Posts Tagged ‘popular science’

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “How To Think Like a Neandertal” by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

“In How to Think Like a Neandertal, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick L. Coolidge team up to provide a brilliant account of the mental life of Neandertals, drawing on the most recent fossil and archaeological remains”. (From the publisher’s website)

There’s no getting around it: there are a lot of things we simply cannot know about the past.  We have to make inferences based on material evidence, but have no eyewitnesses to tell us if we’ve gotten it right or not (though, having read as much as I have of late about the unreliability of human perception, I’m not sure that we’re not better off without their testimony).  We find a bit of scraped bone, a flint spear point, some evidence of a small fire and we naturally try to imagine the scene — a particular moment in time.

The fact is that we can do this by using our knowledge of how modern peoples of all kinds behave (as well as comparisons with our primate cousins).  But there is always going to be a bit of fancy in the flights of our imagination.

Having said all of that (whew), the authors of How to Think Like a Neandertal are, at the least, well qualified to do some imagining for us about just what Neandertals were really like.  As people like us, but not quite like us.

Neandertals and we modern humans share a common ancestor a long, long time ago.  Neandertals moved into Europe and Asia out of Africa, and seem to have lived in those areas for quite a while before we showed up.  Of course, we had some more evolving to do (while still in Africa) in order to take our modern form, but having done that it seems very likely that — once we reached those northern latitudes — we had a lot to do with hastening the extinction of the powerful (though technologically and — according to the authors — cognitively inferior) Neandertals.

This is a fascinating and transparent look at what we actually know about our extinct cousins (kissing cousins, one might say, as we now have evidence that at least a little Neandertal DNA worked its way into some modern human populations, but not vice-versa).  I say “transparent” because the authors do a fine job of systematically laying out the latest evidence from archeology alongside studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies and chimpanzees (as well as other primates).  But then they are also quite up-front about when the flight of fancy departs the runway.

To be sure the imagination is here given more reign than the evidence can confidently support, but the signal achievement of this book is the creation in the reader of a living, breathing, vivid sense of what a Neandertal was actually like.  This is a remarkable achievement for a couple of scientists writing for a popular audience.  And, naturally, understanding Neandertals provides, by contrast, a deeper understanding of our own evolved humanity.

This is the kind of science writing that welcomes this previously (overly) strange and exotic “other” humanoid back into the fold of the actual family of cousins that we all are (well, were).  The mind-blowing fact is that we modern humans were occupying the same landscape as Neandertals as recently as 30,000 years ago.

The final chapter is a quietly moving guess at how the final Neandertals drifted into extinction.  Reading it, I was reminded of the tale of Ishi, the last surviving man of the Yahi tribe in California that walked out of the mountains one day (shortly after the turn of the 19th century) and was taken in by a scientist who took care of him and tried to learn all he could about his about-to-become extinct culture.  For the Neandertals — like the Yahi — there came a point where their remaining groups were simply too small to replace themselves, and one day, those many years ago, the last Neandertal died, alone.

This is a good book — and a pleasurable, often fun read.  I highly recommend it.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!