Christmas has the sound of carols while July Fourth the sight of fireworks, but only one American holiday has an aroma. A breeze of savory turkey from the kitchen is the essence of Thanksgiving. How it came to be associated is something of a mystery, but it’s a nice compensation for losing the vote to bald eagles when America chose its national bird.
We can’t be sure if they were on the menu at the very first Thanksgiving in the 1600s. Even the date and place of that celebration is contested. According to a tale often told, Thanksgiving began when persecuted Puritans arriving in God’s land from England celebrated their first harvest with new American Indian friends in Massachusetts. It is a story that nicely chimes with the proud national history we like to tell children.
But some twenty miles up the James River in Virginia, at the Berkeley Plantation (formerly Berkeley Hundred), a plaque commemorates a thanksgiving service in December 1619, a full year before the first Pilgrim Father stepped off the Mayflower.
Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.
The Berkeley bunch of rugged pioneers was more in tune with profit than piety, and they even had an entrepreneurial clergyman. According to legend, their Episcopal priest distilled the first bourbon whiskey from Indian corn in 1621—though the claim attracts a spirited rebuff from patriotic Kentuckians. But there can be no doubt that the colonists needed southern comfort, because the following year they were raided by Indians and the survivors had to be evacuated to the fort at Jamestown. Thanksgiving was suspended at Berkeley for some years, leaving the northern upstarts with the reputation of an honored meal in perpetuity.
The colonists would say that Thanksgiving turkeys today are a pale, vast, and grotesque transmogrification of their wild relatives that fatten naturally on mast in the fall woods. Wild turkey was daily fare for them, much as rabbit was for their relatives in England. I imagine children complaining when mothers served it for the umpteenth time. It requires rarity and high market price for us to value delicacies. Over-hunting brought a turnabout, although in the past century wild turkeys have become common again through conservation efforts and reintroduction to where they had been extirpated.
We see them rustling through leaf litter in woods, gleaning fields, and even waddling along roadsides, with their disproportionately tiny heads bobbing constantly. If you come within a couple of hundred feet of them, you may be surprised how shy they are and the speed with which they vanish in a racket of whirring feathers. Remember, they are flying carcasses with heavy payloads of breast meat.
They know when it is hunting season, and gather in small parties of adults and jakes because the more eyes the better. There were thirteen in our woods last week, but if they had bigger brains they would know it’s an unlucky number.
Was there a population that never experienced discrimination? Prejudice has an ancient pedigree, perhaps wired into the human psyche. I was musing whether Neanderthal people bore it first and endured the stigma longest. Thirty thousand years after they mysteriously disappeared, they are still regarded as oafish cavemen.
But at least we regard them as human, while ridiculing their long noses, brow-ridges, and prow-mouths. Besides the evidence of fossilized skeletons and DNA, I wonder if their humanity is also defined by our prejudicial attitudes, because we only look down on our own kind. We never hold animals in the same contempt as people, because even the great apes are subordinate beasts! It is not because other people are so different that we discriminate, but because they are too similar. When we look down our noses at other races, both archaic and modern, we reveal our deeper insecurities, and perhaps anxieties about losing superiority and being swamped.
Social scientists and anthropologists have not always been totally objective in their estimation of other tribes and races. I doubt there was ever a researcher who found his own race was inferior in character or intelligence to another, or if he did he never published it!
Sometimes people who know better don’t admit the facts. Over twenty years ago, my department hosted a distinguished British anatomist, who shall be nameless. He denied that Neanderthals had a slightly larger cranial volume (hence, brain size) than ourselves. It was useless arguing with him because he was a ‘Sir’ and a Fellow of the Royal Society. If he had admitted that their larger brain was merely in proportion to a larger body, we might have drawn a truce rather than ending the exchange in sulky silence. But he refused to discuss the hypothesis that they might have been our equals.
Poor Neanderthals need publicity agents to throw back slurs based on ignorance. There is so much we don’t know, and may never know. Did our first great encounter with these people begin with the exchange of gifts or at the point of a spear? According to a common fairy story, the dim Neanderthals were doomed when our brilliant ancestors arrived on the scene. We flatter ourselves with triumphal tales, even though this one is grotesquely reminiscent of the way we treated people when colonizing their lands, subjugating them in the name of civilizing inferior natives.
On the first world voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1826-1830), FitzRoy captured three natives in Tierra del Fuego and took them home to England. The Fuegians were dressed up as English folk, taught the language, instructed in the Christian faith, and even presented to the Royal Family. On the second voyage, with Charles Darwin as ship’s naturalist, the three were returned to their homeland where they quickly reverted to custom by throwing away their clothes and painting their skin with pigments. FitzRoy thought this behavior vindicated his theory that the gulf with civilized nations is too deep to cross. Savages will always be savages, and always inferior.
On the other hand, Darwin, an old-fashioned Whig or liberal, was awed by the mystery, “Whence have they come?” He accepted a hierarchy of human races, but believed it was moveable. He disagreed with Captain Fitzroy about most things, including slavery, which must have been awkward on a long voyage in a shared cabin. After they sailed home, immigrants started colonizing the southern tip of the continent. They treated the natives as feral humans, and those that survived epidemic diseases were otherwise exterminated.
Years later, Darwin was shown a skull excavated from a cave in Gibraltar (and is now at the Natural History Museum in London). This was the first fossil of an adult Neanderthal, and it predates by eight years another find in the Neander Valley which gave the people their name. Instead of sharing the general opinion that it represented a primitive brute, he cautioned, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” Human genealogy has rolled out slowly since his day because our fossils are rare, but molecular genetics reveals branches on our family tree that challenge the stories we were told.
Recently, pure DNA was extracted from fossil bones to obtain a nearly complete sequence of the Neanderthal genome. I doubt if many people expected that between one and four per cent overlaps the genomes of modern Europeans and Asians. Today’s Africans have none of it though, which implies that the fraction possessed by the rest of humanity is not a residue from a common ancestor hundreds of thousands of years earlier. That Neanderthal DNA exists in us today is because our ancestors coming out of Africa about 50,000 years ago met Neanderthals living in the Middle East, with whom they intermarried (call the coupling what you will). Fossil evidence confirms that we did co-exist with them for 5,000 years, so there was plenty of time for integration, and our Neanderthal heritage is not the result of sporadic mating. I guess it was mostly consensual because I find it hard to imagine a Neanderthal woman being carted away unwillingly from her menfolk, who were like the beefiest NFL players you could imagine! But I digress.
Analysis of my own DNA reveals that I inherited 2.7% from Neanderthals. That is close to average for my ethnicity, and more than I share with my third cousins. The news amused me until I mused that it was ‘good DNA,’ for otherwise it would never have lasted so long after the weddings. Some bits of the genome have persisted more than others. We have acquired many genes associated with skin and hair, which implies that Neanderthal adaptations to cold were advantageous for our ancestors too when the next Ice Age arrived. However, we also hung on to genes linked with modern diseases, which seems perverse. Perhaps they were not so bad in the past before we adopted our current lifestyle and diet. Genes encouraging fat storage, but predisposing us to adult-type diabetes and obesity, might have helped us to survive cycles of feast and famine, perhaps thanks to ‘thrifty DNA’ from Neanderthals.
The number of generations separating races of modern people from our common African ancestors is like a twig on the evolutionary tree compared with the much older branches shared with Neanderthals from whom we separated over half a million years earlier. Neanderthals are our cousins, but mutations and natural selection caused genomes to drift so far apart that geneticists suspect that hybridization was barely viable. When crosses are made between closely-related species like horses and donkeys, the products are usually sterile if any offspring can be produced at all. That hybrid humans may have had fertility problems is suggested by the absence of Neanderthal DNA in our genes that control the manufacture of sperm in testes. Perhaps it didn’t ‘fit’ there, and maybe absorption of Neanderthals into the new society contributed to their disappearance.
If the image of a Neanderthal man courting your beautiful greatetc-grandmother is repulsive, look at sculptures by the American paleo-artist, John Gurche. His art is based on careful studies of the physiognomy of archaic humans. He created a Neanderthal profile which is imposing, almost handsome, even noble.
Appearance matters, but intelligence often carries greater weight in our estimation of others. In the Victorian Age, phrenology was in vogue and its adherents trotted around the globe measuring the size and shape of skulls of rich and poor, saints and sinners, civilized nations and primitive tribes. They expected these measurements would predict people who were inferior in character and intellect, who always turned out to be the most disadvantaged in their studies. The discovery of Neanderthal bones gave them a new opportunity for skullduggery. In 1880, The Phrenological magazine declared, “The Cro-Magnon skull is superior to the Neanderthal skull in regard to intellectual and moral development … he was indeed a savage.” We may never know for sure, but I doubt that Neanderthals were dim people, or less bright than ourselves. That may seem contrary to signs that their tools and culture hardly evolved over eons, but neither did those of our ancestors advance much until the recent Agricultural Revolution. Could Neanderthals have struck a smarter deal, opting for a more stable relationship with nature than we have?
The German lion of Darwinism, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), would be flustered by modern research and scholarship because he suggested that Neanderthals should be called Homo stupidus to distinguish them from our brilliant selves, Homo sapiens (literally, ‘wise man’). It was a proposal that revealed prejudice, but our cousins had fortunately been named already, and precedent counts in taxonomy. They were designated a new species, Homo neanderthalensis, although taxonomists continue to argue whether they were a distinct species or the subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. I don’t understand the debate. To be a separate species, two populations must be reproductively isolated, either genetically (they can’t mate with each other) or geographically (they can’t hang out with each other). Since Neanderthal DNA exists in our genome, they ought to be regarded as a sub-species: more different than modern races are from each other, but inside the species fence.
The popular image of Neanderthals is gradually being turned upside down by advances in traditional and molecular paleontology. Contrary to the stereotypes, we now know they were fair-skinned with reddish hair, not strict carnivores but ate a mixed diet with cooked vegetables, probably had a language, and evidently created symbolic art on stone walls and decorated their bodies. Most touching of all is the suggestion of a tender humanity, and that they were not emotional icebergs. Since some of their skeletons have badly worn joints and are almost toothless, these people probably needed carers to help them to survive with disabilities. After death, their bodies were not discarded like carcasses of game animals, but given a respectful burial. Can you imagine last rites performed by a Neanderthal shaman?
This revisionary anthropology throws refreshing light on a maligned people, although over a century ago a Danish anthropologist, Hans Peter Steensby, rejected the impression of Neanderthals as ape-like, inferior beings. But prejudice is deeply imbedded, and despite efforts to exorcize the demon we easily express it unconsciously. The other day, I caught myself joking that I have less Neanderthal DNA than the rest of my family!
I lifted a sodden fur ball out of the pool skimmer one morning. It lay motionless in my hand with its life almost burned out. But when I peeled back an eyelid to check for the glazed eye of death, it winked.
It was a cottontail bunny, barely a month old, yet already independent of its mom. After falling into the pool overnight, it had scrambled (or swam, as rabbits can) to hold its head on a ledge above the cold water.
Wrapping him in a towel, I laid Peter in a warm cardboard box with the lid folded over to cover him in darkness. All wild bunnies at our home are called ‘Peter’ for sentiment’s sake, notwithstanding my doubts about his sex. As a boy, I learned the distinction is tricky, and once (but never again) made the mistake of keeping two ‘brothers’ together in the same hutch.
Hours later, when Peter had dried out, he still looked lifeless. My wife started to nurse the bundle, hoping that her own body heat would revive him. But his adrenal glands had been pouring out corticosteroids and epinephrine in a shrinking effort to generate energy for thermoregulation, and he was tipping towards hypoglycemia, heart block, and ventricular fibrillation. What should one do with a hypothermic rabbit?
In Beatrix Potter’s story, “Peter Rabbit was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed, and made some camomile tea; and she gave a dose of it to Peter. One table-spoonful to be taken at bed-time.”
Peter was unconscious. I had to gently prize his mouth open to insert a dropper for feeding him a little honey diluted in warm water. I hoped it would strengthen him, but didn’t expect to find him alive the next morning.
What a strange species that cares for varmints (vermin)! Most days, the sight of rabbits grazing in the garden can bring on murderous thoughts. Herbaceous borders and veggie beds are cultivated for our benefit, not as help-yourself salad bars for plunderers. There are no free lunches in our yard, not if we can help it, though there are exceptions. If a critter is promoted to become a patient or a pet, it is fed bounteously, and, if necessary, we even dig in our pockets for a vet bill.
Luckless rabbits are not the only creatures that win the generosity of strangers. The same week, I disentangled a garter snake caught by its windings in a garden net. And, a day later, I screeched to a halt after narrowly driving past something crawling across the road, but I was too late to rescue it from becoming turtle soup under the wheels of a following vehicle.
Our ambiguous relationship to nature is deeply puzzling. We want to control wild nature, yet celebrate wildness. Despite our predatory instincts, it feels good to be merciful to animal casualties from road accidents and window strikes as well as orphans and victims of domestic pet attacks. We even adopt wild animals as if we had the duty of parents. Notwithstanding strange myths like Romulus and Remus, it is unlikely that role-reversal ever happened where an animal became the carer of a human dependent.
Our hearts are touched by the individual creature that falls into misfortune, but rarely by a herd or swarm or shoal. I can’t feel the same compassion for the anonymous rabbits in a whole warren as I did for Peter. We spare the individual and shoot the masses. When wee Peter plunged into our lives, his fluttering existence called on our compassion, and we happily submitted by welcoming him into our care for a few days. It seemed so natural and attractive to behave mercifully, even though it was against our nature to rescue a garden raider, and an edible one at that. Perhaps Peter was lucky to have his accident in our yard, and not next door in Mr. McGregor’s.
“Now my dears,” said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning (to the young bunnies), “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden; your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor” (The Tale of Peter Rabbit).
Our kindliness to animals is partly owing to our peculiar tendency to anthropomorphize them, and this may account for the greater tenderness shown them by young children. Peter Rabbit in Beatrix Potter’s Tales, and Hazel, Bigwig, and Cowslip in Watership Down, are all sympathetic characters modeled on our better selves. On the other hand, Napoleon, the Stalinist tyrant of Animal Farm, is a caricature of our grotesque side, which should greatly offend the civil porcine community.
Dreamers and writers have told utopian stories of making peace with the animal kingdom. Isaiah dreamt of the wolf living with the lamb, and the leopard lying with the kid; St. Francis delivered a sermon to the birds; we grow up with stories of animals who were friends of Tarzan, Mowgli and other heroes; and a bevy of cartoon animals living with humans have entertained us.
Maybe there is an even deeper reason why our sentimental selves are roused by the sight of a sick or dying animal? Perhaps Mr. Lockley in Watership Down put his finger on it. “Rabbits are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have … an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass.” When tragedy strikes, we share the mystery of mortality.
But returning to practical, if not legal, matters, as a law-abiding Virginia resident I ought to have handed Peter over for professional care. According to Virginia code, All persons caring for sick, injured, orphaned, or displaced wild animals are required to have a permit from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. It is illegal here to raise and treat wildlife without a permit. It seems odd that a critter that can be shot or poisoned with impunity cannot be cared for and rehabilitated except by authorization of the DGIF. Admittedly, there is a public safety argument (even rabbits can carry rabies), and it understandable for rare and endangered species, but for bunnies?
In fact, rabbits are among the most common species transferred to licensed ‘rehabbers.’ Across the state, there are over 300 trained rehabbers who care for injured, sick, orphaned and displaced wild animals with the goal of returning them to wild, or euthanizing those beyond help. These remarkable folk work for the love of animals at their own cost, with veterinary backup when surgery or medications are needed. Every species has its specific dietary and accommodation needs, so rehabbers can’t offer an ‘Ark’ service for every critter presented on their doorstep by the gentle public. Some specialize in hawks, owls and eagles; others care for reptiles and amphibians; some are devoted to the furry kind. And when large creatures need long-term care or cannot be released, they are transferred to specialized centers. The Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro has cared for 65,000 patients of many types since 1982.
Peter needed gentle handling because rabbits are high stress animals that easily die from shock. The fictitious Bigwig was less sentimental about the mortality of his relatives than we were for Peter. He thought that extreme measures to save them are not necessary because “a wild animal that feels that it no longer has any reason to live reaches in the end a point when its remaining energies may actually be directed toward dying.” Perhaps that’s why a live prey carried away in the gape of a fox or the claws of a hawk seems to give up the struggle by going limp before its death throes.
Perhaps our Peter had already given up when I fished him out the pool. But, if he was yielding, I refused to accept his fate, and that brought his story to a happy ending. Maybe it was the warmth of strangers or the taste of honey, but something we did revived him. And, later that week, he could scamper off to the veggie bed and disappear among his kind.