Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art by Rebecca Wragg SykesKindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art by Rebecca Wragg SykesIf your view of a Neanderthal is a sloped-head, grunting, not-so-bright guy hunched against blowing snow while he tracks a mammoth, unaware of his impending extinction and eventual supplantation by his far-smarter and much smugger cousins (that would be us), it’s time to update that image. And archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has just the method of doing so: her fascinating, detailed, and vivid recreation of our ancestor: Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art (2020).

For the longest time Neanderthals were seen as a failed species: brutish, dull, dumb, mute, violent creatures just a step above gorillas. That view started to change somewhat about twenty years thanks to new discoveries and some new methodology. But as Sykes does an excellent job showing, newer technologies have exploded our concepts of just who Neanderthals were, how they lived, what their capabilities were. The technology employed today is mind-boggling and not all that long ago would have been seen as the realm of science fiction and is so much better that scientists don’t need to discover new sites at all (though it helps). Instead, they are going back to long-excavated sites and looking at them again through a far sharper lens. Sykes explains how researchers can use isotopes from teeth thousands of years old to tell what that person ate and where they lived, employ 3-D scanning technology and lasers to take even the smallest flotsam and jetsam of artifacts and piece them together into reconstructed tools (while also reverse-engineering the exact methods used to make said tool), and have even invented a new science called fuliginochronology which lets them look at nano-scale traces of soot to tell how many times a cave was occupied over a given time period. The ingenuity is incredible.

And what does all that ingenuity get us? As you can see from the title, Sykes gives us a broad-range view of Neanderthals (after covering some of the history of their discovery): summarizing recent findings and/or theories regarding their biology, technologies, diets, seasonal habits, social and family structures, hunting methods, communication, views on art and death, and their extinction. And it’s all fascinating.

One of the most basic yet still startling ideas is just how diverse Neanderthals were. Many of us grew up with that image of them tracking mammoths in the snow, viewing them as Ice Age creatures only. But as Sykes makes clear, over their roughly 300,000 years (a range of time we often forget), Neanderthals lived across a variety of global climates, including some that were warmer even then our own. As well, they lived in a multitude of habitats from steppe tundra to coastal areas to woodlands and hunted a variety of game. Mammoths, yes, but also deer, rabbits, birds, and half-ton horses. The tools they used also are more diverse than imagined. For most of the time since their discovery, they were derided as stagnant when it came to technology, but more discoveries and better techniques reveal they created a wide range of tools (including working not just in stone but in wood, bone, and shell as well), and both tools and methods of making them changed over time. As well, we now know they controlled fire, tanned leather, and made cord. In fact, almost every new finding shows just how more complex and diverse Neanderthals were. Far from “cavemen meat-eaters,” for instance, seafood and plants made up a large part of their diet as well, depending on time and location.

This increasing sense of complexity seems true as well when we move to admittedly more speculative areas, such as their family lives, social constructs, views on art and death. However they thought of “art” though, whether they had the same sense of symbolic representation as we do (and why should they?), recent discoveries and methods leave no doubt that Neanderthals transformed their environment and objects: using red-ochre on objects, building a ring structure of broken-off stalagmites, etching bones, and building outside camps with “divisions of space.” We can’t know what was in their heads when they did these things, but there is no longer any denying they did them.

The same is true when it comes to the Neanderthal attitude toward death. While Sykes rightly points out that some of the more sensationalized “discoveries,” say of Neanderthals leaving flowers on graves, have either been disproven or called into question, she also exhaustively takes us through the evidence that supports the idea that Neanderthals viewed the dead body as more than just an empty husk to shrug and move on from, whether its placement of the body, the digging of a burial pit, cut marks on bone showing a sort of specialized butchering (i.e. different from that done with animal carcasses), or even something as simple as how unlikely it would be for us to discover wholly articulated skeletons if the bodies had just died where they were and then abandoned (thanks to scavengers, weathering, etc.). Again, we can’t know what was in their minds, but it leaves little doubt that they saw

something in the bod that was special to them.

At the very end of Kindred, Sykes broadens her focus to the recent findings that most of us have inherited up to four percent of our DNA from Neanderthals, meaning that there was interbreeding going on, as well as with the newest “ghost population” discovered, the Denisovans. She also briefly covers what might be some of the effects handed down by those shared genes and then looks at the ethical concerns over experiments involving splicing of Neanderthal DNA into mice or “projects building Neander-oids: small clumps of gene-edited human brain cells … capable of internal electrical connections,” which she says means we’re “inching forwards on an undirected trajectory towards self-aware Neander-brains.” What could go wrong?

Kindred is a top-notch non-fiction book. Sykes is always clear, methodical and organized; fills the book with incredibly fascinating details that are as up to date as one can get in a book, knows how to make good use of a comprehension-enhancing metaphor, dramatization or representative concrete example, and even tosses in a nicely lyrical passage here and there amidst the hard science. She’s also very careful to note the difference between evidence-based conclusion, theory, and true speculation. I had only two quibbles, both of which were minor. Each chapter begins with a more narrative-form vignette where sometimes I’d say the language gets pushed a bit too far into the purple spectrum. And I’d also argue that in a few places her enthusiasm for her topic leads her to go into a wealth of super-fine details that will probably cause some/many of her non-scientist readers to glaze over temporarily (but only temporarily) as when she dives into the nuanced differences in stone tools. That said, minor as I find them, one’s mileage may vary — some may absolutely love those opening passages and eagerly lap up that voluminous detail.

One of my favorite lines in Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art is when Sykes notes that the scent of knapping (making stone tools via flaking) is “exactly how astronauts described the smell of moon dust.” That’s a brilliant choice of comparison, moving from a Neanderthal 300,000 years ago stooped over a chunk of rock and chipping away usable flakes to Neil Armstrong stepping out on the surface of the moon. If that doesn’t grab your sense of wonder and shake it by the tail, I don’t know what will. Highly recommended.

Published in August 2020. One of the Best Books of 2020, Sunday Times. Kindred is the definitive guide to the Neanderthals. Since their discovery more than 160 years ago, Neanderthals have metamorphosed from the losers of the human family tree to A-list hominins. In Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes uses her experience at the cutting-edge of Palaeolithic research to share our new understanding of Neanderthals, shoving aside clichés of rag-clad brutes in an icy wasteland. She reveals them to be curious, clever connoisseurs of their world, technologically inventive and ecologically adaptable. They ranged across vast tracts of tundra and steppe, but also stalked in dappled forests and waded in the Mediterranean Sea. Above all, they were successful survivors for more than 300,000 years, during times of massive climatic upheaval. At a time when our species has never faced greater threats, we’re obsessed with what makes us special. But, much of what defines us was also in Neanderthals, and their DNA is still inside us. Planning, co-operation, altruism, craftsmanship, aesthetic sense, imagination, perhaps even a desire for transcendence beyond mortality. Kindred does for Neanderthals what Sapiens did for us, revealing a deeper, more nuanced story where humanity itself is our ancient, shared inheritance. It is only by understanding them, that we can truly understand ourselves.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. I have this on hold at the library

  2. I’m going to ask for this book for Christmas.

    Two years ago a friend gave me a 23&Me kit for Christmas. One of my few disappointments was that I have less than the average amount of Neanderthal DNA.

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