Homo sapiens’ relationship with our long-lost relatives the Neanderthals has undergone a lot of rethinking since our relatively recent reintroduction in 1856. Until then, three years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, we had no idea that they existed. Thanks to the Parisian anatomist Marcellin Boule, who “inaccurately reconstructed” a skeleton in 1909, the popular image of them has been of an ugly creature with a stooped spine and a “decidedly ape-like” appearance. Now, a blink of an eye later, we know that many of us – at least, those without sub-Saharan heritage – carry between 1.8 and 2.6% Neanderthal DNA. So it’s reassuring to read that these people whose genes we share were not the brutish caricatures of Victorian myth, but complex, clever and probably caring individuals with a lot to tell us about human life.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes has studied their landscapes, territories and tools and emerges as an expert and enthusiastic character witness for Neanderthals and their way of life. In Kindred she looks at their “life, love, death and art”; and in the light of the fascinating evidence that is painstakingly presented here it seems likely that they had sophisticated tools, built home environments, art and ornamentation, family structures and possibly even “a richer culinary world than ours”. There is even evidence that they tidied up. Neanderthals probably didn’t have PR, but they do now.
Neanderthals became a distinct population 450,000 to 400,000 thousand years ago, and lived all over the world from north Wales to China and Arabia, in climates ranging from glacial to tropical, until about 40,000 years ago. They were shorter than we are, with strong arms for working hides and fine motor skills for making small tools, but probably saw, heard, smelled and possibly even spoke much like we do. With a sketch and a short piece of fiction at the start of each chapter, Wragg Sykes paints a vivid picture of life as lived by a Neanderthal parent, hunter or child. She doesn’t just want us to see Neanderthals for who they (probably) really were; she wants us to see their world through their eyes.
The prose is a combination of the scholarly and the writerly, combining dizzying amounts of information about different types of stones, tools, bladelets and flakes with sentences such as “Squabbling crossbills and crested tits yielded to crass jays and mellifluous nightingales, until cold mornings saw clattering capercaillies sending breathy vapour into biting air.” The knowledge condensed here is certainly impressive. “The sheer amount of information is hard to process,” Wragg Sykes writes. “Few specialists have time to read every fresh article in their own sub-field, never mind the total scholarly output.” She describes, for example, how archaeologists refit tiny fragments of knapped artefacts back together like “an immense 4D jigsaw puzzle” to see how Neanderthals worked stone tools; what isotopes in dental calculus tell us about their diet and smoky fires; and how microanalysis of soil samples suggests careful placing – if not technically “burial” – of the dead. It’s clearly a subject that encourages and repays obsessive interest.
Understanding Neanderthals’ place in history is important to show “how evolution didn’t follow an arrow-straight Hominin Highway leading to ourselves”, and to skewer white supremacist notions that sprang up around our early (mis)understanding of who different types of humans were. It is hard, though, not to draw some warnings for humanity from the fate of our near kin. Did Homo sapiens only thrive because of our larger and stronger social networks – “being welcome at the fires of friends many valleys away” when things got tough? Did Neanderthal populations collapse after one climate change event too many, and how might we survive our own? Or might they have been killed off by “a terrible contagion” that jumped between species? Sadly, we don’t know, though the next discovery may be the one to tell us. Until then, Wragg Sykes concludes, Neanderthals will continue to function as “the shadow in the mirror … a multispectral reflection of our hopes and fears, not only for their apparent fate, but our own”.
• Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is published by Bloomsbury Sigma (RRP £20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.