As someone who publishes a Charles-Darwin-related newsletter, I’ve noticed new scientific papers concerning two particular topics ping on my radar with remarkable frequency (so remarkable that I’m remarking on it right now): the evolutionary history of domestic dogs, and our long-lost human cousins the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). Both of these subjects are clearly very hot topics in the archaeological science community. There’s a good reason for this: recent advances in the extraction and analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) have opened up exciting new avenues of research, even when based on specimens collected many years ago.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s enjoyable book Kindred explores what we know, and what we can infer, about our extinct Neanderthal relatives. In the process, she punctures a number of outdated misconceptions about this particular branch of our increasingly bushy family-tree. In the same way that, over the last couple of decades, we’ve stopped seeing dinosaurs as lumbering, ill-adapted failures, now appreciating them for the magnificent creatures they were, in recent years we’ve begun to realise our cousins were far from the dimwitted knuckle-dragging ‘Neanderthals’ we once mistook them for. As Wragg Sykes puts it, ‘Neanderthals were never some sort of highway service station en route to Real People. They were state-of-the-art humans, just a different sort’.
As with all things archaeological, there is an unavoidable element of survivorship bias in our perceptions of the Neanderthals. The bodily remains and artefacts that have managed to survive in the archaeological record give us only a few fragments of the picture. As Wragg Sykes explains, 99% of Middle Palaeolithic human artefacts are stone, but most artefacts will have been organic, so rarely survived. Kindred wonderfully explains how we have managed to correct some of the our earlier misconceptions, and begun to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge of the Neanderthals. For example, it was fascinating to read how aDNA analysis of the tartar on their teeth has revealed their ‘paleao’ diets to have been more varied than clichéd mammoth burgers and cave-bear kebabs.
Inevitably, in addition to new, science-based revelations about the Neanderthals, Kindred contains a considerable amount of conjecture. This can often be annoying in books where you just want to learn the facts, but Wragg Sykes is always at pains to make clear when she is speculating, and the reasoning she used to get there—and her conjectures often sounded entirely reasonable to this generally sceptical non-expert.
Perhaps the biggest headline-grabbing scientific revelation about Neanderthals in recent years was that some of their DNA lives on in our own cells. In other words, they occasionally inter-bred with our Homo sapiens ancestors. The branches in family trees are more convoluted than many of the textbooks would have us believe. Not only were the Neanderthals our cousins, but an unknown number of them were also our direct ancestors. Some people might find this shocking, but, by the end of this book, I hope most readers, like me, will find the idea utterly delightful.
Kindred is a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to our formerly maligned cousins.