Kindred Spirits:The Neanderthals

by Adele A Wilby

The presence of covid-19 running amok amongst us has momentarily disrupted the perimeters of our lives. That two, three, or possibly four generations are not always able to gather together under one roof has given rise to greater appreciation of the family.

Those four generations that meet or live together frequently span the scope of living memory; anything beyond is found in fading photos, objects that have become family heirlooms, or indeed the tradition of oral family history. But while the existence of three generations gathered under one roof might seem normal today, it is however an extremely limited understanding of the ‘family’ when we consider the generations that have made up the existence of related hominins on the planet; they literally amount to thousands. Learning about these past generations of kindred has been for me therefore, a refreshing read over the holiday period. Rebecca Wragg Sykes has to be applauded for realising one of the purposes of writing her book Kindred, Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art which she says, is for ‘those who’ve heard of Neanderthals or not…’

As a curious amateur eager to learn more about out kindred and indeed the work of archaeologists, any hesitation that jargon and too much information might be overwhelming and a turn off as I read the book, was quickly dispelled. Her obvious literary talent manifests so patently in the opening paragraph of the book. ‘Time is devious’, she tells us, ‘…as we exist in a continuously flowing stream of “now”’ How right she is, and so is her view that ‘comprehending the scale of time on an evolutionary, planetary, cosmic level remains almost impossible…’ Despite the profound complexity of the human brain, it would seem at this period in human history, or human evolution, its potential remains limited. Indeed, for Sykes  ‘comprehending the gobsmacking hugeness of deep archaeological time…’ is equally as challenging. Nevertheless, her opening paragraph highlights our ‘now’ within the grand scheme of the existence of hominins on the planet and such a prospect is not only exciting but generates in the reader an appetite for what lies ahead in the pages to come, and for me she delivers a fascinating account about other hominins who came before us: the Neanderthals.

Apart from her literary ability, Sykes’s scientific credentials are writ large through the book in the presentation of the rigor of her data and her analysis concerning Neanderthals and their living. Indeed, her synthesis of vast knowledge on the subject in such accessible language is remarkable. She takes us through the history of how our knowledge and understanding of the Neanderthals has grown over the centuries and particularly in recent decades. Significantly, advanced technology and the archaeological evidence has enabled a rapid expansion of our understanding of the Neanderthals. We now know that they existed for an incredible 300-350 thousand years during which time they roamed across the globe from ‘north Wales to the borders of China, and southwards to the fringes of Arabia’s deserts’. Indeed, while the evidence and analyses rely on the remains of several hundred individuals and thousands of artifacts, still more archaeological sites exist. With each passing day the earth is likely to yield up more evidence, and the probability that millions of Neanderthals roamed the earth for millennia before us, adds to the sense of them as a human species, but in a different way to us. As Sykes comments, ‘Neanderthals were never some sort of highway service station en route to Real people. They were state-of-art humans, just of a different sort’. That they confronted, adapted and survived extremes of weather and climate change for millennia, reminds us of just how familiar to the human story they are, although the surety that the contemporary species of hominins will enjoy such longevity as the Neanderthals, remains open to debate. The understanding that a different type of human inhabited the planet for longer than our own existence, challenges our way of thinking about who we are, and certainly destabilizes any conceited notions that homo sapiens will endure in our present form in the future.

In her exposition of the Neanderthals, Sykes reveals their ability to skilfully manufacture tools, how they made clothes from animal skins and found protective homes for themselves in caves across the world. They hunted mammoths, fished and made use of plant life for food, leaving the reader in little doubt that any caricature of Neanderthals as ‘dullard losers on a withered branch of the family tree’ is blatantly untrue. Thus, Neanderthals emerge from her presentation of knowledge and archaeological findings as creative and adaptable hominins. However, while recognisable as human, Neanderthals did look different. Shorter, stockier and with slightly curved leg bones, they nonetheless walked upright like us. Likewise, their skull and facial structure differed from homo sapiens, but significantly according to Sykes, the brain inside that different skull was ‘as big and deliberating as our own’.

But while artifacts and fossils can provide us evidence of their existence and the tools used for survival, shelter and so forth, what have we learned about the social life of Neanderthals? On these issues also, technological and Neanderthal remains work together to offer us insights into the lives of our ancient kindred. There is no reason to doubt that the Neanderthal care for their young was in anyway vastly different from ours, and the presence of particular proteins from the bones found in a year-old child suggest Neanderthal women breastfed their babies for at least one year. Moreover, the dental wear in the enamel of a three-year old also suggests that children used their teeth for ‘clamping’, a process where animal skins were held by the teeth as they were worked into softness, suggesting that children learned from the adults. Whether or not there was such a phenomenon as early childhood, or if children, once mobile, started to learn adult skills, can only remain at the level of speculation. Likewise, Neanderthals understanding of mortality and mortuary rituals remain inconclusive with evidence of butchery of the dead suggesting that cannibalism might have taken place. On the other hand, some skeletons have been found that appear as if the dead might have been laid out in a more orderly fashion. Sykes comments that from amongst this range of remains there can only be one conclusion about Neanderthal handling of death: ‘Neanderthal ‘funerals’ probably ranged from ardent and anarchic to methodical and precise’. This, she says, is the consequence of ‘not only fear, but also love’ and this in turn highlights the range of Neanderthal emotions that constitute homo sapiens existence also.

The image of Neanderthals as some form of brutish, primitive creature has been dispelled by Sykes. Through her evidence and analyses she makes it possible to see them as a different human population that inhabited the earth, a quite remarkable view of human history. The question remains however as to how this intelligent species disappeared? It seems from the DNA evidence available that Neanderthals interbred, not only with Neanderthals from different geographical areas, but with a different form of hominin – the Denisovans. Neanderthal contact with the homo sapiens from Africa, our direct ancestors, came after their presence in Europe some two hundred thousand years ago. But this does not provide any real answer to what actually led to their extinction. Why then are homo sapiens here and not the Neanderthals, and for this Sykes suggests there is no definitive reasons. Several possibilities are advanced to account for this, but she suggests that a ‘perfect storm of different stresses may have together been overwhelming’. Nevertheless, that Neanderthals roamed the earth and ultimately interbred with different species, including homo sapiens, is evident. Western Europeans have at least two percent of Neanderthal DNA. Indigenous American, Asians and Oceanians, Aboriginal Australians and Papuans have a slightly higher percentage of Neanderthal DNA reflecting the breadth of their dispersion across the globe and episodes of interbreeding with the various hominins that have existed on the planet. Humanity is therefore diverse with the Neanderthals as common ancestors.

Sykes’s book is an archaeological journey to visit our ancient relatives: the Neanderthals. In so doing her work compels questions about who we are and where we might be going. Her book is also a paean to modern technology that has made possible the expansion of knowledge and appreciation of our distant relatives. This journey to the past with present technology tempered by warnings for the future use or abuse of science in studying the Neanderthals, adds up to Sykes’s book being a fascinating and accessible read for anyone interested in the story of human history.