Outside/In[box]: Would Ice Age humans still think of ice as 'cold'?
Every other Friday on Morning Edition, the Outside/In team answers a question from a listener about the natural world.
This week, Philip asks: “Have humans always thought of ice as cold? Or has our conception of hot and cold shifted with the climate? To put it another way: would a neanderthal in Maine still have needed a jacket in November?”
COLD AS ICE?
This is one of those great questions where I could either start with what I think Philip is asking or jump right into the example. Let’s start with the latter.
So would a Neanderthal in Maine in November need a jacket?
First, there were no Neanderthals in Maine. Most Neanderthal remains are found in Europe, and as far as we know, the only species of human to ever step foot in North America is Homo sapiens.
Second, to answer this question accurately we’d have to know when Philip was talking about — because if you project the Gregorian Calendar tens of thousands of years into the past, you’ll find that November doesn't always mean “chilly weather.”
Archaeologists believe Neanderthals lived from 40,000 years ago to more than 350,000 years ago. Over that period, the climate has both been colder and warmer than it is today.
Always pictured Neanderthals hanging around glaciers and hunting woolly mammoths? You can also imagine them tanning on the beach collecting shellfish.
“If the question is a Neanderthal who grew up in a glacial period…are they going to feel cold in general? I think the answer is yes,” said Rebecca Wragg Sykes, archaeologist and author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art. “Because if you look at people from northern latitudes they still have to wear an awful lot of clothing.”
Rebecca basically told me you don’t need to be an archaeologist to figure this one out. In other words, do the existing Indigenous communities who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years think ice is cold?
And to tie up one loose thread here, yes, Rebecca believes that Neanderthals during glacial periods would have needed some sort of fitted clothing. A big ol’ cave bear pelt draped fashionably over the shoulders wouldn’t have cut it.
THE CHILLING EFFECT
So now that’s out of the way, let's complicate matters. Ice, generally speaking, is cold — but how we perceive cold generally is relative to our experience. Our perceptions of hot and cold are also influenced by our bodies, our cultures, and our expectations.
Susana Martinez-Conde is a neuroscientist who has written a lot about sensory perception. In an article for Mental Floss, she wrote about how human women on average have a lower resting rate of metabolism than men.
That means they’re more likely to feel cold, say, in an office building where the standard for “comfortable temperatures” was designed by and for a male workforce.
But cultural factors are also at play. When you take into account the different expectations of what constitutes “professional attire,” it’s hard to know why someone is shivering (or sweating) in their cubicle. Is it biology, dress code, or both?
And our perceptions can change over time. Susana Martinez-Conde told me that some Korean women used to collect shellfish by diving into deep water wearing only thin cotton bathing suits. They would do this even during the winter.
But in the 70s, the divers started using wetsuits.
“There are some laboratory studies that have been conducted,” Susana told me, “and it seems that cold tolerance is not what it used to be when these women divers didn’t have access to wet suits.”
Again, is this because of a shift in cultural expectations or biology?
Either way, it would make sense that an Ice Age climate could increase cold tolerance for certain individuals over time. Neanderthals (and early Homo Sapiens) would still face threats like frostbite and hypothermia, but maybe they wouldn’t complain as readily as I do when the thermostat dips below 60 degrees.
FIRE AND ICE
But just to completely and utterly blow this question up, Susana also told me that we can’t really know anything about how different people feel. Not just when we’re thinking about ancient humans. Even you and I can’t know how one another experiences cold, or pain, or even color.
Remember that viral meme a few years ago, with the dress that some people thought was gold and some people thought was blue?
Susana said perceptual scientists at the time were blown away. It’s like The Matrix movies.
“We all live in the Matrix in a sense, in the Matrix that our brains create. We cannot know what anybody else experiences. Every time I experience red you could be experiencing green, and vice versa, and we would never know… Because we can never know outside our own experience.”
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