How to think like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge

Of all early humans, none have captured the public imagination to anywhere near the extent of the Neanderthals. Indeed, with the possible exception of the dinosaurs, no extinct species is so deeply rooted in our popular culture. The idea that tens of thousands of years ago, people very much like ourselves shared the planet with another human species is one that intrigues many, although the term ‘Neanderthal’ is all too often used in a pejorative sense, and there is a widespread perception of the Neanderthals as dimwits.

In this engaging and accessible book, which is nevertheless as rigorous as any textbook, anthropologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge paint a very different picture of the Neanderthals and their way of life. Drawing on archaeological and fossil evidence, they go beyond reconstructing the Neanderthal world and attempt to deduce their underlying thought processes.

In the first chapter, we are given an introduction to the world of the Neanderthals. From the start, Wynn and Coolidge refer to the Neanderthals as ‘people’, which is entirely correct as they were every bit as human as we are. The name comes from Neander Tal (‘Neander Valley’) near Dusseldorf, where Neanderthal remains were first identified in the 1850s (it was originally spelled ‘Neander Thal’, hence the more commonly-used spelling, but it has always been pronounced ‘tal’ and not ‘thal’). We learn that the Neanderthals were short, stocky, powerfully-built folk, with chinless, protruding faces, pronounced browridges over their eyes, and long, broad noses. The braincase was long and low, rather than the globular shape of modern people. Many features of their distinctive anatomy were adaptations to the harsh conditions of Ice Age Europe, but in comparison to very early humans it turns out that modern people are actually far more distinctive than Neanderthals.

An important difference is the shape of the braincase, which reflects the actual shape of the brain itself. Neanderthal brains were differently shaped to ours, and about ten percent larger. Does this mean that they were ten percent smarter than us? Wynn and Coolidge believe that they were neither more nor less intelligent than us – just different. This conclusion provides a focus for the rest of the book.

Neanderthals lived hard and died hard. Shanidar 1 lived in Iraq about 50,000 years ago, and was in his late 30s when he was killed by a rock fall. But long before his death he had suffered a number of major injuries, any one of which could have killed him. He owed his survival to caring companions, who nursed him back to health – and a dogged ability to cope with pain and life-changing injuries. Nor was Shanidar 1 particularly unusual: the pattern of healed injuries suffered by Neanderthals is very similar to those suffered by rodeo riders, suggesting that were regularly pitted against large, dangerous animals.

Each subsequent chapter focusses on a different aspect of Neanderthal life, and uses the evidence to build on this initial picture of them as tough but compassionate folk. Topics include hunting, spear making, family life, burial traditions and language. Wynn and Coolidge even examine Neanderthal humour before characterising them as pragmatic, stoical, risk-taking, empathic (in that they cared for their sick and injured), hard-hearted (in that they were prepared to leave the sick and injured behind if they needed to move camp), conservative (from the point of their extremely static technology, not their voting intentions), and xenophobic (in that they rarely met strangers and distrusted them when they did).

The final chapter plays a game of ‘Trading Places’ and speculates how a Neanderthal might fare in our modern world, and how a modern human in theirs. Wynn and Coolidge suggest that Neanderthals would do well in our world, and would excel as doctors, mechanics or soldiers. On the other hand, they suggest that a modern human would struggle to make a go of Neanderthal living.

The demise of the Neanderthals is covered fairly briefly. The arrival of modern humans in Ice Age Europe is viewed from the Neanderthal perspective. It is surmised that the end came when the climate began to deteriorate 30,000 years ago. This had happened before, and the Neanderthals had able to cope – but now they had competition. The modern humans were more adaptable and inventive when it came to finding new sources of food and developing new hunting methods. The Neanderthals retreated south to the Iberian Peninsula, where they held out for a while, but in the end they died out.

Wynn and Coolidge suggest that the Neanderthals may survive as dim cultural memories. Possibly some European folk traditions have their origins in ancient encounters with Neanderthals. More plausibly, they also suggest that our enduring fascination with the Neanderthals is that they were humans who led very different lives to ourselves, yet were still somehow like us. The Neanderthals live on as “inexact mirrors of ourselves”, Wynn and Coolidge conclude.

How to think like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge is published in the USA by Oxford University Press © 2012

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