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Fascinating New Look at Our Kindred Neanderthals

I'm heartened by the fact that we have been Homo sapiens for 200,000 years and that new evidence suggests that for 190,000 of those years we lived in communal, cooperative and egalitarian groups. No rulers, no class structure or private property, no gender disparities.


And I've mentioned before that there's great work being done to unravel the bias against/invisibility of women in the archaeological and anthropological records. 


Now there's fresh, startling evidence that Neanderthal culture was far more advanced that previously thought.


Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)


This book is written in a lively and entertaining style, is very serious about its scholarship while being entirely assessable and, as it was just released, contains all the very latest discoveries and some musings about Covid-19. (Also, thank you Ms. Sykes for including female scientists among your sources.)


The book was so fascinating that I took eight pages (10 point single spaced!) of notes which I've greatly shortened and included below. But here are the top things I took away from Kindred:


  1. Neanderthals lived between 450,000 to 40,000 years ago, "endured for an astonishing 350,000 years -- and settled in areas from northern Wales across Asia and south to the Middle East," a much more extensive range than previously believed.
  2. Archeologists can now prove that Neanderthals wore clothing they made, created composite tools that included cooked adhesive, told stories, made art, understood concepts of time and memory, and built structures – including what could be a temple – in a cave that dates back to 174,000 years ago. It had been thought that only homo sapiens could do these things.
  3. There were no appreciable differences between the sizes of male and female Neanderthals, so the possibility of alpha males or hierarchy is very remote.
  4. Total population estimates for Neanderthals tend to be in the tens of thousands or even less.
  5. "Outside Africa we [homo sapiens] nearly went extinct at least once and suffered a major population crash around 70,000 years ago," just before the majority of interbreeding with Neanderthals. Page 425
  6. Homo sapiens lived at the same time as at least five other hominins: "Neanderthals, Denisovans, the diminutive Indonesian H. floresiensis "hobbits" and other tentatively-named Asian populations like homo luzonensis, while in Africa homo naledi must be the vanguard for other as-yet-unidentified populations." Page 439



Further notes:


  • "Many things we thought beyond Neanderthals' ken are today widely accepted by a slow aggregation of data: tools made of materials other than stone, use of mineral pigments, collecting objects like shells and eagle talons… and by extension, engaging with aesthetics." Page 17-18
  • The most remarkable find came in 2011 from a level dated around 56,000 years ago...a large cleaver-shaped tool complete with flat blade and handle; exactly as you might find in the kitchen of a keen chef. page 148 – 149
  • Amazingly, some ancient adhesives have survived. Suspicious black residues on middle Paleolithic artifacts from Syrian sites turned out to be 50,000-year-old bitumen, a ready-to-stick natural asphalt. Page 149
  • "Composite tools in themselves also imply impressive mental capacity to plan, design and anticipate. It seems unlikely that individual Neanderthals developed their sophisticated technologies without social learning contexts, and reasonably elaborate communication." Page 161
  • "Neanderthal bodies don't have any extreme size difference between the sexes, as we see in gorillas, which means it's unlikely there were alpha males with harems. That means that, unlike many other primates, parenting was more likely a shared task, and adult partnerships were long-term affairs." Page 313
  • "It's not unusual to see [women] join hunts, take part in kills and dominate the primary butchery. And wherever they are, women and children frequently team up for local hunting of smaller game. Perhaps most surprising, in some hunter gatherers cultures tiny family groups including women and babies will head off seasonally into the land, supporting themselves for weeks at a time." Page 199
  • Nobody today denies [Neanderthals] used fire (as hominins have for over 1 million years), and hearths undeniably become more common through the course of the Middle Paleolithic. From about 120,000 years ago fire was obviously part of everyday life.
  • They were surely among the first humans to tell stories. The things they collected, took apart, carried and brought back together were about more than survival. They also mark an amplification in communication, an inexhaustibly rich channel to express connections and meanings beyond the mundane. Page 284
  • Bruniquel Cave in southwest France: 174,000 yrs ago, two human-made rings on the chamber floor, a built construction with a flat plate balanced on a cylinder bearing evidence of multiple points burning within small piles. "Meticulous study found complexity at every level...The only monumental construction known to have been made by Neanderthals. Bruniquel laughs in the face of austere, survival-only explanations for Neanderthal behavior. It surely was made by thinking, but also feeling minds. Emotions in reality underlie virtually everything people do no matter if logical explanations also exist. All human cultures also have a desire for transcendence." Page 290
  • Neanderthals, over considerable periods of time, were interested in applying color to unusual things. That, fundamentally, is a definition of art. Recent analytical advances have identified pigments in more than 70 sites, just in Europe... But what for?... Color is central to visual displays for social communication across the animal world. Neanderthals were experimenting, combining substances to create different visual effects. Neanderthals were color mixing at an "unexpectedly ancient result of 115,000 years ago." Page 299
  • What Neanderthals do have in common with early Homo sapiens prior to 45,000 years ago is an absence of any unequivocal representational art, manifested by carvings or breathtaking creatures running across stone ceilings. The oldest known image of an animal was painted before 40,000 years ago in Sulawesi Indonesia; there are also handprints around the same age from Borneo and around 41,000 years ago a tiny woman sculpted in ivory was left at Vogelherd Germany...The very oldest graphic in graving is a clear zigzag on the surface of a freshwater shell from [Java] made an astonishing 500,000 years ago. Page 307
  • Genome-based calculations… place interbreeding between 90 and 45,000 years ago. Page 380-81
  • While at most just 2 to 3% of any living person's genome is Neanderthal, it's still a significant amount. Page 394
  • "Finishing this book in the late spring of 2020, it's impossible not to wonder if a terrible contagion might've been added into the mix [to make the Neanderthal's extinct], jumping from us to them. Obviously invisible on skeletons or in genomes, nonetheless what seemed like a fringe concern over the past decades no longer appears so unlikely." Page 437
  • "Neanderthals were never some sort of highway service station en route to Real People. They were state-of-the-art humans, just have a different sort. Their fate was a tapestry woven from the lives of individual hybrid babies, entire assimilated groups, and in remoter corners of Eurasia, lonely dwindling lineages – endlings – who left nothing behind but DNA sifting slowly down into the dirt to the cave floor." Page 439


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