I met the two Geico cavemen at a party at my neighbor Malia‘s house over the weekend. She is a professor of film writing at Columbia University who has been famous for a lot more than 15 minutes since writing the screenplay for Jurassic Park. The guys, whose names are Terrence and Leslie, by the way, are working on a project with Steven Spielberg, and when they told him they want to buy a condo in Harlem, he put them in touch with Malia, who owns a nice one. We hit it off immediately.
I don’t know about you, but I was really surprised to find out that there even were any Neandertals left. I had assumed they were extinct. It seems that it’s a common misconception. Terrence and Leslie will be spearheading a foundation with Speilberg to raise awareness about Neandertals. Honestly, we have treated these folks so shamefully over the past 50,000-30,000 years! Amazingly, they continue to be portrayed in the arts as brutish, violent and very low wattage. I apologize to any readers of H. Neanderthal descent I may have unwittingly offended when I unfeelingly told or laughed at dumb caveman jokes over the years.
The project is to be called SAME --Shared Ancestors Mean Equality—and Spielberg, a committed advocate for diverse hominin rights, is expected to put substantial weight behind the foundation in the same manner as he did with his Shoah project.
Over drinks, I learned that Terrence and Leslie had never heard Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner discussing daily ancient life in the 2,000 Year Old Man. After their original objections to listening to something that was so obviously and hugely off from a dating perspective, we took our glasses of merlot and crossed the hall to my house where I popped the old VHS from the 1970s into the player. The ethnographic record is notoriously lacking for this period, so I was eager to get their takes on what Brooks, who was also there back then, had to say. Brooks is an AMH—an anatomically modern human-- and not of Neandertal origin, so his very existence stands as testimony to the heinous time when H. sapiens ruthlessly wiped out H. Neandertalensis throughout Europe and the Levant. One cannot but think with shame of the proto-Colonialist ethnic cleansing by our AMH forebears. I note with gratitude the generous spirit of Terrence and Leslie, whose dedication to the expansion of our knowledge of their culture allowed them to overcome their personal pain to watch Brooks--a living member of the oppressor/invader group that exterminated their species-- discuss ancient daily life.
MEL BROOKS, ACTOR, AS 2,000-YEAR-OLD MAN: Many years ago,
housands of years ago, there was no heavy industry.
CARL REINER, INTERVIEWER: We know that.
BROOKS: The most things that we manufactured or we made -- the most things
that we ever made was we would make -- take a piece of wood, see, and rub it,
and rub it, and clean it, and look at it, and hit Earth with it, and hit a tree with it.
REINER: For what purpose?
BROOKS: Just to keep busy. There was nothing to do. There was absolutely
nothing to do. We had no jobs, don't you see?
REINER: What other jobs were there? There must have been something else
beside hitting a tree with a piece of stick.
BROOKS: No, that -- hitting a tree with a piece of stick was really a good job.
You couldn't get that job, you know.
REINER: What jobs...
BROOKS: Mainly was sitting and looking in the sky was a big job. And another
job was watching each other, was one thing. That was life-like -- looking at
REINER: And what language did you speak at that time?
BROOKS: They spoke rock; basic rock.
REINER: Basic rock. That was before Hebrew.
BROOKS: Yeah, it was. It was 200 years before Hebrew was the rock language
or rock talk.
REINER: Could you give us an example of that?
BROOKS: Yes. Hey, put that -- don't throw that rock at me. Hey, what are you
doing with that rock? Call the policeman, for God's sake...
REINER: I see.
BROOKS: ... put that rock away.1
Terrence and Leslie looked at me balefully.
“It is exactly this kind of thing, this promulgation of misleading information, which continues to wreak untold damage on the popular impression of Neandertals,” Leslie noted. “This is precisely the sort of toxic influence that SAME plans to put an end to. The popular perception of us as a bunch of humanoid dodos must end today.” He continued: ”The worst part is, that we weren’t anything like that. I mean, we lasted a long time, we had a good run. The thrust of current thinking appears to be that we were cultural retards who lost out in the evolution lottery because we were too stupid to continue and didn’t spend any time on cave decoration. Blaming us for our own demise is really low.”
“Exactly” Terrence added “It makes me really sad when I see stuff like this. Life was really hard back then. The idea that we sat around peeling sticks like monkeys and speaking guttural gibberish is deeply offensive to us. After Dad died in a hunting accident, Mom really worked had to keep us alive, even taking on a second job…she had to be both hunter and gatherer for us.”
“What happened to her?” I asked.
“After Dad died and we got older, she moved south and hooked up with an AMH cave painter.”
“How did that work out?”
“She was happy at first. This guy gave her beads, painted the cave—he spoiled her—Dad had never been able to give her anything but slabs of meat. They kept trying to have kids, but she just had miscarriages. These inter-species relationships frequently don’t work out. She eventually lost a fight with a sabre tooth.”
“Oh, my. Are you able to talk about what happened to your father?”
“Sure, it was a really long time ago, the pain has lessened. Poor guy was trampled to death by a herd of wild horses he was trying to kill.”
“Ouch! Do you know that Neandertal bone injuries from fossilized remains show the same kinds of bone breakage as those sustained by present day rodeo riders?”2 I showed them the article in National Geographic and one of the accompanying drawings.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! This is a cartoon, not an illustration,” I blurted. “How callous of me. These guys are being massacred by a huge bull and the females are all laughing! That is so inappropriate!”
“Hey, don’t worry, “ Leslie jumped in. “That’s exactly what used to happen. Neandertal females hunted just as much as males. Males and females took turns going in for the kill. On their off days they acted as game beaters and cheered from the sidelines.”
“But their mates are being stomped and gored,” I protested.
“Look, “ Terrence added, “you’ve gotta laugh. You pick your battles and you win some and you lose some. And when you lose, you die. But you have to keep laughing. What else can you do?”
“I want to get back to humor in a minute, but before we move on, let me just ask you this. As Neandertals yourselves, I am certain that you have deeply important light to shed on what did finally wipe out just about every other H. Neanderthalensis. What do you think were the most important factors leading to the disappearance of your species?”
“We don't have a nose for real estate.”
“Would you explain that, Leslie?”
“Sure. We were nuts to go so far north. It was far from everything, the caves were dark and had no views, we were surrounded by hostile animals that weren’t too keen on gentrification and didn’t want their territory taken over by squatters. It was pretty grim. We could just as easily have settled on the Amalfi coast or in Provence, but for whatever reasons we didn’t. I’d say that Neandertals were overlooked when the Trump gene was selected for.”
“I would agree with Leslie, but I think the climate change had a lot to do with things as well. It was cold and getting colder. It was dark so much of the time that everyone suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and everybody was bummed out. I always wonder when ever they find these frozen mummies up in the Alps what were these guys thinking? I mean, seriously! Why would anyone choose to live in that environment when they didn’t have to? There was plenty of available land…and it was ages before North Face or LL Bean.”
“So would you both agree that H. Neanderthalensis disappeared because of bad real estate investments and global cooling?”
“Yes, absolutely,” Terrence nodded.
Leslie shoved his elbow in Terrence’s ribs. ”Maybe we weren’t so smart after all!” They dissolved into gales of weeping laughter.
“Listen, it’s getting late and I know you guys have to get back to Brooklyn, but let’s just talk for a minute about something I’m really eager to get your opinions about. You mentioned that your species routinely laughed while watching their family members die horrible deaths. Do you see that as some kind of psychological coping mechanism? Did you laugh because you really wanted to cry?”
“No, I’ll admit it was pretty much 6th grade humor, but we were way beyond the horror and the fear by then. It was a choice we made to look at the bright side rather than get caught up in the sturm und drang.”
“I’m with Terrence on that. Someone recently told me about some Australian Aborigines (sorry—I’m sure that can’t be the current PC term) who made a choice at least 35,000 years ago to laugh. They chose humor over despair because it just makes life more bearable. After years of being terrified of thunder, lightning, wind, waves, cloud formations and so on, they made a concerted effort to change their thinking. They decided to laugh whenever those things happened. They changed the way they thought, and now, after all these years, they are still laughing. Nature, weather everything went from major stressor causing great dread to being a good laugh.”
“So why is humor so important?”
“It is hopeful, full of possibility. It combats despair and that awful spiritual malaise. It prevents suicide and morbid religious dependency. You can have zero in common with people and still laugh at the same things. Humor is humanity’s glue.”
“Totally,” Leslie agreed. “We were watching Space Odyssey last week –we just love the opening sequence—and you know the black box, of course. Well, it suddenly occurred to me that what’s in the box…what gives us our fundamentally human quiddity, is not the tool use Kubrick suggested, but laughter.”
“How long has this been going on would you say?”
“At least 300,000 years ago give or take a hundred thousand here or there.”
“Was it a single incident? A Sistine Chapel moment?”
“Yes, it may have been some kind of sudden genetic mutation that appeared all at once that triggered it, but what happened is this. One day, long ago, all the habitual bipeds as well as the sometimes biped/sometimes arboreal got up in the morning as usual. At some time during the day, they each passed a river, lake, stream or watering hole, ocean—some body of water. At that moment, one member of each group was suddenly inspired to push another member into the water. Some ignored it and walked on, some ran and hid to protect themselves, some pulled their guy out, some pointed & laughed and let him drown, and others pointed, laughed and pulled him out. Of the three groups that pulled him out, the ones that rescued but did not laugh were the chimps, and the ones that either rescued him or let him drown but had a good laugh in the process, became human.”
It was time to leave. We exchanged kisses on both cheeks. One of them asked me how much I’d paid for my apartment. I told them, and they congratulated me for having the Trump gene. I gave them my real–estate broker’s email address.
1BASIC ROCK LANGUAGE
National Public Radio All Things Considered
April 28, 1998