On Wednesday, President Joe Biden criticized several states, including Texas, for prematurely lifting their mask mandates amid the COVID-19 crisis, warning that such “Neanderthal thinking” is “a big mistake.”
“I hope everyone’s realized by now these masks make a difference,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office. “The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that ‘in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it.’ It still matters.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) responded on Thursday, telling Fox Business that, actually, emulating Neanderthals is a good thing.
“Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers, they’re protectors of their family, they are resilient, they’re resourceful, they tend to their own,” she said. “So I think Joe Biden needs to rethink what he is saying.”
Neanderthals are also extinct ― a fact Blackburn didn’t point out in her response.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki later clarified that Biden was criticizing some governors for acting like Neanderthals, not calling them Neanderthals personally.
Experts on the ancient hominids told HuffPost that while there is indeed plenty to admire about Neanderthals, their story really should be seen as more of a cautionary tale than an aspirational one.
For starters, their extinction can likely be traced back to an inability to adapt to major environmental changes, said Chris Stinger, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London and a fellow of the Royal Society.
“We don’t really know why they died out, but it was probably a combination of rapidly changing climates/environments and economic competition from our own species, after we emerged from Africa and grew in numbers and range from about 45,000 years ago,” Stinger said in an email.
“As for negatives, well, they did indulge in a bit of cannibalism from time to time, but then so did our species, Homo sapiens, and several other human species!”
The spread of disease from modern humans may also have played an early role in the Neanderthals’ downfall.
Stanford postdoctoral researcher Gili Greenbaum posited that theory in a 2019 study published in the journal Nature Communications, where he argued that modern humans may have carried tropical diseases with them as they migrated to temperate regions. Upon encountering Neanderthals, modern humans could have traded pathogens with them. And then, Homo sapiens likely ceased migrating, setting up what would become a slow but ultimately deadly stalemate.
“Our research suggests that diseases may have played a more important role in the extinction of the Neanderthals than previously thought,” Greenbaum told Stanford’s news service at the time. “They may even be the main reason why modern humans are now the only human group left on the planet.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.