I see those smiling people and feel defeated by the accretion of violence and conquest. Always conquest. Now it’s conquest for the last vial of oil, the last tree, the last free human brain cell. (Yes, the programmers of Silicon Valley are bearing down on us with their dreams of singularity.) I look at those faces and see through the hindsight of history the atrocities done to all the extraordinary ordinary people going about their lives.
I write this on September 1, 2014. We are living in a small cottage on the southwest coast of Ireland. Marianne called in this evening to invite us to her house for coffee and cake on Thursday. Her house is several miles away, over the mountain pass. Before she and her husband settled into it year-round eighteen years ago, it was their holiday home – their sanctuary from Berlin. There is a tradition of German people buying cottages in Ireland, going back to Heinrich Böll, who came to Ireland in the 1950s, ‘trying to wake up from the nightmare of history in Europe’. (2) He recorded his experience of finding refuge in a remote cottage on Achill Island in his Irish Journal, which he published in 1957 after his return to Germany. In the introduction to the 2011 edition, Hugo Hamilton, whose mother emigrated to Ireland from Germany during the war, writes that the country the young Böll and his family came to had ‘remained untouched by the Second World War’ and by the ‘post-war rush for material certainty’.
But now at our kitchen table, Marianne has become upset. She has told us that Germany just announced it would provide arms to the Kurds. ‘Today of all days!’ she cried. She was referring to the anniversary of the start of the War in 1939. We asked if she had memories of it, and she described the soldiers marching down the streets of her native Königsberg on their way to the Polish border, seventy-five years ago today. She was eight years old the day that World War II started.
When I met Marianne, I liked her immediately. She’s formidable and huggable at the same time. She likes to talk politics, reads widely, and will have a cigarette when she gets the chance. She wears mascara and lipstick and likes to go to the pub to see her neighbours and listen to music. She is lively company and bakes a delicious strawberry cake. But now her mascara is smudged and her eyes are red. She accepts a glass of wine. ‘Terrible, terrible,’ she says. ‘Do they know what they are doing?’ Königsberg was bombed nearly to the ground and fell to the Russians. A few of its German citizens escaped, some, including Marianne’s family, across the Baltic sea on an overcrowded ferry. But afterward was worse. The guilt. They had no identity, she said. What was Germany? What did it mean to be German anymore?
What is the cause of our violence and our history of conquest? Some people I know shrug and say, it’s human nature. We can’t help ourselves, it’s the way we evolved. But I don’t believe this. I’ve had children. I saw that it was not in their nature to hurt things. The first time my eldest son saw an older boy deliberately step on an insect to crush it, he cried. I felt my duty as a mother was to protect my children from the violent images on television and the cinema. And this was in the 1980s, the early days of the American descent into commercial depravity. But if it’s not human nature where does it come from, the drive to kill and conqueror? Was it always thus?
I have a creation story I tell myself. It is, of course, prelapsarian, as creation myths are. Although it is grounded first and foremost in scientific findings, my story also contains, as most myths do, truths that come to us from intuitions and imaginings. My story goes like this. Once upon a time there was a species with a big brain that had adapted to the cold climate of Europe, where they had lived for at least 300,000 years. They were primarily artists and the subject for their art was the animals with whom they shared the forests and the plains. They may have first painted with blood, as John Berger has suggested, but we know they used ochre. Contrary to what many believe, they were ‘technologically precocious’(3) and developed an advanced tool-making technology known today as the Levallois technique.
They did not need the so-called Enlightenment to discover that the earth was round. They could see the earth was round because they observed that everything in the world is round – the year from spring to spring is round, and the moon and sun are round. Winter after winter they had witnessed the aurora borealis dancing in a circle around the summit of the earth and from this they bequeathed to us the image of the human halo and the crown that is its symbol. They have come to be called the Neanderthals, and because of what happened to them their story has come down to us in a corrupted form.
What happened to them, according to my creation story, was homo sapiens, who walked out of Africa on their famous two legs some 50,000 years ago. No one knows for sure why these humans left their home in Africa and moved to a harsh climate. Some paleontologists think it was because they were too successful as hunters. That their numbers expanded to such a degree they depleted the plants and animals upon which they depended for food, and thus destroyed their habitat.
When the Homo sapiens arrived in Europe they found Homo neanderthalensis already there. The African emigrants learned much from the indigenous people they met. They learned how to use new tools and to make art. They saw that many of the artists who left their handprints next to their paintings on the walls of caves were female. They learned how to shelter and keep warm during winter and what foods could be saved through the coldest, darkest months. They learned the Neanderthals’ music and ceremonies. They learned to place stones over their dead.
Neanderthals had powerful arms and legs and were able to lift heavy boulders and build stone monuments in the places they gathered to mark the cycles of the seasons. They fished with their broad hands, ate small birds, and boiled their porridge in birchbark trays. They gathered nuts and berries and roots and tubers. They were skilled hunters, too. But they considered the animals their brothers and sisters, much like many other indigenous peoples do, and so they developed what we would call a conscience, and compassion for other lives. Their instinct was to gratitude, and this made them kind. They left an offering when they killed an animal, which they did only for special feast days. They were herbalists too, a practice they learned from watching the animals.
They welcomed the humans and, in some cases, mated with them, and that is why today Europeans and descendants of Europeans carry the Neanderthal legacy in their genes.
But the Neanderthal people were not prepared to defend themselves when the humans stopped borrowing and began taking from them – when the climate changed and the glaciers descended and food became scarce. Although they had tremendous strength, they were wholly unprepared to organise themselves for war. They were hunter-gatherers. They were still free. They had no centralised power structure. They did not want to leave their lands because their dead were buried there.
This was the first European conquest: eventually the Neanderthals were driven out of their homelands and banned from their ceremonial circles. They retreated to the waste places and the rocky promontories of hills where they could be on watch for wayward bands of Homo sapiens. And, as far as we know, they died out. A shadow memory of the Neanderthals survives in some folk tales, and it was their presence at the edges of the emigrants’ conquered lands that’s behind the beliefs in fairies and trolls.
The Homo sapiens have ever since told the story of the inferior race with the smaller brain, heavy brow, and stooped back, who had no technology, no art, no respect for the dead. To this day it is asserted that they had no feelings for each other and were incapable of abstract thought. Yet we westerners inflict violence and deprivation on our fellows as if we have no feelings for each other. We act as if our highly evolved capacity for abstract thought is not related to the problem of war and conquest.
Most Europeans today carry between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA.4 Which gives me the hope that we have a one-to-four percent peaceful part, and one-to-four percent artist part. And that this genetic legacy could be cherished and cultivated.
Underneath our history of violence and conquest is the fear that the Neanderthal will one day re-emerge from the margins and the rocky outcroppings to reclaim their rightful place and hold the Homo sapiens accountable for 35,000 years of dis-evolutionary behaviour. And for what was done to Abel and the Albigensians, and the Disappeared Ones. To the Jewish citizenry of Europe and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, to the families of Hiroshima and Dresden, and those of Tokyo, Mai Lai, and Gaza. To the elephants, the Bengali Tiger, the bees. To the forests, rivers, and seas.
Marianne is harrowed with worry that we are moving toward war again. Can we not look at Sebald’s pictures and see our own humanity in those smiling faces on the brink.
1 W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002).
2 Hugo Hamilton, Introduction to Irish Journal by Heinrich Böll, trans. by Leila Vennewitz, (Brooklyn, NY: MelvilleHouse, 2011).
3 “Early Levallois Technology and the Lower to Middle Paleolithic Transition in the Southern Caucasus,” Science 345, no. 6204 (Sept 26, 2014): 1609-1613.
4 “The Replacements: New Evidence on the Old Mystery of the Neanderthals,” David Quammen, Harpers 329, no. 1972 (Sept 2014).
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