Giants, Neanderthals and old stories

So here’s a strange idea that’s been kicking around inside my head for a long time now, that I’ve never done anything with. I’m also not sure of just what would be the best way of testing it, but here it is for what it’s worth.

At least in Europe, and I suppose in other parts of the world, we have legends of giants and ogres, trolls and goblins, hobgoblins and other unpleasant lurkers in the dark, stealing our children and grinding their bones to make our bread, et cetera. We also are beginning to discover the extent to which modern humans such as our ancestors geographically cohabited with other branches of our recent family tree, such as Neanderthal man.  So could it be that these legends and stories are the warped cultural memory of the time when we so cohabited?  It wasn’t all that long ago, perhaps 10 000 years or so, and so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that we have some lurking distant memory of those times.

This is the sort of idea I like, I have to admit, digging into the past and trying to discover the origin of our old stories.  Could Enkidu, the wild man companion of Gilgamesh, have been a Neanderthal?  Part of the intrigue for me is the likelihood that we’ll never know, that this is a piece of knowledge that has been completely lost, because we have no good way of capturing or reconstructing a history that is primarily oral.

So what are some ways that we could test this idea.  One way would be, if we were to have a good record of where the stories of giants, ogres, trolls, et cetera, were common in folklore, to see what the correlations were with the geographical regions in which we cohabited.  But I’m not sure that such a record still exists or whether it’s even possible to reconstruct one, given the extent to the cultural communication that results from television, movies, books, and other ways of transporting stories from one place to another.

Another possibility is to find a region where humans had lived for a long time, tens of thousands of years, and where there exists no evidence of such geographical cohabitation.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure that such places exist.  Even the Americas wouldn’t be possible, because we may have cohabited with Neanderthal and other early humans before coming across the bridge into the new world.  I also have to admit to being lazy and never digging to see what stories of giants, et cetera, are contained in the mythologies of the Americas.

So, to close on this grey and overcast Sunday morning, I have a request.  If you have any ideas of how this might be tested, or you happen to know of any serious work that’s been done on this question, please do let me know.  Because I’m curious.

~ by Jim Anderson on 15 December 2013.

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