REVIEW: Kindred – Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes
In Kindred, Neanderthal expert Rebecca Wragg Sykes shoves aside the cliché of the shivering ragged figure in an icy wasteland, and reveals the Neanderthal you don’t know, our ancestor who lived across vast and diverse tracts of Eurasia and survived through hundreds of thousands of years of massive climate change. This book sheds new light on where they lived, what they ate, and the increasingly complex Neanderthal culture that researchers have discovered.
Since their discovery 150 years ago, Neanderthals have gone from the losers of the human family tree to A-list hominins. Our perception of the Neanderthal has changed dramatically, but despite growing scientific curiosity, popular culture fascination, and a wealth of coverage in the media and beyond are we getting the whole story? The reality of 21st century Neanderthals is complex and fascinating, yet remains virtually unknown and inaccessible outside the scientific literature.
Based on the author’s first-hand experience at the cutting-edge of Palaeolithic research and theory, this easy-to-read but information-rich book lays out the first full picture we have of the Neanderthals, from amazing new discoveries changing our view of them forever, to the more enduring mysteries of how they lived and died, and the biggest question of them all: their relationship with modern humans.
I had to cheer when Sykes tells of how reading Jean Auel’s “Clan of the Cavebear” inspired her to enter her scientific field. Her website name is even adorable – Trowelblazers. The blurb for this book intrigued me and as a science and history geek, I had to read it. It is packed with information and readable but about some things too much information can be as bad as too little.
Sykes knows of what she speaks; she’s walked the walk and dug the site. The book starts off with the first discoveries of Neanderthal skeletons, how this branch of hominins got their name, and why modern (1860s) humans were ready and willing to acknowledge that they were looking at non-homo sapiens. She delves into everything currently known about them and some of the techniques that her fellow paleontologists are using to tease out every bit of information they can from what they have. Frankly, this part interested me most as the science is mind blowing. Information is being gleaned from cave soot and dirt (including ancient DNA), bones, lithics, dental calculi (good thing Neanderthals didn’t have dental floss), and – amazingly – some actual weapons that have miraculously survived the millenia. The DNA results done so far paint a picture of shuffling and reshuffling the population – due to migration from ice age climate changes perhaps? Sykes also muses on what the addition of Neanderthal DNA to ours has done to help and possibly hurt us.
But there are also times when, though I’m sure she’s simplified the wealth of what she knows, there was far too much detail for the lay reader. The entire chapter which describes how they made stone tools was necessary of course as stone tools were their forte but it dragged on past the point of overload. Time frames are given as both thousands and millions of years ago (which I could follow) but also in terms of glaciations – MIS 3, MIS 6 (which ended up confusing me). Chapter 13, “Many Ways to Die,” needs to come with a warning label. The initial part about burials is interesting but then it shifts into the fact that many Neanderthal bones show clear signs of butchering with the implication that cannibalism was likely involved which, for whatever the reason it was done [and I admit that her reasoning of why this might have happened makes sense] is disturbing to most modern humans.
Sykes does indulge in some guesses in imagining what Neanderthals might have thought and felt and ways they could have viewed the world but again, her reasoning makes sense. This is a book which I wish had totally worked for me but didn’t. The parts that did though – the science behind the information, the DNA – were great. B-