Oct 28, 2020
You probably think you know the Neanderthals. We’ve all been hearing about them since we were kids, after all. They were all over the comics; they were in museum dioramas and on cartoons. They were always cast as mammoth-eating, cave-dwelling dimwits—nasty brutes, in other words. You probably also learned that they died off because they couldn’t keep pace with us, Homo sapiens, their svelter, savvier superiors.
That’s story we had long been told anyhow. But, over the past few decades, there’s been a slow-moving sea change—a revolution in how archaeologists understand our closest cousins. For this episode I talked to Dr. Rebecca Wragg Sykes about this revolution. She is a Neanderthal specialist and the author of the new book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.
Rebecca and I discuss the new picture of Neanderthals emerging from the latest archaeological research. We talk about where they lived, what they ate, the tools and clothing they made. We talk about the evidence that they had a considerable degree of cognitive sophistication and—very possibly—an aesthetic sense. Once we put all this together—and let the new picture come into focus—the gap long thought to separate them from us from them starts to close. And this makes the question of why they vanished about 40 thousand years ago all the more puzzling.
I really hope you enjoy this one—I certainly did. And if you do, I definitely encourage you to check out Kindred!
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
Most of the topics we discuss are treated in detail in Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s book, Kindred.
5:40 – Earlier book-length treatments of the Neanderthals include The Smart Neanderthal and Neanderthals Revisited.
9:15 – The archaeological site of Atapuerca in Spain, which includes the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones).
11:20 – The Neander Valley in Germany was the site of the very first Neanderthal find in 1856.
11:50 – Another early site was Krapina, Croatia, which is now home to a Neanderthal museum.
24:30 – A recent academic article on the complexity of Neanderthal tool use.
28:27 – A French site—La Folie—gives a sense of what some Neanderthal dwellings were like.
41:05 – A popular article about the “wow site” at Bruniquel. The original academic article.
49:16 – An article on the evidence that Neanderthals were preparing and using birch tar.
56:45 – Some evidence suggests Neanderthals were interested in bird feathers and talons.
1:01:30 – There is now evidence for repeated phases of interbreeding between human and Neanderthals.
1:05:00 – Other ancient hominin species included the Denisovans.
1:07:00 – There are some reasons to believe that pathogens carried by humans may have played a role in the demise of the Neanderthals.
1:13:30 – Another richly imaginative treatment of ancient human life is Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic, by Mark Edmonds.
To keep up with the latest Neanderthal research, Dr. Wragg Sykes recommends following archaeologists such as John Hawks (@johnhawks). She is also on Twitter (@LeMoustier) and her website is: https://www.rebeccawraggsykes.com/.
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