I’m a Cave Man Too

This picture essay from the Daily Telegraph chronicles the existence of the Koroway tribe in Indonesia who live a totally primitive life. The continued existence of human beings living in such stone age conditions always makes me wonder about the received understanding of human evolution. You know how you go to the Natural History Museum and they show you dioramas of Neanderthal Man. The wax figures are squatting there with heavy brows and thick lips and long hair. They’re dressed in skins and looking like missing links.

I’m dubious. First of all, how do they know how these people dressed? Their clothes didn’t survive did they?  They assume they dressed in skins, but maybe they dressed in colorful woven clothes. They don’t really know do they? So they dug up their burial sites. Maybe they wore three piece suits everyday, but buried their people in wolf skin so they would be predatory in the afterlife. How do they know they were hairy and unshaven? The North American Indians and many other primitive tribes had extravagant grooming with plucked hairs, fancy haircuts, shaved heads, the works. How do they know they lived in caves? Maybe they lived in nice wooden houses which have not survived. Maybe they lived in sophisticated tree houses like these folks in Indonesia.

Furthermore, who is to say the ‘cave men’ were quite so sub human as the smart anthropologists make out. We judge them by our standards. I dare say they’re a darn sight better at surviving in the jungle than we are, even if they don’t have an iPad. Also, who’s to say they’re all that unsophisticated? Many tribes had and have a fascinating mythology, a complex religion, an organized cosmology, a strict set of internal moral standards and a developed language and cultural structure.

In fact what do we know about the ‘cave man’ at all? Chesterton points out that the one thing we do know about them is that they were artists. They left beautiful paintings on the walls of those caves in France, but that doesn’t mean they lived in caves. It just means they went there to make paintings, and maybe they did so because the cave was their temple, or perhaps the cave was their art gallery. Who knows?

To stand things on their head even further, who are we to say that we are so much more civilized or sophisticated than this tribe in Indonesia or the ‘Cave Man’? If you want to see primitive tribal behavior go to a rock concert. If you want to see barbaric human behavior take a peek at the gangs in any of our inner cities. If you want to see a cross between a gorilla and a human check out the British football hooligan or the American meathead. Huge numbers of people in our own society live out their lives in virtual illiteracy, moral ignorance, brutish violence, boorishness and downright beastly behavior.

This was impressed upon me once when I was walking through a British seaside town in the height of summer and a barefoot youth with a Mohican haircut, covered in tattoos, with pierced ears, nose and other stuff, and wearing nothing but a filthy speedo swimsuit came walking up the street. I was aghast. Give him a spear and he could have stepped right out of the jungle. I said good morning and he grunted at me. “It was a Neanderthal!”, I thought, “alive and well in modern Britain”, and lest I be shot at for Brit bashing, the same could have happened in an American city.

I’m not convinced that we’re any more sophisticated than the primitive people or that they are necessarily any more backward than us. Sure, we have better technology. Maybe they know how to talk to each other more. Maybe they’re more spiritual. I’m not being romantic about them, or getting down on us. Just being skeptical about the idea that we’re better than they are or they’re better than we are or vice versa.

The idea that we are better than them simply because we’re alive now and the cave man was alive  a long time ago is hogwash. It’s a heresy called historicism–the false belief that we’re better and more enlightened and more wonderful just because we live now and not then.

Fact of the matter is: human beings are human beings. They are our brothers and sisters. I’m a cave man too. We’re all created in God’s image and we’re all therefore good. They are too in their own way. We’re all good, but we’re not perfect.  The image of God in us is wounded by original sin. We all (Koroway tribe and Catholic tribe) need the healing redemption of Christ. That’s why I was encouraged to find in the article that this primitive tribe has had contact with missionaries.

I just wonder if the missionaries are Catholic.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15358001898398406677 Bill

    Father, with respect, I think you need to study some paleoanthropology before you start commenting on it.The first point is that no scientist would claim that Cro Magnon men were sub human. They were nothing more or less than the earliest examples of modern humans in Europe (but far from the first modern humans who had existed for more than 100,000 years longer in Africa). Neanderthals were at the least a different sub species, and perhaps a totally different species. Many of the physical features you see in their features are based on their skulls which were shaped substantially differently than ours (more prominent brow ridges, a much less prominent chin, evidence that their nose was larger, etc.).As for clothing, no we don't know what they wore, but we can guess. Neanderthal clothing was probably primitive because as far as we can tell, the tools they had were far less sophisticated than any stone age culture that has existed in the last 10,000 years. They appear to have had things that could have cut and scraped animal skins, but nothing to suggest that they had needles. Cro Magnons on the other hand did have needles and thus might have had more sophisticated clothing.One final thought.. Neanderthals probably would not have done well in the Jungle. They lived in Ice Age Europe and the Near East. It appears likely that they were well adapted to a cold climate. They probably would not have known any more about surviving in Jungles than we do.Now, I know you are trying to make a larger point here. But I always find it distracting when priests reference things they obviously know nothing about when they are trying to preach a sermon.With respect Father.Bill

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00518427385991447434 Dr. Eric

    I don't know, Bill, the Neaderthal you just described was definitely in my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class this evening. He had a very prominent brow and chin, larger nose and was more stocky than the rest of us.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13564805397010089954 Colleen

    I love this post and think it's written with humor and intelligence. I certainly enjoyed reading it!:)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08383178253798427977 anthony

    In light of the Roman Catholic church's atrocity toward children would a churchy spokesman of your 'eminance' please start using a different adjective than 'wounded' at every turn.This would be a great help to victims of perversion no doubt.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Anthony, you've wounded me with your attack.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00518427385991447434 Dr. Eric

    Anthony,In light of the National Education Association's atrocity toward children would an educational spokesman of 'eminance' [sic] please start using a different phrase than 'after school special'?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00518427385991447434 Dr. Eric

    *sigh*If only they'd let teachers and cavemen get married…Anthony just proved "Dr. Eric's Law"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14807873592896092136 Anthony S. “Tony” Layne

    As a non-eminent representative of Anthonys, I'd like to dissociate the rest of us from "anthony's" rather bizarre non sequitur, and to disclaim any responsibility for it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11994673962810075076 Nick

    Pop cultural representations aren't scientifically accurate. Just sayin'.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    Er everyone…. I think you'll find Father has scripture on his side here."And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them." (from the Douay Rheims) Genesis 1.27.Does God look like a neanderthal?!!!Or should scripture be changed to "In His own image he eventually planned them to evolve"???Paleoanthropology indeed! Gimme a break.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14444361367208483037 Ruth Ann

    Father, I get your point about all human beings as created in God's image and likeness. That is certainly a core belief of Judaism and Christianity. In that respect modern humans are no better than those whom we consider primitive. Our physical characteristics are somewhat different, although, not necessarily better. Evidence seems to indicate modern man is more technically advanced, but this has to do with artifacts, not moral behavior.I've never heard anyone assert that we moderns are better than our primitive predecessors, only different.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10414248412653795039 Richard

    I am a devout Catholic who carefully holds to the teaching and direction of the Magisterium. I have also been a serious “student” of paleoanthropology since 1970.A couple of observations about Fr. Longenecker’s comments and some of the follow up postings: 1) Father’s overall point is very well made; 2) We actually know far more about our prehistoric ancestors than averred to in Father’s piece and any of the posts; 3) There is really only one genuine human species or race, a subspecies is still a true member of the parent species; 4) Paleoanthropologists generally recognise three human subspecies, Anatomically Modern Humans (200 k years ago to present), Anatomically Archaic Humans (c. 500 k to 200 k years ago), and Neanderthals (300 k to 26 k years ago); 5) Anatomically Archaic Humans made some very fancy tools, such as 1.5 meter long Hellenistic quality javelins; 6) Neanderthals had bigger brains than we do today, they made some of the most sophisticated stone tools known and they made “Anatomically Modern Human” quality tool kits, including needles, beads, and other jewellery, they buried their dead, and cared for the infirm; 7) Neanderthals and, at least European and Middle Eastern Anatomically Modern Humans intermarried; 8) In respect to this last point, it is quite fair to say that, “Neanderthals Are Us”; 9) The preceding 8 points are in conformance with how the Magisterium has advised Catholic scholars to study human “evolution,” see for example, INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION COMMUNION AND STEWARDSHIP: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, published at Rome by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Chairman of the Commission, and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2002.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12594214770417497135 Suburbanbanshee

    OTOH, I think all the paleoanthropology fans out there will agree that humans, wherever and whenever, seem to have had a lot of complex arts, technologies, cultural activities, and systems for looking attractive.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    Richardd said;“Neanderthals Are Us”That's not the Trinity speaking in Genesis that you're quoting there, I hope Richard :)Well, maybe they are you, but I ain't being linked to no Neanderthal, I'll be the missing link in that case.Anyway, how come when Angels appear ( such as to the children at Fatima) they always appear completely human? Did they go through a NeANGERthel phase too? Or were they able to skip that and look as human beings do now, straightaway? What the Catholic Church teach about that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09662627024674740135 leObserving

    Shadowlands,An angel didn't appear at Fatima. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at Fatima. Mary as you know was the mother of Jesus. She was definitely not from the Neanderthal age. I hope that clears it up for you. Bill you really sound like a prig. You should read "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    leObservingThank you for your info. I am sorry, I didn't make myself clear. I do believe it was the Mother of Our Lord appearing at Fatima but I understood the Angel of Peace appeared in human form also, and gave the children Holy Communion. I wondered what the Catholic Church believed about the Angel's creation. I can't imagine God would create us originally, in lesser form than the angels, considering He planned to become one of us, for all eternity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17030073723175359655 Amy Craig

    "But how do you KNOW?" I could never buy those paleoanthropic conclusions, either. Same with the astrologists claim about the stars. "Really? Burnt out billions of years ago? How do you KNOW?" Thank God for God. The Holy Trinity makes so much more sense!