Subtitled ‘Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art’ this book gives a comprehensive overview of not just what we know about Neanderthals but also how we got to this level of knowledge where such a book covering those topics and many more could be written. A superb piece of research that has deservedly been one of the science highlights of the last year, it only came out in the summer of last year and has yet to appear in paperback but my copy is already the seventh impression of the hardback which suggests excellent sales. The real surprise, to me at least, is just how much our knowledge of Neanderthals has advanced in the last two decades due to much better archaeological techniques which more accurately map the various strata of a dig and the positioning of thousands of objects but also from the DNA analysis that is now possible.
Although aimed at the interested amateur Sykes makes some assumptions regarding the knowledge of the reader in the terminology she uses. For example ‘analysing the calculus’ is not explained for well over a hundred pages from when it is first used. When it is defined it turns out to mean studying the teeth, or more specifically the residues built up on the teeth of the fossil remains rather than the obviously wrong, but entertaining until proved otherwise, that Neanderthals had somehow grasped differential mathematics. The complexity of various rock knapping techniques and how this helps define groups of Neanderthals who must therefore have interacted with each other is very well explained although I would have liked more diagrams to illustrate this to make the differences clearer. The last time I read a book on this subject was definitely over two decades ago so a vast amount of information in this book was new to me and as it is 380 pages long there is a huge quantity to take in.
It is very well written, and whilst the necessary vocabulary did sometimes have me checking on Google to make sure I understood this was a relatively rare occurrence as for the most part terms are explained as they are needed, with the obvious exception of calculus, however a small glossary at the back along with the detailed index would have been useful. Sykes can’t resist the occasional pun either such as ‘harvest the data’ when referring to gathering evidence of plant eating and this lightens the tone of what could have been in a lesser writers hands quite a dry study making it very readable and engaging.
The opening chapter deals with the slow growth of knowledge about Neanderthals from when they were first discovered just over 160 years ago and then through the book we are introduced to the 99 sites that remains have been discovered at right across not only Europe, which was their heartland but the ones in the near and far east which I had never heard about, there is a useful map on the front end papers which shows this spread. As you would expect from such an all encompassing subtitle Sykes attempts to not just document the artefacts found but also place them into context of the living, breathing people that used them. Just how would such a chipped rock be used? Were they making personal adornments? What can the spread of hearths (areas where a fire was lit rather than necessarily anything physically built) within a cave complex tell us about the size of the population using the shelter or the timescales that a place was used? How did they co-exist not just with each other within clan groups but with other clans and even Homo Sapiens when they appeared on the scene moving into Europe from their African homelands hundreds of thousands of years later? All of this and more is covered, it is definitely a book that will repay rereading in a few months to fully take in the sheer mass of information.
According to her introduction Sykes completed the book in June 2020 and hints at several, as yet unpublished, studies that she has clearly had access to meaning that this truly is as up to date as it was possible to be. But with the indicated speed of advances, especially in DNA analysis, either a revised and updated version or even a second volume must be a possibility in a few years time. Even the fact that she completed the book during lock down for the coronavirus pandemic becomes significant, we still don’t know why Neanderthals disappeared, was there perhaps a contagion brought by Homo Sapiens that further weakened the existing population, struggling as it was with climatic changes 40 thousand years ago as the continent swung from glaciation to warmer temperatures and back again. Of course they never truly went away, DNA analysis proves this, modern humans, at least outside those of African descent, have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA and knowing this the story of this ‘lost’ people gains even more relevance today.
The one criticism that I do have is the unnecessary fanciful opening sections to each chapter in either prose or verse, lasting between a half and a full page of text, they add nothing to the rest of the work but fortunately can be easily skipped as they are in italic. Clearly influenced by Jean Auel and her very good Earth’s Children series of novels set in the time of the Neanderthals, I started off reading these chapter preambles but after chapter five just left them out.