Book Review: Rebecca Wragg Sykes – Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

Rebecca Wragg Sykes – Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art (London: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020)

Each chapter begins with a vignette written in purple prose that is, at times, a little cringey. Once that awkwardness is out of the way, Sykes takes a series of excellent deep dives into different aspects of neanderthal life. Topics include neanderthals’ evolutionary path, their anatomy, tool-making, hunting techniques, social structures, diets, and more. Neanderthals were also artists, with clearly intentional ornamenting of shells showing up in sites dating as far back as 500,000 years ago–more than twice as old as our species.

The most significant difference between neanderthals and Homo sapiens is our social lives. Simply put, sapiens tend to have more complex social relations. Neanderthals, Sykes believes, lived in bands of about 25 people, compared to 50-150 people for our species during its hunter-gatherer days–and millions of people today.

Moreover, while neanderthal artifacts such as obsidian were known to travel a few hundred miles from their origin sites, Sykes believes they were carried by their original owners on their travels. They seem not to have been traders. Sapiens’ artifacts travel more widely, and are too diverse in origin for one person to have made, kept, and carried by themselves. They have to have traded for them from faraway specialists.

Neanderthals did have some division of labor, evidenced through different wear patterns on men’s and women’s teeth, which become more pronounced with age. This indicates more than women gathering while men hunted. Neanderthal women used their teeth in craft-making tasks such as threading, which created tell-tale wear patterns.

Neanderthals had the same family attachments that we have–unsurprising in a species close enough for us to interbreed with–and also had funeral ceremonies that evolved over time. Chillingly, these apparently often involved ritual cannibalism. Scientists can tell this from bone marks. The consistent tidiness of the patterns and the lack of defensive wounds suggest organized ritual, rather than murder.

An overlooked difference between our two species is in our shoulders. Homo sapiens are practically throwing specialists compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. It shows in our brain activity—being able to calculate parabolic trajectories and distances on the fly—and in our anatomy. Our shoulder joints are shaped in such a way that we can throw harder and with more accuracy than other primates.

While neanderthals were capable throwers, they didn’t have quite the same degree of adaptation for it. As a result, while many of our spears were clearly designed solely for throwing, neanderthal spears look to have been dual-use. They could be thrown, but their sturdier design was also good for stabbing and slashing. This is consistent with common injuries seen in neanderthal bones, which are consistent with close-quarters hunting of large mammals.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Sykes argues that neanderthals’ end as a distinct species had more to do with assimilation than with competition—and might have happened after the mostly Europe-based nenaderthal species migrated all the way to China.

My own theory has more to do with neanderthals’ smaller group size. As Adam Smith said, the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. Smaller group size means a less refined division of labor, and less specialization. This was compounded by the fact that neanderthals engaged in less trade than Homo sapiens. Our larger group size, plus our tendency to trade over long distances was a double blessing for our species, and a double curse for neanderthals.

This is compatible with Sykes’ assimilation thesis–and most modern humans have 1 or 2 percent neanderthal DNA. But over the long run, my hunch is that sociability, trade, and division of labor were the engines that mostly drove that car.

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