Book Review: Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

This book brings us up to date on the latest scientific thinking about the Neanderthals. The book is for readers who are intensely interested in the subject. It contains a lot of archeological jargon and minutiae, but an interested reader will learn a lot from reading it. For me it raised more questions than it answered.

Were the Neanderthals a sub race of Homo Sapiens or were they a different species? They had larger brains than modern Homo Sapiens but the brain matter was somewhat differently distributed. Their sculls were shaped differently and they were stockier with a heavier bone structure. They could and did interbreed with Homo Sapiens and produce viable and fertile offspring. In fact, among humans not living in Sub Saharan Africa, about two percent of the genome comes from Neanderthal ancestry.

Were Neanderthals as intelligent as Homo Sapiens? Different groups developed fairly complex tool making technologies each with their distinctive methods of working stone. They experimented with glues using resins, pitch and other sticky substances in order to bind their sharpened stones to their wooden shafts. They experimented with pigments. They certainly wore furs and skins and may have dyed them with pigments and decorated them with shells and beads. Would they have eventually developed a more advanced technology if they hadn’t died out? We can only speculate.

What caused the Neanderthals to die out while the invaders from Africa survived? The author points out that the adult Neanderthal male required some 5,000 calories a day, significantly more than the adult male Homo Sapiens. This might have given the Neanderthals a disadvantage when competing with the more energy efficient Homo Sapiens for survival in the same ecological niche, especially when large game became scarcer, as it did toward the end of the Pleistocene.

What happened when band of Neanderthals encountered a band of Homo Sapiens? We probably will never know. It is clear, however, that interbreeding took place during the five to ten thousand years in which Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens may have been in contact. It is interesting that among Neanderthals whose genomes have been studied, no Homo Sapiens DNA has been found. There has been found a Homo Sapiens skeleton from about forty thousand years ago that had about eleven percent Neanderthal DNA, roughly the equivalent of a great grandparent. It may be that Neanderthals did not raise hybrid babies but Homo Sapiens did. There is not enough evidence, however, to be certain.

I recommend this book to anyone who has a keen interest in Neanderthals and human prehistory.

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