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Book Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived by Clive Finlayson

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Once you get past the cover illustration of a standard issue Neanderthal woman – fastback forehead, straight from central casting – author Clive Finlayson delves into a corrective chronicle turning conventional scientific wisdom on its head. Neanderthals, long thought of as rough and rudimentary, were not really subject to extinction by any direct superiority from our upstart ancestors, supposedly more nimble and in-the-know, who emerged from Africa some 100,000 years ago. Instead, and as detailed in the revelatory The Humans Who Went Extinct, Homo sapiens were just at the right place at the right epoch. In a process analogous to the survival of the luckiest, Finlayson finds that “Serendipity is central to the account” of our ancestors, “a marginal people” who found their fortune in a fluke, albeit one on a grand scale.

In Finlayson’s sweeping panorama of the events that led to their migration into Europe, he conjectures about the occurrences of contact, the ‘brushes with bipeds,’ between Homo neanderthalenis — “large, tough and intelligent people” and culturally akin to Homo sapien — when the two populations, after having been genetically separated for half a million years, ultimately stumble upon each other in the Middle East around 130,000 years ago. With no proof of hybridization, the author declares that the matter of mating “remains a mystery.”

But in addition to culture and interaction, evolutionary ecologist Finlayson, an eminent expert on Neanderthals and Director of the Gibraltar Museum and Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto, does consider the factors of climate, ecology, and migrations of populations, seamlessly interweaving these interacting topics throughout Humans Who Went Extinct. Overarching all, Finkayson reminds us, is the “human story [that] unfolds against a backdrop of deteriorating climate” with a bent toward an increasingly unstable earth. Moreover, climate is “the architect that molded our intelligence, our biological makeup, in fact everything that made us human.”

Migration and ecology both come into equitable play in the retelling of the Central Asian population that fans out into Europe around 30,000 years ago, prompted by a response that biologists call ecological release; in the lack of competition for the literal lay of the  land, a population “adapts to a new, untapped environment and spreads rapidly.” Extending his cases in point worldwide, Finlayson cites example after example of similar pressure valve vents and exoduses, spurred on by “major demographic and geographical surges in our history”: from Arabia our ancestors moved into India, then across south-east Asia following grasslands opening up as climate changed; the rapid migration into and throughout Australia; and the Bering land bridge, the gateway to North America.

But in weighing the causes beyond the ultimately contributory aspects of climate, environment, or migration, Finlayson ratchets up several notches the role of “chance,” which is “everywhere in our story and … has affected it in subtle, as well as dramatic, ways.” Luck is always understandably overlooked, perhaps – nebulous aberrations of weird science you hate to cite as proof for tangible fact. Nevertheless, “The key point of my argument,” states Finlayson, “is the one that makes, for me, our story such a beautiful one. It is about how unexpected events and situations altered the course of the story in unpredictable and unforeseen ways.”

That too-little-too-late outlook could also include the Neanderthals’ ill-preparedness as the Ice Age pushed the tundra south, and they had to contend with new species like reindeer and woolly mammoth on land where lack of tree cover made their hunting a hardship. In addition to drastic climate change came disease as their worn-out physiques weren’t built to weather that storm, either: “The Neanderthal extinction was the extinction of a particular body form that had been around for a long time.”

About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Day Brown

    Ask a midwife; show her the Neanderthal pelvis. She’ll say it could not deliver a hybrid child, but a Cro Magnon pelvis will.