What killed the Neanderthals?
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
Bloomsbury, 336 pp, £12.99, February, ISBN 978 1 4088 5122 7
In 1739, Captain Charles Le Moyne was marching four hundred French and Indian troops down the Ohio River when he came across a sulphurous marsh where, as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it, ‘hundreds – perhaps thousands – of huge bones poked out of the muck, like spars of a ruined ship.’ The captain and his soldiers had no idea what sort of creatures the bones had supported, whether any of their living kin were nearby and, if so, what sort of threat they presented. The bones were similar to an elephant’s, but no one had seen anything like an elephant near the Ohio River, or indeed anywhere in the New World. Perhaps the animals had wandered off to the uncharted wilds out west? No one could say. The captain packed up a massive circular tusk, a three-foot-long femur and some ten-pound teeth, carried them around for several months as he went about the tricky task of eradicating the Chickasaw nation, and finally delivered the relics, after a stopover in New Orleans, to Paris, where they confounded naturalists for several decades.