For decades, discussions of Neanderthal extinction have hung on the premise that ingenuity is necessary for a species to be an evolutionary success. In these scenarios, Homo sapiens – with their allegedly sophisticated tools and complex culture – survived and thrived in the late Pleistocene and Homo neanderthalensis did not. Thus, this logic goes, Neanderthals were a species that failed because they lacked some kind of ingenuity that humans must have had. When couched in these terms, genius – or at least ingenuity – becomes the defining characteristic of humans’ evolutionary achievement.
Historically, museum dioramas have helped enforce this type of narrative. In July 1933, the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History installed eight dioramas that depicted scenes from “early” hominin life from a variety of then-current archaeological sites. These dioramas, by sculptor Frederick Blaschke, show many early twentieth-century assumptions about race, prehistory, and the problematiques of reconstructing a spotty archaeo-paleontological record. The portrayal of technology in Blaschke’s dioramas, however, creates a powerful, indirect argument about success and direction in human evolution.
In Blaschke’s imagined life-ways, Neanderthal hands clutch at a tool, but do not show the viewer any kind of dexterity. The tools and tool use look clumsy. More than just fossils-come-to-life, the slouching, hunched reconstructed Neanderthals reflected an interesting, subtle thesis about material culture and how hominins “ought” to have interacted with it. In short, these early dioramas argued, Neanderthals simply did have anything material that was evolutionarily compelling. No complex tools, no dexterity, no ingenuity to invent “good” technology. Neanderthals, in dioramas like Blaschke’s, solidified a story that champions technological ingenuity for humans' "success."
Recent studies of Neanderthals, however, offer serious challenges to these long-held views. Current archaeological projects from Italy, north Africa, and Spain show Neanderthals as a complex hominins, capable of sophisticated behavior. Capable, indeed, of behavior generally thought to be exclusive to Homo sapiens.
As museums reshape and reimagine their dioramas to better reflect current understandings of the archaeological record, it will be interesting to see how subtle details – details like how tools are held – will be reimagined.
Special thanks to Linda Kim (Drexel University) and Chris Manias (University of Manchester) for their thoughts, discussions, and diorama suggestions!