Our early forebears continue to be very good at getting in the news. In 2003, on the island of Flores in Indonesia, a team of archaeologists investigating the movement of humans from Asia to Australia found a nearly intact small skeleton of what turned out to be an entirely new kind of human being: Homo floresiensis. The fact that its body was diminutive caused it to be immediately given the idiotic nickname ‘hobbit’ – because nothing resembles Tolkien’s stolidly Anglo agrarians so much as a 50,000-year-old dwarf hominid skeleton from South-East Asia. The cutesy nickname also deflected attention from just how consequential this find was: a new branch on the increasingly complicated family tree of humanity. In 2008, a team investigating Denisova Cave in Siberia – named after a former inhabitant, the 18th-century Old Believer hermit Denis – found bones which, when DNA tested, turned out to be yet another entirely new branch of human: Homo denisova, the Denisovans. More front pages ensued. Homo antecessor has been gone from the planet for several hundred thousand years, but she was at the top of the news bulletins in May 2013 when a set of footprints appeared on a beach in Happisburgh, north Norfolk. The prints were 850,000 years old, the oldest human footprints outside Africa and by far the earliest mark of human presence in Britain. Surging tides had exposed long-hidden marks of a group of H. antecessor walking upriver: an adult and a group of children travelling along the muddy estuary where the Thames used to meet the sea, until glaciers shifted its course southwards 450,000 years ago. The exposed footprints had to be photographed and modelled at speed, before the tide washed them away days later. It’s a beautiful and eerie concatenation: a fleeting moment from the Lower Palaeolithic, hidden for almost a million years, suddenly exposed, and hurriedly captured for all time by modern archaeology, before its permanent erasure by wind and sea.
Of all our human relatives, the closest in both time and genetics, the most compelling, and the best at making news are the Neanderthals. (I’m using human to refer to any member of genus Homo. The preferred scientific term is ‘hominin’. Hominid, a word perhaps more familiar to the general reader, is now the term widely used for all members of the great ape family, Hominidae. This includes four living genera, Pongo, the orangutans; Pan, chimpanzees and bonobos; Gorilla; and Homo, of which we are the only surviving exemplar.) Our fascination with our relatives has been consistent since the discovery of the first Neanderthal bones in Germany in 1856: on the site of a quarry near Düsseldorf, workmen excavated remains which were clearly similar to, but not quite the same as, Homo sapiens. That feeling of similar-but-not-quite is present all through the history of our engagement with the Neanderthals: when we look at them we are looking at a distorted reflection in a mirror. As with a mirror-gazer, we have a tendency to want everything to be about us. The reflection is fascinating, unsettling, and it’s not quite clear what we want it to tell us.
Part of what makes the deep human past so alluring is the space it allows for amateur interest and amateur speculation. There is so much we don’t know that there are plenty of gaps. Which in turn means there is plenty of space to dream and wonder and imagine and – let’s face it – make stuff up. As Rosemary Hill points out in her wonderful book on Stonehenge, archaeologists sometimes claim ownership of the past, but the truth is that it belongs to all of us – and, as the case of Stonehenge shows, archaeologists are capable of doing plenty of damage. (In the case of H. floresiensis, Indonesia’s leading palaeoanthropologist took the first skeleton away for himself, kept it for a period of months, and returned it severely damaged.) I especially like Neolithic sites, in which Britain and Ireland are very rich: I love the sense that by stretching out our imagination and empathy in time, we can connect with these people who were physically and cognitively identical to us, but who lived so differently.
In the case of the Neanderthals, the sense of distance and the sense of strangeness are stronger; empathy seems both more necessary and more remote, harder to access. I have stood at the site of a Neanderthal shelter at Buoux in the South of France and been hit by an overwhelmingly strong feeling of remoteness, the idea that these people, these similar-but-different humans, were so far from anywhere human and place-like that they must have been hiding from something. Their very existence – we now know there were only a few tens of thousands of Neanderthals alive at any one time – seems contingent and marginal. What were they trying to get away from?
But that’s bollocks. That sense of remoteness, of distance from and hiddenness, are a side effect of humanity’s planetary domination: the only places where traces of the deep past remain are places we haven’t built over or crushed underfoot. There could be Neanderthal remains all around where I’m writing this, but I live in London and those traces, if they ever existed, are long and permanently lost. We find evidence mainly in caves because they’re the only places where remains haven’t been washed away by time and the human present. This is the same reason the far past continues to make news: we are constructing knowledge from scraps and fragments, and big new discoveries have the potential to rewrite the story.
When we think about the Neanderthals, imagination and empathy are called for, but science is indispensable. Kindred is a thrillingly full account of what we currently know about the Neanderthals. It is Neanderthal-centric: Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s project is to write about Neanderthals as an end in themselves, not as a failed version of modern humanity or an evolutionary false start. She is deeply immersed in the latest archaeology on the topic. At the same time, she is an unashamed fan of Jean M. Auel, author of The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) and many other schlocky but hugely entertaining novels about Neanderthals and their Homo sapiens contemporaries. To think usefully about the Neanderthals, you need both the science and the permission to let your imagination roam. There has been a huge amount of research into H. neanderthalensis in recent decades, and much of it has the effect of disrupting, contradicting or flat-out disproving the received image of our closest human relatives. The key idea here, summed up in the title of Wragg Sykes’s book, is that other types of human are our relatives, and they are complete versions of themselves, just as H. sapiens is of itself.
The human family is complicated and, as the science develops, it is getting more so. We might want there to be a clear line of descent from the first hominin fossils, through various intermediate forms, to us; but the story just isn’t that simple, and instead we now know that there were more than twenty different types of human, much of the time coexisting. H. habilis, H. rudolfensis and H. ergaster are hominin species from the deep African past. H. antecessor, who left those footprints on that beach in Norfolk, might well be the ancestor of H. sapiens, H. neanderthalensis and H. denisova; Homo erectus, the longest-lasting of all human species, and the dominant type of human in Asia for almost a million years, is a separate branch; there’s also H. naledi in Africa, H. floresiensis and H. luzonensis in South-East Asia, and possibly a kind of archaic human in China, which at the moment all seem to be separate branches on the tree. As Wragg Sykes puts it, ‘until incredibly recently, the earth was sparkling with hominins.’
Our mental image of the Neanderthals tends to be of lonely, hiding, remote cavemen: hunched figures, similar to us but stronger and stupider, huddling against the cold in an icebound Western Europe, waiting to become extinct. It’s ‘a backdrop of ice and mammoths’. And it’s mostly wrong. The hunching – ‘knuckle-dragging’ would be the cliché – comes from the incorrect assembly of an early skeleton. Neanderthal man stood as upright as we do. As for the cold, which has dominated imagery of Neanderthals for a long time, Wragg Sykes sets out the evidence about chronology and climate to complicate that picture. People don’t realise just how long the Neanderthals were around. They were the dominant human species from 350,000 years ago until 40,000 years ago. (From now on I’m going to use archaeologists’ current favourite way of referring to the deep past, ‘ka’ for thousands of years ago and ‘Ma’ for millions.) The Neanderthals’ presence in Western Europe before Homo sapiens showed up is well known; but their geographical range was far wider than that, from the southernmost and westernmost tips of the Iberian peninsula to sites in what are now Siberia and Uzbekistan; from Pontnewydd, Wales at 230 ka to Gibraltar at 40 ka. They spread far, fast: by around 400 ka they had left remains as far apart as Sima de los huesos in Northern Spain and Swanscombe in Kent.
This geographical and chronological range is significant. In most of these times and places, it wasn’t cold. Climate records of the far past are arranged in Marine Isotope Stages, with the current period being MIS 1. Neanderthals thrived between MIS 11 and MIS 3, after which they disappeared. Odd numbers are warm periods, even ones are cold, with the average temperature differing between odd and even by as much as 4°C. That is the difference between ‘ice and mammoths’ and balmy, contemporary-tropical weather. One of the periods of Neanderthal dominance was during the Eemian, a late stage of MIS 5 around 123 ka. This ‘sun-drenched’ period was the ‘warmest and lushest’ experienced by Neanderthals; in fact it was the warmest planet humans have ever known. This hot Earth would have been experienced by H. neanderthalensis, sapiens, denisova, floresiensis and luzonensis, and was as far as one can imagine from the stereotyped image of shivering cavemen hiding in caves and occasionally emerging to whack mammoths on the head. As temperatures rose, sea levels did too, by as much as eight metres. Woodland spread across Eurasia. Horses and aurochs – huge archaic cows – roamed alongside various types of deer. Eurasian fauna included beavers, boars, monkeys, straight-tusked elephants, hippopotami, badgers and turtles. (According to Wragg Sykes, in ‘a bizarre ecological twist’, the turtles were hunted by the badgers.) All of these species were hunted by Neanderthals, with the sensible exception of the hippopotamus, then as now an incredibly dangerous animal, which is currently responsible for at least five hundred deaths a year in Africa.
This point, about the range and diversity of Neanderthal life, is the key to Wragg Sykes’s account of our relatives. They lived in caves and on coasts, eating mammoths and fish, foraging and hunting big game. Where once it was thought they used only the crudest of stone tools, we now know that there was a succession of ‘techno-complexes’ in which particular techniques for making lithics – the sciencey word for stone artefacts, used in preference to ‘tools’ – were associated with certain patterns of living and hunting. Sharp tools were essential, because they enabled you to turn a large dead animal into a range of different edible pieces; or to skin and prepare hides. Meat would be gripped in the teeth and then cut with stone. From the resulting tiny scratches on teeth, we know that Neanderthals, like us, were predominantly right-handed. Whacking away at a piece of freshly butchered meat held between your teeth, when one mistake leaves you effectively crippled for life, given how important it was to retain all your gnashers – I admit that this image gives me anxiety dreams.
‘Meat and lithics’, as Wragg Sykes puts it: the relationship between them is a big part of our emerging understanding of the Neanderthals. Distinct techno-complexes such as the Levallois, the Discoid and the Quina have been discovered, associated with different fauna and hunting patterns. The techniques for knapping stone into sharp implements were clearly learned, remembered and passed on, through ‘social learning contexts’ and ‘directed instruction’. This is strong indirect evidence for Neanderthal cognition, with implications for their abilities to communicate and retain information. They carried stone from one place to another but would also use whatever stone they could find close by. Carried stone (‘manuports’) was always of superior quality to the local stone. In other words, they knew what they were doing with stone – they were, indeed, experts. They used bone tools as well, often for retouching, to resharpen high quality stone so that it would keep its edge. Any butcher or keen cook can confirm the wisdom of this: the more you use knives, the more you come to value resharpenability. They were capable of making wooden tools too, and compound tools featuring both wood and stone. They could make birch tar, which involves low-oxygen smoking over an extended period, and presumably used it as a form of glue. They knew how to process hides and even how to make leather.
The main use of their tools was for hunting and breaking down carcasses. Neanderthals were ‘focused on hunting large beasts’, sometimes mammoths, but in other periods whatever there was to be found. Their game included fellow predators such as hyenas (which did well during warm periods), cave lions and cave bears. That last species would have been a terrifying thing to hunt. Anyone who has ever seen a grizzly bear knows the moment when you blink in amazement as you struggle to process just how unbelievably huge they are: nine feet tall, eight hundred pounds. It just doesn’t seem possible for an animal to be that big. Cave bears were bigger: eleven and a half feet, two thousand pounds. This explains Neanderthal man’s unsporting but deeply understandable preference for killing cave bears while they were hibernating.
Neanderthals hunted and butchered in a consistent pattern. First there was a kill site, where the animal was broken down into big pieces: only the largest pieces of bone and the least rewarding parts of the animal were left behind. Then there would be a hunting camp where further butchery would take place, and finally a third location where the highest-value cuts – especially marrow, but also brain and other calorie-rich delicacies – were processed. Smashing bone to remove marrow was a big thing for them. Some of the hunting sites show evidence of repeated use, and the third type of site is sometimes associated with fires – hearths – which were also reused, sometimes over long periods of time. We can perhaps see in this some evidence for a Neanderthal conception of what we call home. We can certainly see that they had some sense of different categories of the thing we call place – a physical location charged with meaning.
The surviving examples of these hearth sites are often in caves. Even with modern techniques such as ‘fuliginochronology’, the wonderful word for the study of ancient soot, it remains frustratingly difficult to know whether a site with multiple reused hearth fires is evidence of a large band of Neanderthals using the cave simultaneously, or multiple small groups using it at different times. The balance of evidence suggests the latter: Neanderthal groups resembled the bands found in hunter-gathering communities, numbering around 25 individuals. It is possible that an accompanying element of isolation and interbreeding was a contributing factor in their eventual decline. Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers tend to live in groups attached to larger clans, communities linked by social and symbolic ties, which meet regularly and have strong taboos against incest. Even early H. sapiens DNA shows no sign of interbreeding.
Hunting large beasts was a risky business and remained so until the invention of dependable rifles. It’s no surprise that the Neanderthal skeletons that have come down to us have lots of fractures. There is barely a single extant Neanderthal body which hasn’t suffered some form of severe injury. One of the oldest Neanderthals at time of death was found in a cave in Shanidar, Iraqi Kurdistan, and is known as Shanidar 1. He was in late middle age, and he seems to be a Neanderthal version of the cat with one ear, one eye and three legs, who answers to the name of Lucky. Shanidar 1 had a partially amputated right arm, bone growths which made him deaf, severe skull injuries which probably made him blind in one eye, and arthritis. His survival in the face of these existentially threatening injuries is evidence of care inside Neanderthal groups – care both at the time the injuries were inflicted, and also over a more extended period, as in later life he would have needed help in getting through the ordinary Middle Palaeolithic day. Our relatives cared for one another when they could, much as we do.
This brings us to the question of how the Neanderthals felt and thought. It is here that H. sapiens’s narcissistic tendencies, our instinct to believe that we are self-evidently and in all respects a huge upgrade on our human relatives, can get in the way. However, a betting person, travelling back in time to around 100 ka to take a punt on which species of Homo might come out on top in the hominin games, might well have put their bet on the Neanderthals. They were established through a huge swathe of Eurasia, while H. sapiens had spread through Africa and was beginning to move along coastlines, around the Arabian Gulf and then points east. Sapiens art is hugely more complex than Neanderthal artefacts, no question – but at 100 ka, it wasn’t, not yet. The evidence from Neanderthal sites shows many signs of complex, symbolic behaviour, involving connections between the dead and the living, aesthetic preferences, and the creation of non-utilitarian artefacts. At least some of the time they seem to have buried their dead. They loved talons and shells, evidently worn as a form of ornamentation; they loved colour, especially ochre and red. They knew how to make liquid ochre. They were capable of creating a site such as the astonishing find at Bruniquel in the Aveyron: deep underground, almost four hundred metres from the entrance of a cave, a ‘speleofact’ of stalagmites arranged in a pattern of circles, the biggest of them 22 feet in diameter. The site was found in 1990 but is not as well known as it might be because the archaeologist who excavated it, François Rouzaud, disappeared in a cave in 1999. (An obituary notice by Catherine Trautmann, the French minister of culture, concludes: ‘For those who are attached to the meaning of human destiny, it is not irrelevant that François Rouzaud thus joined the distant company of the Chalcolithic discovered by him in these very places of Foissac, nor that his disappearance took place within the penumbral folds of the caves he loved and knew so well.’ Fun to imagine what a British minister might say in a similar circumstance: ‘He was focused on targeting key deliverables’; ‘He went missing down a big hole – which is where this country will go if we allow the Labour Party to …’)
There has been debate over whether the Neanderthals could make fire, as distinct from using it once they found it. Bruniquel shows that they had mastery of fire, and is evidence also of social organisation, the ability to imagine, and perhaps of a structured society. Does all this structure and learning and social context imply that they could talk? Wragg Sykes thinks that, ‘taking everything on balance, it’s very likely Neanderthals spoke in some form.’ The gene FOXP2 is sometimes, misleadingly, called the ‘language gene’, which it isn’t quite, but we do know that it is crucially linked to the development of speech. Neanderthals had FOXP2, though in a variant with one protein different from ours. It is sometimes argued that the oldest surviving human languages are those of the Khoisan peoples in Southern Africa, which make extensive use of clicks and glottal noises. If the oldest H. sapiens languages were like that, perhaps Neanderthal languages were too.
Kindred is admirably focused on the Neanderthals’ perspective on their own existence. Wragg Sykes is determined to make us see the diversity and variety of Neanderthal life, how successful they were and how long they lasted. They are not a failed version of us, and the trajectory from them to us is not teleological: the fact that we are here and they are not is not the point and purpose of her story, or indeed of history. And yet, and yet … the fact is that we are here and they aren’t, and although that is not the punchline of evolution, the question of why and how this happened is still interesting.
The first thing to note is that something changed in H. sapiens around 70 ka. At that point our material culture is not self-evidently on a different level from that of the Neanderthals. We had probably mastered the skill of sailing, though not necessarily out of the sight of land; that would certainly explain how we had got as far as we did around the coasts of Asia. But there is nothing to suggest a mastery of complex and symbolic thought. The oldest drawings that have been found are abstract patterns in a South African cave, and date from 73 ka. The oldest recognisable figurative art was found in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi; it dates from 44 ka. These drawings are immediately and obviously something new in human history. We can argue about their purpose and whether they are ‘art’ in any meaningful contemporary sense, but really the question doesn’t matter: what they clearly are is evidence of a new kind of cognition. Something happened to human consciousness: a ‘light-bulb’ moment. For the first time in its 4.5 billion-year history, Earth was populated by people with minds like ours, who think the way we do. From that point onwards, the record of our material culture grows more and more complex and our creative imagination begins to leave famous traces such as the Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel at 35-40 ka, the Venus of Willendorf at 30 ka, the cave paintings of Chauvet at 30 ka and of Lascaux at 17 ka.
By that point the Neanderthals had disappeared. They vanish from the archaeological record with shocking abruptness around 40 ka. H. sapiens had by that point spread all through Africa, Asia and Australia, but had not yet made significant inroads into the part of Europe settled by H. neanderthalensis. Then, suddenly, we’re everywhere, and the Neanderthals are gone. So, what happened? For a long time it has been thought that the possibilities boil down to three. The first and most lurid is the idea that there was full-scale genocidal war between the two species of human. A recent article at BBC Future spelled out the idea under the heading: ‘Did Neanderthals go to war with our ancestors?’ There is no evidence for this, and the theory fits into patterns of thinking that see the archaeological record in terms of racial hierarchies and contests for dominance. Wragg Sykes thinks these ideas are culturally determined and of limited utility, and she is probably right.
The second possibility is that we did not defeat the Neanderthals, but simply outcompeted them. The climate was getting colder fast at 40 ka, and (contrary to the stereotype) the Neanderthals did not love the cold. They were shorter than us, heavy-set and strong, and they had extraordinarily high energy requirements: some seven thousand calories a day. For a band of 25, that’s a reindeer a day, every day, all year round. In a climate changing faster than it had in the memory of any living individual, that might have been impossible to sustain. There is also evidence that Neanderthal genetic diversity was weakening and bands growing smaller and sparser. All of this would have been happening as H. sapiens was for the first time making significant inroads into Europe, increasing competition for resources at an already difficult moment. Wragg Sykes thinks some version of that is what did for the Neanderthals – though she notes that ‘finishing this book in the late spring of 2020, it’s impossible not to wonder if a terrible contagion might have been added into the mix, jumping from us to them.’
The third theory is that we didn’t fight them or outcompete them but interbred with them: that we are not archaic H. sapiens but a hybrid of sapiens and neanderthalensis. To general amazement, in 2010 it turned out that this theory is at least partly correct. Neanderthal DNA was sequenced and compared with H. sapiens DNA, and it was found that all surviving humans outside Africa have between 1.8 and 2.6 per cent Neanderthal DNA; sub-Saharan Africans have less, thought to be the result of later reintroduction after the initial exodus from Africa. Western Europeans have less Neanderthal DNA than Asians, Oceanians and Indigenous Americans. Although no individual has more than 2.6 per cent Neanderthal DNA, a large part of the Neanderthal genome still exists: most sources give a figure of 20 per cent, but Wragg Sykes says ‘perhaps as much as a half’. (She doesn’t give a source for that, which is a pity, because it is a very striking number; this is a rare instance where her reader-friendly policy of not footnoting everything to death is regrettable.) In other words, the Neanderthals are still here; we are at least partly them, in the very synapses that fire as I write these words and you read them. It is an amazing thought.
As the DNA evidence has continued to come in, the story of our relationship with our relatives has got more and more complicated, as stories about relatives tend to do. In 2018, the Denisova Cave remains that were first DNA-sequenced for mitochondrial female-line DNA were retested with new technology that allowed the examination of nuclear DNA. To widespread astonishment, it was found that D11 (known as ‘Denny’) had a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother: she was a first-generation hybrid human. This strongly suggests that interbreeding between human species was common. As the DNA evidence continues to come in, it is becoming apparent that H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis had multiple patches of interbreeding across multiple thousands of years. The idea of inter-species sex was once seen as one of Jean M. Auel’s wilder and pervier fantasies about early man. We now know that she was completely right.
We can predict, with complete confidence, that the Neanderthals, and our other lost cousins, will continue to make news, as DNA evidence continues to come in and serendipitous discoveries are made. For a start, all the surviving Neanderthal fragments come from a total of two or three hundred individuals, and fewer than forty of those have had their DNA sequenced. It should be pointed out that bodily evidence of H. neanderthalensis is very rare. We have millions of lithics and thousands of bones, but rather fewer complete and near complete skeletons. There’s plenty more to find, and to find out. I find that a cheering thought. But the deep past offers some chastening lessons too. Climate change and perhaps a pandemic did for the Neanderthals, and a similar conjuncture could easily do for us. Indeed, there have been times when it nearly did. Outside Africa, H. sapiens went through severe population crises and nearly became extinct at least once. Wragg Sykes points out that
successive Upper Palaeolithic populations totally replaced each other, and were then replaced in turn by later prehistoric cultures. Parisians, Londoners or Berliners today with ostensibly European heritage have very little connection even to Mesolithic people just ten thousand years ago. The vast majority of their DNA comes from a massive influx of Western Asian peoples during the Neolithic. This means that many of the first H. sapiens populations are more extinct than the Neanderthals.
An unsettling but salutary thought for anyone inclined to see H. sapiens’s contemporary dominance as inevitable, or predetermined, or permanent.