Tuesday, August 12, 2014
The Valley of the Neanderthal People
Lucien Camille Claerr, my grandfather, was born in the mid- 1800's, in Alsace Lorraine, located in the northwest outskirts of the Alps that border France, Germany and Italy. The Alps have many moderate to large mountain peaks that surround secluded Alpine Valleys. My grandfather lived in a small village in one such valley. The villagers were hardy mountain pastoralists, farming the lower slopes and grazing livestock in the mountain pastures.
Lucien learned mountaineering arts at an early age, and when he was as a young adult, he explored the Alps during the summer months. With a bedroll and a backpack, he traveled about, climbing summits and visiting the remote villages all through Switzerland, France and as far south as northernmost Italy. Often he would offer to work for food and shelter, or sometimes, for a small sum of money.
He related this story to me of an adventure he had near the border of France and Italy. One day, deep in the interior, he happened across an isolated village that was peculiar in many respects.
The first thing he noticed was that the building construction was different. Thatched houses and barns had supports made of rough-hewn trunks with some of the big branches left on the trunk, to form arches that supported the ceiling beams. The men of the village were all burly and barrel-chested, bushy-haired and coarse featured, with enormous beards. They wore leather breeches and homespun shirts. The women were staying indoors, and he didn't see any for the first few days.
The men spoke with an usual accent and he could not understand some of them at all, though he spoke both French and German fluently. But one man, speaking fragmented bits of both languages befriended him. He offered him food, and lodging in his barn, in return for helping to build an irrigation sluice, fashioned from halves of hollowed-out logs. My grandfather was good with an ax, and after a week of solid labor, the man complemented him on his skillful work and invited him to dinner at his house, suggesting that he introduce him to his daughter. On the appointed evening, he went to their house.
When dinner was served, the daughter came out of the kitchen carrying a tray of food. Lucien was shocked to see that her "bare" arms were totally covered with the same thick, woolly hair that her father and the other men had on theirs, and that there seemed to be sideburns under her long shaggy hair. When she leaned forward to set the tray down, he perceived that she had more hair on her chest than he did! He was so disturbed that he had to fight to swallow down the food.
After the meal the men retired to the porch to smoke pipes. Lucien's host invited him to sleep in their house that night. Lucien accepted, but found himself lying awake half the night, tossing and turning. He remembered hearing stories about rural customs that required a man to be engaged to a bride after staying at her house for a night. In a fit, he finally got up and, quietly as possible, left the house. He went to the barn and hurriedly packed up his belongings. Fortunately, the night was brightly lit by the full moon, so he hastily hiked out of the valley, traveling many miles before even stopping a moment to rest.
Recently, I was reading about the successful sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. Consequent to the gene mapping, DNA sequences specific to the Neanderthals were identified in the DNA of a fair percentage of modern Europeans. I remembered my grandfather's story, which I had always thought of as a quaint and amusing tale. But his description of the people of that remote village could easily fit a geographically isolated population of Human-Neanderthal hybrids who had only infrequent contact with outsiders before the 20th century. Since many genetic researchers are currently sampling gene pools from distinct geographic areas, I would suggest this region as a possible target for gathering comparative data on human-neanderthal inter-species contact.
The narrative account was transcribed from a verbal account by Lucien Camille Claerr by the author, David A. Claerr. The image is a digital illustration by David A. Claerr and copyrighted in his name,