Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Review: "The Humans Who Went Extinct"

Pity the poor Neanderthals. Not only did they have the misfortune of going extinct, they did so millennia before they could hire a good public relations firm to polish their image. As a result, to call someone a “Neanderthal” has become an insult… evoking images of knuckle-dragging, stupid, lazy apelike creatures who liked to club each other over the head at the entrances to their filthy unadorned caves.

The narrative in popular culture has been that the Neanderthals were too stupid to survive whereas Homo sapiens, with their advanced intelligence, were able to adapt and prosper.

According to the new book “The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why the Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived” by Clive Finlayson, however, this isn’t necessarily the way it really happened. In fact, argues Finlayson, Neanderthals were much more advanced than we give them credit for and their extinction – and our ancestors’ survival – may be more the result of chance environmental circumstance than to any inherent superiority of modern humans. One surprising bit of evidence is the picture on the book’s cover: a reconstruction – based on the latest skeletal and genetic evidence - of what a Neanderthal boy may have looked like. Instead of the brutish caricature we have become accustomed to, the boy looks remarkably… well… human.

When I went to school, the standard model of human evolution was summed up in the familiar illustration showing a succession of creatures in a straight line, starting with a small monkey-like critter on one end and evolving – neatly and one species at a time - almost inevitably into modern humans at the other end. Finlayson’s book shows that the truth is far more complex and far more difficult to unravel from the fossil, genetic and cultural evidence. Rather than a simple progression from one hominid species to another, human origins are a complex tangled bush with many dead-ends and multiple branches co-existing in time, if not in location.

In fact, one of the amazing speculations in this book is that Homo sapiens, Homo neaderthalensis and a remnant population of Homo erectus may have all been living at times that overlapped.

The author of this book knows his stuff since he was involved in studying one of the final homes of the Neanderthals: a cave on the rock of Gibraltar. By studying the clues left behind in that cave, he has been able to reconstruct details of their life that were previously unknown.

Case in point: anyone (or anything) that has ever tried to catch a rabbit can attest to the fact that doing so is a difficult prospect. When my mentally defective yet lovable maltipoo Lily sees one, for example, she becomes a canine torpedo… but despite her best efforts and numerous close calls she never seems to catch one. In short, if you’re lazy and stupid, you can pretty much forget about adding bunny cacciatore to your cave’s menu. Thing is, an examination of the bones in the cave showed that rabbits made up a majority of them. Neanderthals obviously weren’t as dopey as advertised.

Why, then, did they die out? In his explanation, it’s easy to draw parallels between Finlayson’s work and that of Jered Diamond who argued in “Guns, Germs and Steel” that the cultural and technological differences between human populations on different continents had more to do with geographic chance than with any inherent differences between the abilities of these populations. To put things in an oversimplified form, Neanderthals preferred to hunt by ambush. This method worked best in wooded areas where animals were more usually alone and easier to sneak up on. When the climate changed and these wooded areas were replaced by open grassland, it was to the detriment of the Neanderthals. When you’re in an open plain, it’s kind of difficult to sneak up on a Wooly Mammoth.
Homo sapiens, however, used hunting methods better suited to hunting in these expanding grasslands. Thus they survived and the Neanderthals died out. (Like I said, this is an oversimplified version, but the book discusses things in far better detail.)

I suppose I could write more but – although it appears the Neanderthals weren’t lazy and slothful - I most decidedly am, so I’ll just leave things off here. Suffice to say that this is a fascinating book and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the complex story of human origins.


  1. I'm imagining a James Cameron period piece about the forbidden love between a human girl and a Neanderthal boy. The guy loves science and crappy love stories, so it's right up his alley.

  2. I could also imagine that being a plot to one of those cheesy "ABC Afterschool Specials" from back in the 70's! :-)

  3. I'm pretty sure you're thinking of Land of the Lost.