Giants, Trolls and Cynocephali: The Neanderthal in History?
At the risk of fouling an otherwise fine pot of milk by mixing in a cup that might be sour, it is hereby pertinent to say that there are some things contained on this website that would constitute serious investigation and analysis, such as the papers on Norse mythology, and there are ones that press the available evidence to present an encouraging analysis, as does that of Atlantis, while this one certainly arises out of vague speculations regarding a question that seems worth considering: are trolls, giants and the strange cynocephali merely imaginary beings or could they have a basis in beings from the past? While this can never be concluded to anyone’s satisfaction, no matter how much archaeological evidence is brought to light, it might warrant some attention in terms of how evidence is interpreted. Certainly in approaching it there is not enough yet to hint at a connection between the 30,000 year old archaeological terminal date of the Neanderthal and the 5,000-10,000 year-old origin of European mythological traditions, and so even a plausible idea with the right basis still lacks fair and accommodating evidence. This discussion at least permits some interesting considerations about how we come to perceive the past, but it is included here as a matter for light interest, perhaps as a cautionary exercise for scientists, rather than as a compelling scientific investigation.
This discussion will be prefaced with a certain description, valuable in all instances when we seek to learn about the past: that a ship of European explorers encountered a group of natives who described one group of people on a certain island as those who could remove their feet, but that these people were so warlike that all the other natives grouped together and killed them all so that now the island was empty. This was told by different groups on several islands, but then modern scholars dismissed it as ridiculous, and this was underscored when archaeologists went to the island and found skeletons there that were no different than any other human skeleton and the story was disproved as being pure fantasy. Then it was found that an earlier ship of Europeans had landed on that island and that they lived here themselves, and when the other natives encountered them they were described by the natives, seeing them remove their boots, that they were in fact removing their feet.
Although this is a fictional story, the specific description is actually how the Indians in America described Europeans who removed their boots, but the same description taken literally sounds ridiculous to our ears, and is not verified by archaeological evidence, just as someone who had never before seen someone wearing a hat or helmet might describe it as a person removing their head and placing it under their arm. It is the taking of the description literally, when the language fails to describe what is being seen when it has never been seen before. People are fooled today by having sophisticated languages that encompass objects from across the globe, but one can have a great deal of knowledge and yet fail by not recognizing how language is used, how it is used to describe the indescribable, and what it could mean. So a scholarly appraisal can lead to conclusions that the descriptions contained are pure fiction, fantasy, or hallucination until one can work out what the description really meant.
If it is suggested that it is impossible that the characteristics of the Neanderthal survived into the present, consider that many other early and Stone Age beliefs, mythological concepts were passed on, while being embellished and modified sometimes, reliably 2,000 years ago, provably 4,000 years ago, arguably beyond this. If Neanderthals died out largely by 30,000 years ago, small pockets of Neanderthals could have gone on living for thousands of years after this, especially in isolated regions where humans were slow to infiltrate or entirely claim. There is no doubt that the Neanderthal is gone from the world today, but the precise point of extinction cannot be stated with any specificity, only that there is no proof that they survived beyond 30,000 years ago, only that it might be plausibly argued in other ways. However, is there a plausible ending point? Can we say that it is reasonable that Neanderthals were specifically gone 10,000 years ago 5,000 years ago? Could descendants of Neanderthals have survived as recently as 1,000 years ago? While the archaeological record is ever incomplete, is there any documented evidence of their existence before they were identified by science in their Paleolithic form?
Now it is clear how facts end up establishing the cut-off, because we cannot form another basis for creating the terminal date. The only thing that can be known is that the Neanderthal existed at least as far as the latest fossil and that the species became extinct between then and modern times. So if a Neanderthal bone is found that dates to 10,000 years ago, and verified, we would not be amazed or be forced to rethink our theories and conceptions, we should already know that this is possible and account for it when making our statements and theories. Surely phrasing a discovery as “ground breaking” and “shattering our theories” is largely about grabbing attention within the media, while professionals often speak more definitely in terms of what the evidence tells us, and not to dwell on what the evidence does not tell us. It is just important that people not confuse this clear and proven evidence with absolute and incontrovertible truth (i.e. Neanderthals went extinct 30,000 years ago only because no fossil remains have been found after this time period). This is a convenience but it removes the ability to say anything more than direct evidence is lacking for the existence of a man or species after this terminal date.
What we can say then is that the further we get from the physical evidence the more implausible a theory must become. So that a 20,000 year-old skeleton would be less surprising than a 5,000 year-old Neanderthal skeleton. But this again arises out of the remains discovered by humans in the present, thus far. If the last Neanderthal died out in the year 3,329 BC, then if we are saying they died out 30,000 years ago we are not only wrong, but wrong by an order of magnitude. However, it is our lack of knowledge that forces us to use the facts as the only entirely reliable measure for our knowledge, we can always be sure that Neanderthals lived at least as long as the latest remains we find, and that they are extinct in modern times, but that is all. (The plus or minus error in dating a Carbon 14 sample only specifies the error for that single specimin, it gives us no clue as the the actual error of our extinction estimates.)
We also must be sure, although from indirect evidence (the age of fossil remains) that the Neanderthals and modern humans, living within the vicinity of one another, had some sort of interactions, although it is unknown what sort of interactions these were, which could be from entirely hostile to entirely friendly, but our basic knowledge of human nature places it somewhere in the middle, leaning towards the hostile end. Since we know these interactions took place, what would their impressions have been of these people? It is difficult to say because we know so little about them, but this might soon change as we decode their DNA. It is clearly fit to say that they would have been viewed as being quite unusual and strange. Humans are clearly very aware of small differences and tend to exaggerate them, such as viewing a person who is 5 feet tall as short, but one who is 6 feet tall as tall, a difference of only 1 foot. Yet most human distinctions are relatively minor but we are attuned to them because these differences designate our definitions of different people (children, adults) and different types (male, female) as well as different cultures (friend, ally, and foe).
The Neanderthal (as we call them today) we cannot meet in the way humans back 30,000 years ago did, only that we know they were not modern humans and lacked a great deal of what we consider to be normal and usual for us. We cannot project anything of this upon them unless we find suggestions for it within the material we excavate, because we fall into the trap of being too inclined to see them as like us or too inclined to think they must have been nothing like us. The ability (often termed success) of modern humans to entirely displace the Neanderthals indicates a significant difference that is reflected in the differences in morphology, adaptation, or intelligence. But by comparison the Neanderthal would have appeared to be bulky, rather like a brute, showing a form of intelligence but perhaps not as clever, reasoning or witty as modern humans. Although easy to fall into a characterization that makes them appear to be stupid and simple, they would have been far in advance of any species of ape, but would appear to a modern human as not quite as bright. There is no question that modern humans possess characteristics that were not present in earlier forms of hominids, in kind and in degree, depending upon what we are speaking of.
The Neanderthals were clearly as capable as any adaptive species to do what it does, but were simply not as adroit at it as modern humans, but it is also known that humans can coexist for a time, even with each other, before something occurs that makes them warlike, and it there is no direct evidence that the Neanderthals had any knowledge of war in the human sense (based upon cooperative aggressive action to displace, assimilate, or exterminate another group). This does not mean they didn’t raid others and take from them, it just wasn’t part of a concept they had drawn. Neanderthal skeletons from Shanidar Cave in Iraq show evidence of violence that could indicate contests in battle (LeBlanc 2003: 59). And here it is important to beware of drawing direct comparisons between living ape species and later hominids, the line of evolution spreads back nearly 10 million years, and if humans and other hominids show a warlike propensity it is not merely because the animal traits linger among the human traits, or that we evolved from an aggressive species rather than a tamer one, but merely that aggression and warfare played a necessary or beneficial role in the lives of those modern humans or hominids. It should not be seen as a remnant of brute instinct in competition with human reason, but as arising from providing a distinct advantage for that hominid species, regardless of what their distant ancestors were involved with. So merely because humans and Neanderthals may have evolved from the same line doesn’t mean they need to share characteristics such as warfare. Warfare as a concept is very closely allied with other human notions such as of religion and expression and clans and nations and ideas and principles. As has often been said, once you have a human being they are just as much a human being as those living today. They were not dumber or more primitive or more idyllic, they were just like us but living at an earlier time and under far different circumstnaces, but of course the basis of their knowledge was established differently. However, when it comes to other hominids, such as Neanderthal, one cannot make the same simple statements; they were different and different by a breadth.
Despite attempts to paint them as being largely modern, they would not appear human to anyone who saw them if they lived today. Their bodies were stocky and they were wide with large limbs, not especially eager to engage in locomotion, their bones don’t indicate they were so fond of walking. Modern humans are a peripatetic species and one based upon language, socializing and forming political communities. Neanderthals by contrast were stompers, capable of walking and running but not as gracefully, their language capacities are unknown but their mouth and tongues were more weighty and would have produced a more coarse speech pattern than we are used to, the language too would likely have been simple, accentuated by more gesturing (the first human language apparently), from a human standpoint less refined, but still far closer to human than ape. It might sound like a stereotype to say the Neanderthal was like a dumb and simple human, but this is only because it sounds demeaning. It is only because we are judging them from our own ways and lives, as we meticulously judge each other too. We value refinement of sorts, speech and wit and beauty and ability. The Neanderthals cannot be grossly characterized as dumb or simple, but better descriptions are lacking because they are unknown. It gives an idea of how modern humans would view them, slightly less capable in their ways, so the best term perhaps is to see them as less refined and less cultured compared to modern humans, according to modern humans, but also possessing of a number of other qualities that humans, by nature of their genes alone, would find odd or abhorrent.
Neanderthals in comparison to any hominid who came before must have been very advanced, we always consider them through human eyes, which here is actually the most critical aspect, but in terms of their development as a species, in a Europe before modern humans emerged, they would have been highly advanced, well-adapted to intelligent and careful hunting, although their eating habits were perhaps crude, they did possess fire, the ability to make fire and lived in dwellings and in some sort of social groupings. These, unlike humans, would have not been according to the rules of a modern mind, and especially in terms of no sense of incest as taboo but there were no doubt others, that cannot be learned by direct comparisons to hunter-gathering human societies in other habitats of the world.
The first judgements about a Neanderthal would be based upon their appearance; their faces were low and projecting. Their bodies were stocky and wide, their limbs robust (see Figure 1). Even speaking their language it would have sounded like a kind of slurred and controlled grunting and growling. Their clothes were no doubt furs and skins and their tools of a couple forms, stone spears and knifes. They would have lived in caves and in other external dwellings and in some manners would have had the sensibilities of animals, however we should not confuse the concept of modern human with social conceptions from modern human society. Many things we would consider to be brutish, primitive, animalistic, simple, naïve, childish have been practiced by modern humans through their history, so we are not saying humans are not these things, only that the Neanderthal lacked the refinements of modern humans: art, religion, culture, nation, magic, myth, wit and wisdom. Neanderthals were almost certainly reasoning, but they might not have been able to turn this reasoning into something as sophisticated as philosophy. This middle ground is based upon an awareness that they weren’t quite human, like slicing off the highest echelon of human ability but to leave the rest, and this seems to best reflect what we understand about the Neanderthal, not merely because it acts as a convenient compromise.
Neanderthal and Modern Human skeletons
The assessment of the record all relates directly to the notion of something like the Cynocephali, described as being dog headed creatures who barked, according to Adam of Bremen. While this sounds like utter fantasy, after watching the Nova program “Neanderthals on Trial” I was curious to know if it could have been that surviving numbers of beings we know as Neanderthals were the Cynocephali, who may have lived up to recent times perhaps in Siberia and the Sub-arctic. The first thing that would be argued is that Neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago when modern humans arrived in Europe and displaced or eradicated them. This relates back to the idea of strict acceptance of facts, that is, as said before, because no Neanderthal bones have been found subsequent to this time, it is often assumed that they utterly disappeared. This ignores the recognition that given that tens of thousands of Neanderthals must have lived at one time, that only a very few Neanderthal bones have survived to the present. Since fossilization only represents a very small percentage of bones, if say 1 out of 10,000, then what occurs when the population falls below 10,000?, it could be that no bones are left to find. So limitations in sampling and an awareness of gradual population decline means the fossil record only suggests that large populations of Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago. In addition to bones there are stone tools, but it is still not certain what sort of tools Neanderthals made and used.
There is something else that requires serious consideration, the migration of modern humans and the nature of Neanderthals. Human societies need large populations to prevent inbreeding, and close relatives cannot have sexual relationships for this reason. However, this would not have been a limitation to the Neanderthal, so that human societies that require thousands of people and several populations would not be required, and colonies of hundreds of individuals could survive in isolation from one another for thousands of years. Further, these populations could have survived in isolated regions in the more inhospitable regions of the Earth much longer than in areas that were easiest to enter and adapt to by a foreign population (i.e. modern humans), thus with the spread of modern humans the Neanderthal might have remained here and there for thousands of years after they were, by current assessments, to have gone extinct. But does it challenge the credulity to suggest they lived as late as a few thousand years ago? Is there any documented evidence?
There are species that had lived through the last ice age that have subsequently gone extinct, and some numbers of them have lasted into historical times in limited areas. The muskoxen, for example, are known to have died out at most 3,000 years ago, the mammoth are now known to have lived to at least 4,000 years ago. Although there is no archaeological evidence that the Neanderthal existed into historical times, there is good reason to suppose that small and isolated colonies of Neanderthals did exist perhaps as late as 20,000 to 10,000 years ago. Certainly we can assume that areas that are inhabitable by humans and yet were not inhabited by them until a given timeframe. It is possible, but to our way of thinking not likely, that Neanderthals persisted into historical times. But in saying so are we ignoring the evidence we might have but do not recognize, because we are inclined to dismiss it as being fanciful, in effect taking the Cynocephali to be nothing more than mythical beings.
Given this there might be no means or way to prove and establish the same through archaeological evidence, unless we know where to look and are particularly fortunate. The website on Cynocephali contains a list of their characteristics:
1. The cynocephali were dog headed
2. They possessed powerful jaws and talons
3. They were four cubits in height, which is roughly seven and a half feet or higher
4. They possessed wolf-like senses
5. They were savage warriors on the field of battle
6. They were highly intelligent
7. They were fur covered
8. They used growls, barks, whines and howls for communication
9. They lived in the more mountainous regions and lived in caves
10. They hunted and wore animal skins for clothing
11. They used weapons, such as javelins, bows, spears, clubs, slings, and swords
12. The cynocephali used tools and knew of fire
13. In many accounts, they breathed fire, although this could be an exaggeration
14. The cynocephali were shape-shifters
15. The cynocephali were flesh eaters, who typically ate raw flesh. In many cases, they were even said to eat the flesh of fallen soldiers on the battlefield.
Most of these could fit a primitive human species like Neanderthal. The dog head would merely speak of the tendency among them to have projecting faces (see Figure 2). They certainly had powerful jaws and likely large nails. Their height of four cubits could be less than 6 feet, but could still have seemed large to 5-foot tall humans, they have fine instincts and far more intelligent than animals, but would have communicated more with a projecting tone than with talking. They would have used simple stone spears and knives, but might well have used wooden clubs and spears or slings as well. They also would have known to use fire, although perhaps not to cook food. And certainly might well have been cannibalistic at times, as indicated by a Neanderthal skull with stone-tool cut marks (LeBlanc 2003: 65), as well as the disarticulation of skeletons and butchering of bones in the same manner as with animal bones (LeBlanc 2003: 97). Much of this would also fit modern humans, apart from these few things: projecting face, large jaws, and barking to speak, which would perfectly characterize features distinct to a Neanderthal. In addition, they are described as living a very primitive existence of wearing animal furs and inhabiting in caves, after the humans describing them had already been wearing clothes and living in houses. The two characteristics of breathing fire and shape changing might have arisen through later embellishment, when such creatures were taken to be mythical, although it is unclear to me exactly what is meant by this. But the correspondence is at least intriguing, even if there may be no scientific way of proving they are the same.
Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, and dog
(a Neanderthal could be described by humans as “dog-faced”)
GIANTS and TROLLS
H. G. Wells in his The Outline of History quotes Sir Harry Johnston who suggests “[t]he dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore…” (Wells 1956: 71) While it is likely this early assessment was a bit too crude to be accurate, these creatures might well be the origin of the bogie (another name for a giant), perhaps also a creature that was known to capture human children, perhaps not at first a mere threat invented by parents. This is an idea at least worth consideration, since the persistence of Neanderthals into historical times around 5,000 BC in isolated regions is at least a possibility. That the giants described fit in many ways what we know about Neanderthals and could convey information about things we haven’t been able to attain from archaeological knowledge.
Descriptions of giants within European mythology and fairy tales need to be parsed out into two types: the primeval giants, who are wise and responsible for the creation of the earth, and the mountain giants who are by contrast rather dim, dressing in simple leather garments, living in caves, and using stone tools and flint. Although this description is very precise it is also very selective; it is important to keep in mind that many other things are said about giants, that they were as tall as trees and were incredible sorcerers, too many to enumerate here. Here are some interesting descriptions of fairy tales out of Germany and Scandinavia. In the Grimm tale “The Valiant Little Tailor”:
When they went into the cave, other giants were sitting there by the fire, and each of them had a roasted sheep in his hand and was eating it. (Grimm 1997: 115)
There are many references in Scandinavian fairy tales of giants (sometimes under the broader name of trolls) living in mountain caves.
In the mountain of Boraserod…there lived, in ancient days, a giant. (Booss 1984: 274)
Here, in times gone by, lived a mountain kings named Grim. He was, like the rest of his kind, ugly and crafty, and robbed mankind of whatever fell in his way.” (Booss 1984: 277)
In the parish of Ekshärad lies a mountain, Säljeberg, which was formerly the dwelling place of trolls and giants, now exterminated. (Booss 1984: 293)
In the peak of Mount Garphytte, one of the many mountain tops that raise themselves over Kilseberger, dwelt, in former days, a giant named Rise. (Booss 1984: 294)
But, instead of that of her lover, she found herself in the embrace of the Mountain King of Klinta Mountain, who lifted her up and bore her into the mountain. (Booss 1984: 302)
What is interesting is that there is interaction between humans and giants, and that these were to have occurred in the old times, but also that at the time the stories were told they are said to have been “exterminated”.
“If any one in the olden days, when there was more intercourse between human beings and trolls, wanted to borrow anything from a giant, or speak to him on other business, it was customary to throw a stone at the gate and say: “Open, Jutul!” (Boos 1984: 53)
The giants were also meant to lack intelligence.
One of them said there was nothing which she could not get her husband to believe, if she only said it, for he was so stupid as the trolls, and believed anything. (Boos 1984: 50)
One of the best descriptions comes from the Swedish tale “The Giant’s Bride”:
More than with anything else, the Lapp legends have to do with giants and the adventures of mankind with them. The giant is feared because of his great size and strength and his insatiable appetite for human flesh. His laziness, clumsiness, and that he is inferior to the man in intelligence are, however, often the cause of his overthrow. (Booss 1984: 333)
Another detailed description comes from the Icelandic tale “Olafur and the Trolls”:
In these rocks was her cave, into which she carried me. When I was there I saw another giantess coming towards me, of younger appearance than the former, but both were immensely tall. They were dressed in tunics of horse-leather, falling to their feet in front, but very short behind. (Boos 1984: 635)
In the Grimm tale “The Young Giant” and “The Raven” that it was thought that male giants suckled their young:
But the giant carried him home, let him suckle at his breast, and Thumbling grew and became tall and strong after the manner of giants. (Grimm 1997: 412)
This could relate to an inability to distinguish male and female giants. Other references to giants have them using stone tools and flint. The tale “Stompe Pilt” starts with a giant holding a large piece of flint. The Norse myth about Thor’s duel with Hrungnir is a classic and early reference to this as an almost essential characteristic difference between themselves and the metal-using humans.
It might be misguided to dismiss such descriptions as pure fantasy when one can so easily see how they might have arisen from Neanderthals, a species we know to have lived in Europe when humans arrived, so it is clear they had direct contact and interactions with them, and that may have been still existed north and east into later times before humans inhabited these regions. Mythic ideas can go back thousands of years, and while there is no way of knowing specifically, easily spread back 5,000 years; there is no reason why stories of confrontations with earlier hominid species could not have been related in some form, and transformed to some extent after they were no longer present. It only seems it would have proceeded into historical times because of the significance in recognizing that they themselves were almost human. It is certain that they recognized these other human species as distinct from themselves and would have made them a distinct creature. Tales in the north of giants, trolls, and within Europe of the cynocephali might have arisen from the presence of Neanderthal or other closely related hominid groups that had lived well beyond their larger decline, perhaps also existing in northern Europe and remote areas of Asia and Africa at least to 5,000 years ago.
Banulf, “Cynocephali”, Jul. 20, 2001, www.geocities.com/pilotwolf143/cynocephali.htm, retrieved Sep. 16, 2004
Booss, Claire, ed. Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales. New York: Gramercy, 1984.
Grimm Brothers (Jacob and Wilhelm). The Complete Fairy Tales. Ware: Wordworth, 1997.
LeBlanc Steven A. Constant Battles. St. Martin's Press: New York, 2003.
Wells, H. G. The Outline of History. 1920. New York: Garden City, 1956.