Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes explains how modern techniques are helping us to better understand Neanderthals, as well as where we fit in to the family tree
19 August 2020
Neanderthal art in Spain, painted between 43,000 and 65,000 years ago
Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images
Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art
HOW we began to unpick our species’ ancient past in the late 19th century is an astounding story, but not always a pretty one. As well as attaining tremendous insights into the age of Earth and how life evolved, scholars also entertained astonishingly bad ideas about superiority.
Some of these continue today. Why do we assume that Neanderthals, who flourished for 400,000 years, were somehow inferior to Homo sapiens or less fit to survive?
In Kindred, a history of our understanding of Neanderthals, Rebecca Wragg Sykes separates perfectly valid and reasonable questions – for example, “why aren’t Neanderthals around any more?” – from the thinking that casts our ancient relatives as “dullard losers on a withered branch of the family tree”.
As an archaeologist with a special interest in the cognitive aspects of stone tool technologies, Wragg Sykes paints a fascinating picture of a field transformed almost beyond recognition over the past 30 years.
Artefacts at well-preserved sites are no longer merely dug and brushed: they are scanned. High-powered optical microscopes pick out slice and chop marks, electron beams trace the cross-sections of scratches at the nano-scale and rapid collagen identification techniques can determine an animal from even tiny bone fragments.
The risk with any new tool is that, in our excitement, we over-interpret the results it throws up. For example, while Neanderthals may have performed some funerary activity, they may not have thrown flowers on their loved ones’ graves as we once thought.
Other stories continue to accumulate a weight of circumstantial evidence. We have known for a few years that some Neanderthals tanned leather; now it seems they may also have spun thread.
“The significance of Neanderthal art may simply be that Neanderthals had fun making it”
An exciting aspect of this book is the way it refreshes our ideas about our own place in hominin evolution.
Rather than congratulating other species when they behave like us, Wragg Sykes shows that it is much more fruitful to see how human talents are related to behaviours exhibited by other species.
Take art. We tend to ask questions like: were the circular stone assemblies discovered in a cave near Bruniquel in southern France in 2016 meant by their Neanderthal creators as monuments? What is the significance of the Neanderthal handprints and ladder designs painted on the walls of three caves in Spain?
In both cases, we would be asking the wrong questions, says Sykes. While striking, Neanderthal art “might not be a massive cognitive leap for hominins who probably already understood the idea of representation”.
Animal footprints are effectively symbols and tracking prey this way “requires an ‘idealised’ form to be kept in mind”, she writes.
Human infants, given painting materials, enjoy colouring and marking surfaces, though they aren’t in the least bit invested in the end result of their labours. The same is also true of captive chimpanzees. Why, then, should we see Neanderthal art with any significance, beyond the possibility that Neanderthals had fun making it?
Neanderthal DNA contains glimmers of encounters between them and other hominin species. Recent research suggests that interbreeding between Neanderthals and Denisovans, as well as Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, was effectively the norm. Like modern cattle and yaks, we were closely related species that varied in bodies and behaviours, yet could also reproduce.
Neanderthals were part of our family, and though we carry some part of them inside us, we will never see their like again.
Who were the Neanderthals?
Hear Rebecca Wragg Sykes talk about our ancient cousins
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