Defend Truth


Let the showdown begin: Sapiens versus Neanderthals


Tony Balcomb is a Senior Research Associate in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at the University of Kwazulu-Natal.

Neanderthals understand this earth as a great big treasure chest to be plundered, while Sapiens understand it as a living organism that will share its bounty only if it is treated with respect and care.

At 9am on a cloudy, windy day about 20 people are sitting on the beach at the Mzamba River mouth a couple of kilometres south of the casino. It is Sunday 5 December, the day of the Shell protests. Sinegugu Zukulu, ecologist, activist, community leader and chair of Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC), dressed in traditional garb, is on his phone. 

“They’re coming,” he assures us.

At about 11am an impi comes around the headland on the opposite bank of the river about half a kilometre away. Many are dressed in traditional garb and Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) T-shirts. They are carrying anti-Shell banners and sticks. And they are singing. As only Africans can. The Amadiba people from Xolobeni have arrived. The little gathering on the beach is about to grow to more than 100 people.

They move slowly along the rocky beach and begin to cross the river. We all run down to the river to join them, singing, as the energy builds. The atmosphere is electric, the exhilaration heady.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, spokesperson for the ACC, leads a war cry: “Phansi to Shell, phansi to the ANC, phansi to Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and Barbara Creecy; viva the people of Xolobeni, viva the SWC, viva the ACC.”

For the next several hours, sometimes in driving rain, greetings and messages are brought from a variety of community groups, non-government organisations and other movements around the country. People have come from as far as Cape Town to attend, as well as from overseas. The speeches all condemn the planned seismic blasting, warning Ramaphosa and the ANC that their time is up. They also update the people on the state of play concerning the interdict being brought by the SWC and others on Tuesday, 14 December.

One cannot help feeling that a showdown of epic proportions is about to begin.

The story often used to characterise such a confrontation is that of David and Goliath. More appropriate, however, is the story of Homo Neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens. Both were human, but each with a totally different way of understanding the world and living in it.

Homo Sapiens, argues historian Yuval Harari, became the most successful species on earth because they could invent stories that inspired them to cooperate with other beings in a flexible, intersubjective way, towards common goals. Their nearest relatives, Homo Neanderthalensis, could not do this.

The Neanderthals had brains that were as large as that of Sapiens, were skilled hunters, were able to control fire, used a wide range of sophisticated tools, and were physically strong. But they did not have the capacity of Sapiens to imagine, tell stories, listen, change, adapt, make the connection between ideas and actions, consider consequences.  The Neanderthals became extinct because they could not do these things, while Sapiens survived because they could. And Homo Sapiens (from the Latin word sapere, to know or learn) has forever been associated with intelligence just as the Neanderthals have been with stupidity.

The drama that played out about 40,000 years ago continues to play out today.

The Neanderthals understand this earth as a great big treasure chest to be plundered, while Sapiens understand it as a living organism that will share its bounty only if it is treated with respect and care. Like their brutish ancestors, present-day Neanderthals are the wielders of tools that burn, blast and destroy, unable to see the consequences of their extractivist exploitation of the environment for the future of their species and the planet. They specialise in the technologies of control and of power, they slash and burn, determined to win at all costs.  

There is no better entity to point to when trying to describe the Neanderthals than Shell, no better way to epitomise the Neanderthal modus operandi than that of seismic blasting. Using this violent technology in the search for more climate-destroying fossil fuels shows they have no capacity to imagine where things are going if they carry on with what they are doing in the way they are doing it. What could be more stupid than hurting the earth and ocean to get something out that is going to hurt the earth, the ocean and humans even more? 

These particular Sapiens, the Amadiba, gathered on Mzamba beach, understand the earth, the sea and the human beings as a single community of beings. Humans are there not only in physical form, but also in the spiritual form of ancestors. But they can inhabit other beings and speak to us through whales and dolphins. 

Not all classes of Sapiens believe this. But even if we cannot, what would be the consequences for the earth and sea if we did? That in itself is the kind of question that only Sapiens could ask. The seismic blasting, by definition, is asking a different kind of question of the seabed altogether. It is asking the seabed if it has oil. If it does, Shell will simply take it. The Amadiba would never do that because they know if they did there could be all sorts of consequences.

So does this mean that the Amadiba worldview will never ask the kinds of questions that lead to scientific exploration? Are they caught in a time warp that will never lead them out of poverty? Why is it that the Amadiba people reject the mining of the Xolobeni sands and have fought against, and prevailed over, mega-rich mining companies that are trying to tell them that they know better about what it means to be prosperous and to flourish?

The Amadiba have said no not only to the mining companies, but to the values that mining companies represent. The mining companies don’t understand the kind of values represented in the worldview of the Amadiba, who consider themselves rich in natural wealth. The Amadiba know about the values that modern consumer capitalism offers. They, more than anyone else, have had to ask themselves about the meaning of prosperity because they are faced, daily, with the most persuasive story that has ever been told on planet earth, the story that a worthless piece of paper called a dollar, or pound, or euro, or rand is the most valuable thing in the world. 

They have done their own calculations about what is at stake and made their own decisions about what is valuable and what is not. And we do not listen both to their questions and their answers at our peril, as these are the kinds of questions and answers that will lead Homo Sapiens to continue to survive on the planet for millennia to come, and not destroy ourselves like Neanderthals. 

So here we are, reenacting this most ancient of rivalries between the Neanderthals and Sapiens, right here in this little corner of planet Earth. And we know very well where Sapiens was that day. They were on the beach at the Mzamba mouth, with their sticks and their signs and their songs and their dances and their stories. As they were in countless numbers up and down the coast. 

And we know very well where the Neanderthals were, lurking out there on the high seas in their technological masterpiece of destruction, waiting to blast us all into oblivion. We know very well who the real human beings are. Who the carers of the earth, the storytellers, the mythmakers, the nature lovers, the animal whisperers, the tree huggers, the co-creators, the lovers of soil, the planters of seeds, the imagineers, the music makers, the community builders, are. The people angry enough to rage, strong enough to confront, sensitive enough to feel, and clever enough to create, are gathering in their thousands to boycott Shell garages around the country, as they gathered in their tens of thousands on the beaches and hundreds of thousands in their petitions.

This is Homo Sapiens. This is us. We have imagined a future without Neanderthals, we have planned, we have mobilised, and we shall overcome. 

Let the showdown begin.

Mayibuye Homo Sapiens, Mayibuye! Phansi the Neanderthals, phansi! DM

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/8881″]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Franz Dullaart says:

    A truly silly emotional piece.

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    Absoute claptrap. No one knows what the Neanderthals thought or how they lived. Neither is there any certainty as to the cause of their extinction – just speculation. There is no evidence to suggest that they were “brutish”.
    Most agree that fossil fuels have to go but in the medium term they will be required until acceptably priced and abundant alternatives are available. Presumably Tony Balcomb didn’t walk to the Transkei.

  • Carol Green says:

    While I understand what the writer is trying to achieve in this piece, there is new thinking around Neandertals (spelt with a “t” and not a “th”) which challenges the idea of them as brutish, “cavemen”. They are now considered much closer to modern humans than previously thought. In addition, the jury is still out on what caused their extinction.

    This is a stereotype that needs to be questioned.

  • Leonora Ferreira says:

    Suggested reading: The Smart Neanderthal by Clive Finlayson

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    at the rate Homo Sapiens are going it is very likely they will be extinct very soon. perhaps not a bad thing as they are not much good except talk and no action!

  • Jim Cochrane says:

    Sure, our knowledge of Neandertals is seriously limited (and Harari is not necessary the best guide). But Balcomb is clearly not making a scientific argument, rather, a metaphorical one. The metaphor is an apt enough image of the extractive, desctructive aspects of our humanity as contrasted with the holistic, generative aspects with which we are also blessed. As I read Balcombs’ story – which is what it it, not a theoretical argument – it points to a conflict of attitudes that cuts across many dimensions of our common life together today (see Mariana Mazzucato’s _The Value of Everything_ for a solid economic argument from a leading thinker in this regard), a conflict that is indeed one between self-interested harm and cosmopolitan well-being. Balcomb’s story, read properly, is about this. And the stories we tell about our reality are not trivial. Thanks, Tony, from an old, long not seen friend. Jim

  • Carol Smith says:

    I enjoyed the comparison between the current participants in this battle with those of humans of long ago, but I don’t agree with the reasoning. I feel the reason Shell is going ahead with the blasting is not because “they have no capacity to imagine where things are going if they carry on with what they are doing in the way they are doing it.” They don’t care! They care only about the money they’ll make if there is oil there. They won’t be alive any more when life on earth has been totally destroyed, so why care about the effects of their actions?

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    If anyone out there still thinks the wild coast of the former Transkei is an idyllic pristine fauna, flora and marine reserve untouched by human hands, may I recommend a road trip out there?
    You will see that there are barely any trees left – firewood and charcoal sellers have seen to that – and the fishing resources are all but depleted. Goats, sheep and nguni cattle roam the highways, as do unbelievably bad drivers, and you will see precious few wild birds and absolutely NO wild animals.
    The towns along the roads are all beset and blockaded by filth, squalor and gridlock.
    Housing is by way of ugly rural sprawl – I have no idea how you deliver services to scattered dwellings covering just about every hillside in sight. I guess the massive amount of plastic litter spread over the same hillsides is testament to how difficult it is.
    Trump is a fool – but he said a mouthful when he called Africa a s***hole – the former Transkei slots straight in there.
    What further damage can Shell do to a region that has already been systematically decimated?

  • Rolando MacJones says:

    If the Neanderthals were the brutes and Sapiens were the gentle nurturers then how come Sapiens killed off all the Neanderthals and not vice versa?

  • Quentin du Plooy says:

    Er…but it is Sapiens who have plundered. I think you have missed an essential point of Hariri’s book

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    Thank you. A very poignant point about human survival, and wonderfully described.

    Indeed the texts on sustainability are showing us that traditional world views are an important source of institutional knowledge that the modern “Neanderthal brain” of the extractive capitalist regime fail to appreciate, to our detriment for survival of our species.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted