In Episode 3 of Ancient Apocalypse, Graham Hancock gives us a good opportunity to better understand how science and archaeology really work. Hancock repeatedly claims that mainstream archaeology refuses to acknowledge the fact that there were Neanderthals on Malta at some point during the last ice age. After all, there are two teeth found in an archaeological site on Malta that could be from Neanderthals (and we’ll come back to those).
This, Hancock claims, is just another example of the contrariness of academic archaeologists, and even perhaps of an archaeological conspiracy to hide the true nature of the past.
The episode shows a map of the Malta region at the height of the last ice age, when sea levels were at their lowest in the recent past. It shows clearly that Malta was attached to the mainland of Europe at that time, along with Sicily. So far so good. No argument there.
Hancock then argues that it would make sense for Neanderthal to follow prey species as they moved about the land, perhaps all the way down to Malta. At this point, I am thinking “yes, that makes a lot of sense, In fact I fully expect it happened.”
So why then, Hancock asks, are archaeologists “opposed” to the idea that Neanderthals were on Malta during the last ice age? “Hang on”, I think to myself. “I am not opposed to that idea at all.”
So where does the confusion come from? That’s where science comes in. There is a big difference between claiming that there were no Neanderthals on Malta during the last ice age, and saying that we don’t have evidence of their presence. Hancock’s hunting scenario makes perfect sense, and I would be surprised if it never happened.
In essence, we’re dealing here with a sampling issue. The Neanderthal population was small, and it left relatively few traces on the whole landscape of Europe. After all this time, and after a glaciation and deglaciation, which both mess up the land pretty badly, we’re lucky to find any of those traces at all. When we do, they are often in sheltered locations like cave sites.
Now, assuming that traces of Neanderthal activity were fairly evenly distributed over the available European landscape, ask yourself what are the odds that a few of those rare traces were preserved on Malta, which is a tiny part of that overall landscape. The probability is very low. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Neanderthals hunted in Malta, and I would be equally unsurprised if we never found any traces of them on the island.
That absolutely doesn’t mean that I am “opposed” to the idea that there were Neanderthals on Malta. My question, as an archaeologist, is whether there is any evidence of their presence, which again, I expect is probably real.
The claimed evidence so far consists of teeth. In 1918, Sir Arthur Keith wrote in the journal Nature that:
“The peculiar teeth of this race were reported from the Mousterian strata of a cave in Jersey by Dr. R. R. Marett in 1911. Excavations in the cave of Ghar Dalam, in the south-eastern corner of Malta, carried out by Dr. Giuseppe Despott, curator of the Natural History Museum of the University of Malta, working for a research committee of the British Association, has brought to light the remains of Neanderthal man in that island, thus extending the distribution of this species to another continent;”
The teeth in question, from Keith 1918
The teeth are not widely accepted as Neanderthal, though. In a recent history of the case, Boulinier (2004) concludes (quoting the abstract):
“In 1917, two very special human molars with a wide extension of their pulp cavity and fused fang were found in Neolothic excavations in Malta. As he had observed such a dental morphology of Neanderthal man in Jersey Arthur Keith (1866-1955) called that taurodontism and claimed it was a characteristic between Malta and the Italian coast he asserted that Neanderthat Man had lived in Malta. The theory has never been corroborated and taurodontism is not so characteristic as supposed by Keith. Furthermore it might be an individual pathological feature. Up to now there is no proof of human beings in Malta before about 5,000 BC.”
Note that Boulinier quite appropriately says that, the teeth not being considered reliable evidence, “there is no proof of human beings in Malta before about 5,000 BC.” Boulinier, absolutely does not say that there were no humans beings in Malta before 5000 BC, which is the correct way of approaching an archaeological problem from a scientific perspective.
We’ve learned a lot about Neanderthal teeth, and about all kinds of other ancient stuff, since Keith made his initial determination more than a hundred years ago, and we have applied that knowledge to the available evidence. We’ve evaluated and re-evaluated claims and scenarios of prehistory in light of our changing understanding of evidence.
Were there Neanderthals on Malta? I would say probably yes, at some point. Do we have physical evidence of their presence? Not at the moment. Would I be surprised if it ever came up? Not one bit. Would it rewrite the textbooks? Not at all. Most importantly, would it fundamentally alter how we approach archaeological problems? Again, no.
But it would be really, really cool, and I hope it happens. Despite what Graham Hancock is telling you, that’s how scientific archaeology actually works: with evidence, and often with wonder.
Boulinier G. [Arthur Keith and the first settlement of human being in Malta. Two subversive teeth]. Histoire des sciences Médicales. 2004 Jan-Mar;38(1) 37-48. PMID: 15211991. https://europepmc.org/article/med/15211991
Keith, A. Discovery of Neanderthal Man in Malta. Nature 101, 404–405 (1918). https://doi.org/10.1038/101404a0
5 thoughts on “Ancient Apocalypse archaeology update 3: Were there Neanderthals in Malta?”
Typical straw man argument.
I don’t think I’m gonna watch one minute of this series, but I have read some reviews which seem to have a common theme. Basically, it’s yeah, this is all speculative tripe, but the cinematography is stunning and you should see it. I suppose that’s a way to lure folks in and have them believe the nonsense regardless.
Something comes to mind however, in regard to excrement and polishing same.
The cinematography is generally very well done, and the visualizations are exceptional for this sort of documentary, but the writing is pretty annoying. A lot of the narration sounds like clickbait article titles. “Graham Hancock Discovers This One Weird Trick, Archaeologists Hate Him.” I am not a subject matter expert, and I can’t comment on the veracity of his claims. But the style of writing sounds like he’s trying to sell me something.
I agree with much of what you say. However, you seem to omit the fact that Graham Hancock based his claim of Neanderthals having been in Malta before 5000 B.C. on not only the mere existence of those teeth, but also on lab analyses conducted by three distinct anthropologists at the behest of Dr. Mifsud. I hope to see the results of those analyses become public and fall under the scrutiny of other archeologists in order to ascertain their veracity, but to insinuate that he is merely making stuff up is quite disingenuous in this particular case.
I haven’t been able to find those. I’d love to see them, and I would definitely update the analysis if I get them. Let me know if you find something.