Kindred, Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, the new book by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, is a thorough look at what science now actually knows about Neanderthals and their dominant position for thousands of years. Sykes explains that recent research shows that Neanderthals were the dominant hominin in Europe for over 350,000 years (350 ka). And by Europe, we actually mean a huge swath from Britain all the way to Israel!
This is one of the most fascinating books I have read in many years. It covers their entire history and lives in much more detail than I had any idea we knew about.
Sykes explains that Neanderthals were a nomadic people, apparently moving from camp to camp, and to some extent following the migration of game that was so important to them. Many of these camps included caves or “rock shelters,” and they apparently returned to them many times over the years. She explains that their meat rich diet included reindeer, horses, aurochs (huge early oxen), and even mammoths and elephants, and it appears that each individual consumed 5000-7500 calories a day because of their active lifestyle as well as the sometimes very cold climate. Plants were also part of their diet, but the evidence for which ones is a bit scanty. They survived several glacial and inter-glacial periods and persisted until relatively recently.
While popular imagination considered Neanderthals to be very primitive, current evidence shows that they had much the same vocal apparatus we do, and probably had speech and some language. They were probably closer to Alley Oop (without Dinny) than to the Flintstones (with recycled Honeymooners voices and humor), but we know that they made complex tools from various types of rock, and used them for sophisticated butchery, hide scraping and construction of fur clothing. In fact, the lack of many nicks on the recovered animal bones suggest that their butchers were very skilled indeed.
They even mastered some chemistry: tools exist that had stone blades but wooden handles, glued on by reduced birch sap cooked under low oxygen conditions, or when that wasn’t available, pine sap tempered with beeswax.
Sykes explains that Neanderthals were a bit shorter than us homo sapiens, and of course had the sloping brow you see in most pictures. Their fingers were a bit longer than ours, but their brain case was much the same as ours, implying they had the same level of intelligence we do.
Rather than the rough-looking images reconstructed from their skeletons, you might consider the beautiful paintings of Thomas Björklund more representative of what Neanderthals really looked like. They were as human as we are and lived and loved much as we do.
Much of the art that Neanderthals produced was using red and yellow and black colors that they dug from the ground. There is evidence that they decorated shells that way and added colors to their tanned leather clothing. But one of the most astonishing finds was the arrangement of stalactites in a cave at Bruniquel in Spain. Sykes explains that they broke off over 400 stalagmites, selecting the middles of them by size, and arranged them in two rings, with the larger one 6 by 4 meters.
There is also a flat plate balanced on a cylinder. And careful dating shows that this construction is 174,000 years old. There were fires placed on some of these structures. Bear in mind that all this took place deep in a barely accessible cave with no light whatever. We have no idea whether it was art or some ceremonial construction, although there may have been some bear remains in some of the fires. It remains an amazing mystery.
Pieces of cave art were also reported in Spain in 2018 in Cantabria and two other sites that were about 65,000 years old. If you look carefully, you will see a painting of a red ladder pattern with some sort of pathway along the top. This is the oldest known cave painting and took place long before there were homo sapiens in Spain.
Homo sapiens didn’t begin to arrive in Europe from Africa until about 100 ka, and evidence seems to indicate that there was some interbreeding with Neanderthals. Most people of European descent have about 2% Neanderthal genes while indigenous Americans, Asians and those from Oceana and Papa “have up to a fifth more.” Those of sub-Saharan descent have much less, and when they do it appears to have come from later interactions.
The major migration of homo sapiens from Africa to Europe didn’t take place until about 42ka and eventually they dominated, although we still do not understand what happened to the Neanderthals. Their burial customs were variable but for the most part we have found far fewer bones than you would expect from such a dominant race. Sykes believes there is still a lot more work and excavating to do to resolve this mystery. There are also genetic theories of one species’ DNA replacing another’s, although this has happened in other species, we have no proof it happened with Neanderthals.
In summary, Sykes describes the lives of Neanderthals over much of their long reign in Europe and gives us a fascinating picture of their accomplishments. You really need to read this book.