Rating: 5 out of 5
It’s difficult not to appreciate an author who manages to get Happisburgh, Sima de Los Huesos, and La Chapelle-aux-Saints all correct. It shows that the author cares, and that means a lot. Some of the decisions that Ms Sykes made in the writing of the book—including describing the historical researchers but not the modern ones—also made perfect sense from the point of view of reading the book. I have some gripes, as I nearly always do, but these are more organisational than content-related: specifically, I would have preferred a sub-division that is based on chronology and not topics. Admittedly, for a subject such as the Neanderthals of which we know so little this doesn’t perhaps make sense.
Ms Sykes has written an overview that delves into the Neanderthals. While the author describes the history of Neanderthal research, this is more to bring into light how much we know today—and how much modern methods of archaeology have developed compared to those of the past. Indeed, a scientifically oriented mind will already find the author’s descriptions of research methods incredibly interesting. Some questions arose here (for me, these related to how exactly they use induced magnetism to date layers) which were not perfectly described, but this is understandable because this was not the intent of the author. The majority of the topics, especially those related to art, hunting, diet, and such items, were very interesting and really showed how much we can figure out from a very limited dataset.
However, this also brings us to the natural breakline in this: what we know is so limited that naturally we need to guess. Guessing is okay unless its done heedlessly. I don’t think the author erred in that way, but I do think that Ms Sykes did not make it perfectly clear that the variety of behaviours she described which applied to human hunter gatherer groups today could also have been the order of the day for the Neanderthals: quite possibly, it is folly to look for a singular mode of behaviour when really every group may have had their own traditions. Yet, the examples we get by comparisons to human hunter gatherer societies are incredibly interesting, especially as these brought into play the notion of how we understand things: the western idea of geography and maps, for one, is something that is probably quite useless to transpose into a Neanderthal world when we try and figure out why they had a rock in this place from 60 kilometres away or why they had something really unique elsewhere at another time.
Overall, this is a solid overview of the subject and I heartily recommend it to anyone! Questions remain, as ever, but that’s not a bad thing…