Book review – The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching & the Cognitive Revolution

Why are we, from an evolutionary standpoint, the last man standing? This question fascinates archaeologists and anthropologists, and the dominant narrative is one of humans outcompeting other hominin lineages, driving them extinct. In the process, our evolutionary cousins, such as Neanderthals, always get the short end of the stick, being clumsier, dumber, or just generally inferior to us. In a book that is both a popular summary of his work and a critique of current thinking in archaeology, evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson aims to redress this balance. Neanderthals, he says, were a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and one unexpected line of evidence comes from the birds that lived alongside them.

The Smart Neanderthal

The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching & the Cognitive Revolution“, written by Clive Finlayson, published by Oxford University Press in February 2019 (hardback, 236 pages)

Finlayson is the director of the Gibraltar National Museum where he also acts as chief scientist and curator. Together with his wife and son, they have been leading excavations in the Gorham’s Cave Complex for some three decades and have unearthed evidence of some 120,000 years of occupation by Neanderthals and Modern Humans. In recognition of this, the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.

Neanderthals went extinct some 28,000 years ago, this much we know, but the “why?” remains hotly debated (see also Finlayson’s previous book The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived). The reason for this, writes Finlayson, is that archaeology has a problem. As argued by archaeologist John Shea, the discipline relies on narrative explanations that are being tinkered with in the light of new evidence, often becoming increasingly convoluted in the process. All to maintain the story of a superior Homo sapiens lineage outcompeting other hominin lineages (see also Shea’s Stone Tools in Human Evolution: Behavioral Differences Among Technological Primates).

So, at one time archaeologists talked of Anatomically Modern Humans, but when it became apparent that clear-cut anatomical distinctions could not be made, they ensured humans remained special by shifting the goalposts and speaking of Behaviourally Modern Humans. And that, Finlayson says here, is no longer tenable either in light of his findings. Specifically, a list of seven behavioural features put forward by archaeologist Paul Mellars, the so-called “modern package”, has become a checklist by which to argue why Homo sapiens ended up successful where other Homo lineages did not. This modern package shows itself in the archaeological record as more complex tools, personal ornamentation, and art. The thing is, research is increasingly showing the items on this list not to be unique to Modern Humans.

“[…] archaeology relies on narrative explanations that are being tinkered with in the light of new evidence, often becoming increasingly convoluted in the process”

In short, the background motif to this book is that we underestimate Neanderthals, something which other authors have also pointed out (see my reviews of The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us and The Cradle of Humanity: How the Changing Landscape of Africa Made Us So Smart). But what do birds have to do with this?

Finlayson’s excavations in the Gibraltar caves have so far yielded remains of 160 bird species. And there is solid evidence that these were not simply the result of birds sheltering, or being dragged in there by non-human predators. Taphonomic study (the study of how organisms decay and become fossilized) has revealed signs of cooking fires, burn marks and charred bones, and cut marks pointing to butchery with stone tools. These findings go against the conventional view that Neanderthals lacked the technology and skill to catch fast-moving prey. Their reliance on slow-moving prey is often invoked as an explanation of why they were outcompeted by the smarter Homo sapiens.

What is more, Finlayson and others have argued that Neanderthals were specifically targeting certain birds for their feathers, including birds of prey and corvids. Analyses of fossil bones show a clear preference for wing bones (which are not a bird’s fleshy, tasty parts). These feathers may have seen symbolic, ritual, or ornamental use, just as they do for many tribespeoples today. Again, something Neanderthals were not thought capable of.

“[…] Neanderthals lived amidst species assemblages that no longer exist today: the Ice Age forced Arctic birds to the south to mingle with resident Mediterranean birds”

Finlayson alternates between describing the Gibraltar excavations and their results, and his criticism of current thinking in archaeology. I think he makes some really interesting points here and I will highlight a few. Most relevant to this book and his work on birds is that he berates archaeologists for being poor natural historians. They know their archaeology while lacking expertise in bird ecology and behaviour. But that does not stop them from making sweeping generalisations. Finlayson is an avid birdwatcher and the idea that all birds can be lumped into a “fast-moving prey” category seems absurd to him. Even today, with some know-how, you can easily catch birds that are exhausted from migrations, stuffed from eating or absorbed in breeding with little more than your bare hands. (He refers to books such as Feasting, Fowling and Feathers: A History of the Exploitation of Wild Birds and Birds & People for overviews of how humans have lived with and exploited birds in the past.)

Or what of the biogeographical observation that they have unearthed bones of Arctic bird species such as snowy owls and long-tailed ducks in Gibraltar? What were these doing so far south? Finlayson argues that Neanderthals lived amidst species assemblages that no longer exist today: the Ice Age forced Arctic birds to the south to mingle with resident Mediterranean birds that stayed put. Even fishing, argued to be a driving force in human expansion (see my review of Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization), is no longer the exclusive domain of Homo sapiens. Finlayson has excavated remains of shellfish, fish, and even marine mammals such as dolphins in Gibraltar.

“Why did it take until 40,000 years ago before Modern Humans started showing up in the European archaeological record? […] Finlayson argues that Neanderthals actually successfully kept modern humans out of Europe”

One last conundrum worth mentioning is that of dates. By the latest estimates, Modern Humans left Africa some 300,000 years ago and spread over the globe. Why did it take until 40,000 years ago before they started showing up in the European archaeological record? We managed to colonise other parts of the world well before we colonised Europe, even though it is just around the corner from Africa. Finlayson has previously argued that Neanderthals actually successfully kept modern humans out of Europe (see also The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolution), and it is not impossible that humans ended up copying behaviours and habits from Neanderthals.

My only minor quibble with this book is that I think it suffers a bit in its structure. Finlayson could have streamlined the presentation more as I feel he now frequently goes back and forth between different lines of argumentation, losing coherence a bit. Overall though, The Smart Neanderthal convincingly argues its premise and is a joy to read. Finlayson’s research is fascinating and his explanation of it clear and captivating. For me, his thought-provoking criticism made this book a real eye-opener.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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The Smart Neanderthal hardback, ebook, audiobook or audio CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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