KindredPosted: May 7, 2021
Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Bloomsbury Sigma (August 20, 2020), 409 pages
Kindle edition $9.02, Amazon hardcover $20.99
For a long time people used the word “Neanderthal” as a pejorative term, and I suppose they still use it that way sometimes. What we have learned in recent years, however, is that Neanderthals were a close relation to us Homo sapiens and that we coexisted for several millennia. The title of this book makes clear the author takes that perspective. Sykes is a scientist who actively works in the field, but she has made Kindred very much accessible to the general reader.
The author does an outstanding job of describing what we know and what we don’t know. Archaeology can tell us a lot about where Neanderthals lived, what kind of tools they made, and what sort of clothing they wore. It seems clear that they were nomadic, but that they returned to certain locations at about the same time each year. DNA research tells us which groups were related to other groups, something that is not always obvious based on archaeological evidence.
Sykes leaves unresolved as to whether Neanderthals buried their dead. There is a site called Shanidar in Kurdistan where researchers once believed a skeleton was surrounded with flowers and hence likely formally buried. That thinking has changed, and the consensus is now that the pollen accumulated naturally. The evidence is ambiguous, however, and Sykes in unwilling to say that Neanderthals didn’t bury their dead. She notes, “Although Shanidar isn’t exactly a Neanderthal necropolis, there’s absolutely more going on than the remains of those who perished by rockfalls.” The same chapter shows there is, sad to say, evidence of cannibalism at times.
The author opens each chapter with a short vignette, a sort of literary speculation about how Neanderthals might have perceived their world. It sets the tone for the scientific material that follows in the chapter.
The world of DNA evidence has been an enormous boon to many disciplines in science, as you’re no doubt aware. You likely know that there is between 1.8 and 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA in modern humans not of sub-Saharan Africa origin. You may remember from high school biology the fact that we define a species as two individuals who mate and produce fertile offspring. Since Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens are clearly different species the obvious question is: how is this possible? Sykes fortunately provides an answer: “Modern zoology’s concept of allotaxa may be more appropriate for what Neanderthals were to us: closely related species that vary in bodies and behaviors, yet can also reproduce.”
This is all interesting stuff, well written and easy to understand.