium left behind in the enamel coating of the child’s teeth, scientists determine that the child from whose mouth that tooth came was weaned from mother’s milk at 1.2 years of age. Just like that!

Did the child have a name?  Almost definitely it would have! The Neanderthals spoke and used some kind of language to communicate. (Interested readers may wish to consult University of Reading archeology professor Steven Mithen’s book, The Singing Neanderthals, published by Harvard University Press in 2007 for more information on the Neanderthals’ language. I haven’t read it myself…but I will!) They lived in communities and when they were injured they nursed each other back to health. When they died, surviving members of their communities buried them. They were, in short, some version of us possessed of slightly larger and differently shaped brains. So the child had parents and probably siblings. The child lived in a community. And probably it had a name as well.

I’ve been thinking about that child. Scientists say that the sun will turn into a fiery giant that will render life on earth impossible in about 50 million centuries. That’s more than enough time for scientists—or whatever they’ll be called by then—to discover one of my lost baby teeth in about 30,000 years and to make whatever conclusions they can draw about me and my life. (I was bottle-fed from the start, so I can save them the effort of analyzing the barium levels in my tooth enamel—assuming my letters to you also survive for 30,000 years, that is—by just admitting that up front now. The rest, they can figure out on their own.) Who can even begin to imagine what life will be like in a mere three hundred centuries?  Nothing will be the same! But also…everything will be the same, I think. People will find their greatest happiness in each other’s arms. Surviving the loss of a loved one will still be the greatest of all life’s challenges. People will still, I think, invest their greatest hopes in their children, and spend their lives worrying about them and trying not to hover. I suppose that even that far in the future people will still occasionally eat too much and drink too much, then wake up the following morning regretting either or both. Everything changes and nothing changes!  The next time any of you is in Düsseldorf, you can take the train over to Mettmann and from there you can go to the actual Neandertal and visit the actual Neanderthal Museum. (In the meantime, click here to take a quick look!)  And there you will find evidence of people wholly unlike and remarkably like ourselves, people depicted as living in family groups, as worrying about feeding each other, about growing old together, about how to face death and survive loss.

Why people who profess faith in God and for whom the Bible serves as the foundation of their spiritual lives would turn away from remarkable evidence like this—evidence for the commonality of the human experience in all its unimaginable variegation—merely because it needs to be read as a kind of scientific midrash on the story of creation as presented in Scripture, I can’t imagine. This kind of scientific research confirms my faith without weakening it even slightly: I find it infinitely easier to believe that all humanity has a Creator in common when I learn about the amazing ways that the human experience is precisely one of shared experience from continent to continent over the course not of centuries or millennia, but scores, even hundreds, of millennia.  The core ideas around which the Torah’s story of creation rotates: that we all have one Creator, that we all share common ancestry, that the human genome testifies to the brotherhood of humankind far more meaningfully than it can be construed to divide us from each other—these are the ideas suggested to me by that tiny tooth…and the lesson scientists have managed to bring forth from its ancient enamel.

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