Wednesday 18 January 2017

The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve

This is a long and fascinating book about our best known ancient ancestors. Who were the Neandertals? How were they related to other early species of hominids (human-like primates) and how was it that modern humans succeeded where Neandertals died out? When in fact did Neandertals die out?

The early part of the book covers in detail a lot of the academic controversies and arguments in Neandertal research (as in often seemingly verbatim discussions!) and I found it a bit annoying and confusing, though it was certainly fascinating. Later on though there are fewer such discussions and the book becomes more narrative and becomes more fascinating with every page.

Did Neandertals have the capacity to develop societies like those we see in the world today? Were they held back by a lack of language? A lack of higher reasoning capacity? Were the Neandertals actually living in a state of total oneness with nature? What would the world look like today if the Neandertals had prospered and modern humans like us had died out?

This book explores all these issues and more, looking at the traces of Neandertal lives that have been left in caves in southern Europe and beyond. It's out of date (published in 1995, it was one of my recent second hand book finds!) but its still a brilliant and interesting introduction to our ancestors.

The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve published by William Morrow and Company

You can read a series of brief articles about Neandertals on the BBC website

a more detailed section on Neandertals on the same website

and a series of videos about Neandertals on the same site.

(The BBC uses the spelling Neanderthal which is the original German spelling, while many authors, including Shreeve, use the spelling Neandertal to avoid confusion in pronunciation - in German the 'th' is pronounced as 't'.)


Sabine said...

This is such an amazing book, thank you for the BBC links.
I live about an hour's drive from the Neandertal, or the Neander valley (tal is German for valley). The neanderthal spelling with 'h' dates from 1860, when the bones of a neanderthal man were found in that valley. At the time, the Germans word Tal (valley) was written with an 'h', Thal. The spelling reform of the early 20th century did away with the 'h'. However, the local town, Mettmann, near the original site to this day insists on using Neanderthal.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Hi Sabine, thanks for the explanation of the spelling.....

Simon Douglas Thompson said...

Still plenty of them in my home town, low foreheads, inability to articulate speech...