February 3, 2012 9:50 pm

Once removed

Our long-vanished Neanderthal cousins resembled us more than we imagine

How to Think Like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L Coolidge, Oxford University Press, RRP£16.99, 210 pages

 

To call someone a Neanderthal is scarcely polite. We think of Neanderthals as shambling, brutish semi-humans from long ago. No wonder, then, that when it was recently found that between 1 per cent and 4 per cent of the genes of modern Europeans and Asians had a Neanderthal origin there was surprise, if not disbelief. This only increased when it was also shown that their brains were considerably larger than ours.

Neanderthals and modern humans were cousins and sometimes friends – as well as competitors, and even enemies. From a common ancestor in Homo heidelbergensis, the two lines diverged about 250,000 years ago. The authors of How To Think Like a Neandertal, an archaeologist and a psychologist, go as deeply as the limited evidence allows into the history, characteristics and behaviour of these long-vanished people.

Groups of modern humans began to leave Africa around 70,000 years ago. Those moving northwards and eastwards eventually met their Neanderthal cousins, and entered into some kind of relationship with them. What eventually happened to the Neanderthals is far from clear, but whether through the hostility of our ancestors, competition for resources or other factors, their numbers dwindled. Archeological evidence suggests that the last of their kind died out near Gibraltar some 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals were different but not very different from us. They were generally shorter in stature with barrel chests, sloping foreheads, receding chins and broad noses. Conditions for them were harsh. They lived in small communities or extended families, sometimes in caves; they buried their dead; their diet was mainly carnivorous, including such large mammals as mammoths and reindeer; they made use of fire for cooking and possibly for social purposes; they used primitive stone tools both to hunt and as weapons; and they must have had some kind of language, including use of symbols.

Obviously, their thinking processes are unknown to us. They may, as suggested in this book, have had less working memory capacity, rendering them unable to communicate ideas, dreams and thoughts as we do. But the fundamental differences were probably small. This is a fruitful field of speculation, and the authors take us through the many possibilities.

Most history, as taught in schools and universities, is about the last three or four thousand years. During that time many societies have risen and collapsed, and our species has proliferated at an amazing rate. A human population that was 2.5bn less than a century ago now stands at 7bn, and it is still rising. We are changing the character of the earth – its land, its seas and its atmosphere. It is no bad thing now to think of what became of our distant cousins, of how they lived and eventually came to grief. The story is well told. There may be lessons in it for us all.

Sir Crispin Tickell is a fellow of the Oxford Martin School and a member of its advisory council

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