Neanderthals in the Mist

There is no such thing as Bigfoot. There’s no Sasquatch, no Stink-Ape, no Yeti. The existence of Bigfoot, I believe, is indefensible: there are no fossils, no remains, not even Bigfoot scat. But a more interesting question than “Does Bigfoot exist?” is “Why doesn’t Bigfoot exist?” In other words, why isn’t there room for a large, hairy primate in the forests of North America? The answer, I believe, is two-fold. The first reason there aren’t more monkeys north of the Rio Grande is that primates don’t tend to do well in chilly climates. The other reason is that if Bigfoot were real, we would have eaten him by now.

The Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey is the primate living at the highest, coldest altitudes besides mankind. While those hot spring-loving Japanese Macaques are the northernmost-dwelling monkey, the Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey tolerates cold the best in its home in the mountains of Southern China, up to 14,850 feet above sea level. This semi-arboreal species able to survive the freezing temperatures with their double layer of golden fur, and by eating lichen and tree bark during the winter. They’ve been seen eating snow, and digging through the snow to find grasses when times are really tough. These sociable monkeys have no qualms about huddling together for warmth, and make a variety of cheerful noises — often without moving their faces at all. They’re the ventriloquists of the monkey world.

So this is as close as evolution has come yet to producing a Yeti. No ape besides us can stand snow, as apes are either vegetarians or omnivores, and palatable plants are in short supply in places that have white Christmases. If our imaginary Bigfoot existed, he’d be in direct competition with another giant, hairy omnivore: the grizzly bear. It is, after all, what undoubtedly made “Bigfoot’s” tracks. When it comes to the big fuzzy monster niche, perhaps the giant shoes had already been filled. And perhaps that’s for the best, because Homo sapiens has a habit of taking out its competition in the hominid department: first, the other species of humans, and now, the monkeys.

A friend sent me a disturbing recent article entitled “New Snub-Nosed Monkey Discovered, Eaten.” The victim, a cousin of the Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey, faces extinction before it’s even been scientifically described. Rhinopithecus strykeri has the unfortunate habit of sneezing constantly when it rains, as it has nothing to prevent water from dripping into its upturned nostrils, so the impoverished hunters of Myanmar have no trouble finding it during monsoon season. The monkeys spend most rainy days with their heads buried between their knees, for both these reasons.

I’ve written before about the curious fact that we tend to consume things before we “discover” them. Hunters are the original zoologists. But the bushmeat crisis has reached epidemic levels, with half of all primate species on Earth going extinct. Habitat destruction plays a part, but the loss of the world’s apes and monkeys is most directly impacted by poaching. In fact, the two threats play into one another: roads built for loggers give hunters greater access to the forest, and chimpanzee ends up on the menu. Apes may only make up 1% of the world bushmeat trade, but when your species’ entire population is as small as a few thousand, as in the case of the Mountain Gorilla, losing even a dozen males can be devastating. Meanwhile, both New and Old World Monkeys are being picked off with rifles without any concern for their imminent extinction. The Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey population itself numbers merely 10,000-15,000 individuals, another casualty of Chinese medicine; it’s believed their flesh cures rheumatism.

Did we do the same to our cousins, the Neanderthals? Or the “Hobbit people” of Indonesia? Anthropologists count at least 11 species of Homo that lived concurrently with sapiens, including one subspecies, our evolutionary Abel. Today, there is only us. We know that the archaic Cro-Magnon humans destroyed, and very likely interbred with, the doomed Neanderthals, who also had culture and were capable of making tools and artwork. A dark part of my mind wonders if we ate them, too. Cannibal cultures, while never as numerous on Earth as Victorian literature made them out to be, have certainly existed. And we can apparently eat chimpanzees, our closest living relative, with a relatively clear conscience. So I can’t help but imagine that our ancestors weren’t simply the victorious warrior race, clashing in battle with the inferior Neanderthals. Perhaps we weren’t just killing them; perhaps we were hunting them. Any large apeman — including the imaginary Bigfoot — would have been killed not just because they competed with us for food, but because they were food.

Our ancestors didn’t hesitate to kill our brothers. We now have the chance to stop ourselves from killing our cousins, before we’re the only primates left. We’re a narcissistic and ultimately lonely species: we search deep space hoping to find English-speaking aliens, and our own forests hoping to find some hairy long-lost relative. We look for other hominids so we don’t feel quite so alone. But if we’re not vigilant, we could let our closest genetic family disappear; the last gorillas could become the stuff of legend.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

6 responses to “Neanderthals in the Mist

  • Gabriela

    I hope that snow wasn’t yellow.

    “make a variety of cheerful noises – often without moving their faces at all. ” made me think of a few things but if I wrote them, I’d get in trouble.

    That last paragraph reminds me of a few other posts here on Facebook about how we operate as humans.

  • Ben Bormann

    Anthropocentrism isn’t all bad. Its saving grace is that it leads people to realize that you can’t save the world without saving us humans first. “With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man? With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?”

  • DRD

    Not always a bad thing. Anthropocentrism doesn’t have to mean putting trousers on Uncle Wiggly.

    If quantum biology tells us that all observation changes the observed reality, and if we anthropoids are doing the observing, then all observation and indeed all science is inherently anthropocentric. Or at least anthropomorphic.

    • quantumbiologist

      Ha! That sounds like an argument I’ve heard for an Earth-centric universe. We know we’re not literally the center of the universe, but since that’s where all our observation happens, it’s more functional to treat Earth as the most important subject, and objects closer to Earth as more important than those far away.

      • Copernicus

        Does “far away” have much meaning in a quantum world of infinite fractals? Doesn’t distance change every time you change the observational capability of the microscope or the telescope?
        And, no, I’m pretty sure the anthropomorphism of observation doesn’t inevitably lead to terracentrism. Humility and science teach us that dark matter exists at both ends of any viewing device.

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