neanderthals zoos
March 24, 2015

If Neanderthals were still around, would we put them in zoos?

Shayne Jacopian for redOrbit.com - @ShayneJacopian

Poe, Wilde, Faulkner, Fitzgerald—it’s no secret that writers like their liquor, and we lowly science journalists are no exception. Sometimes we have a little too much and our minds start travelling to strange places, leading us to some pretty interesting conversations with our friends and families about…whatever, really.

Personally, I start to ask friends (and myself) things like, “What are they gonna call the literary movement that comes after postmodernism?” or “How’d they make Gollum look so legit?!”

Or, “If Neanderthals were still around, would we put them in zoos?”

But seriously!

Sure, they’re close to modern humans in intelligence, but a lot of other primates aren’t too far behind, and that doesn’t stop us from putting them in zoos.

[STORY: Orangutan granted human-like rights by Argentine court]

“I'd hope we'd interact with them peacefully, but I don’t know if that puts too much faith in humans,” replies Hannah, my friend whose turn it is to put up with what happens when I have a couple of beers at the end of a sleep-deprived week and start sending text messages at midnight.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe that’s not putting too much faith in humans. Humans aren’t so bad, right?

Right?

To get a more scientific perspective, we reached out to Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist for the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Middle Tennessee State University.

“With everything we've learned about their culture and genetics over the past decade," he wrote to redOrbit in an email, "I expect Neanderthals who survived the Pleistocene would likely be fully integrated into modern society, working and living alongside us, and as part of our families. With the amount of genetic mixing that would have taken place over the intervening 40,000 years, it's possible that we wouldn't still be able to recognize them as a separate species.”

[STORY: Neanderthals were not inferior to modern man, study finds]

Excellent! So they’re really close to being humans. And we know that humans would never be so morally depraved as to put other humans on display in zoos.

“There is historical precedent for putting other humans in zoos, and it's possible we would have done the same thing to Neanderthals at some point. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Indigenous people from around the world were trafficked back to Europe and America and put on display in wildly successful ‘ethnological expositions’ at human zoos and World's Fairs.”

Oh.

“However, given how long Neanderthals would have been living alongside Europeans, it's possible they would have escaped fascinations with the exotic that drove this particular low point in Western history.”

[STORY: Neanderthal teeth suggest sexual division of labor]

Okay, so Neanderthals would have been treated better than a lot of humans.

Sort of.

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