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Neanderthals as familiar strangers and the human spark: How the ‘golden years’ of Neanderthal research reopen the question of human uniqueness

  • Peeters, Susan1, 2
  • Zwart, Hub2
  • 1 Radboud University Nijmegen, Huygens building - Heyendaalseweg 135, Nijmegen, 6525 AJ, The Netherlands , Nijmegen (Netherlands)
  • 2 Erasmus University Rotterdam, Bayle building - Burgemeester Oudlaan 50, Rotterdam, 3062 PA, The Netherlands , Rotterdam (Netherlands)
Published Article
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Springer International Publishing
Publication Date
Jul 21, 2020
DOI: 10.1007/s40656-020-00327-w
Springer Nature


During the past decades, our image of Homo neanderthalensis has changed dramatically. Initially, Neanderthals were seen as primitive brutes. Increasingly, however, Neanderthals are regarded as basically human. New discoveries and technologies have led to an avalanche of data, and as a result of that it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint what the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals really is. And yet, the persistent quest for a minimal difference which separates them from us is still noticeable in Neanderthal research. Neanderthal discourse is a vantage point from which the logic of ‘us’ versus ‘other’ is critically reconsidered. Studying contemporary academic literature and science autobiographies from an oblique perspective, focusing not on Neanderthals as objects, but on the dynamics of interaction between Neanderthal researchers and their finds, basic convictions at work in this type of research are retrieved. What is at issue is not the actual distinction between modern humans and Neanderthals (which is continuously being redefined), but rather the dualistic construction of human and nonhuman. Neanderthal understanding is affected by the desire to safeguard human uniqueness. The overall trend is to identify the human mark or spark, which defines us as favoured ‘winners’. The paradoxes emerging in contemporary Neanderthal discourse are symptomatic of the fact that a dualistic style of thinking is no longer tenable.

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