Book review – Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

7-minute read

Whatever mental image you have of our close evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, it is bound to be incomplete. Kindred is an ambitious book that takes in the full sweep of 150 years of scientific discovery and covers virtually every facet of their biology and culture. Archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has drawn on her extensive experience communicating science outside of the narrow confines of academia to write a book that is as accessible as it is informative, and that stands out for its nuance and progressive outlook. Is this a new popular science benchmark?

Kindred

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, written by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, published by Bloomsbury Sigma in August 2020 (hardback, 408 pages)

Two things immediately struck me when I received this book. First, a personal favourite, illustrated end plates! Since Kindred discusses discoveries made at numerous dig sites, there is a map of Europe and part of Asia with their locations. At the back there is a family tree showing the complex interrelatedness between early Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. Second, at just shy of 400 pages with the bibliography online (more on that later) and having a larger trim size than usual for a Bloomsbury Sigma title, this is a chunky book.

Kindred internal 1The reason soon becomes apparent: Sykes covers a lot of ground in this book. The deeper evolutionary history of our family tree, the history of Neanderthal discovery, their skeletal morphology, the traces and injuries that reveal their hardships in life, the climatological fluctuations during the 350,000 years of their existence on this planet, the stone, wood, and bone tools they produced and left behind, their diet, the temporary nature of their home sites as deduced from traces of fireplaces, their migrations and mobility in the landscape, the material traces hinting at a sense of aesthetics, the educated guesses we can make about their social and emotional lives, their funerary practices, the ancient DNA revolution, and, finally, the various explanations given for their disappearance. The scope of Kindred is nothing short of breathtaking. Her acknowledgements mention that the eight years it took to write this book were as daunting and as difficult as she had feared they would be, and the enormity of the task is clear.

“[…] the tools now at the disposal of archaeologists border on science fiction. Most certainly quite beyond the imagination of the pioneers, but even a formidable task for current scientists to keep on top of.”

Part of the reason is that technological advances have led to a veritable explosion in new methods to apply and new kinds of questions to ask. I was familiar with some of these, such as ancient DNA and the microscopic patterns of wear and tear left on teeth, but many were entirely new to me. The use of computers to fit stone flakes and fragments back together to reconstruct how a piece of stone was chipped and shaped into a tool? The use of laser scanners to document dig sites in exquisite three-dimensional detail? The analysis of the microscopic stratigraphy in soot layers, known as fuliginochronology? The use of isotopes to study where individuals were born and then moved to during their lives? As Sykes remarks, the tools now at the disposal of archaeologists border on science fiction. Most certainly quite beyond the imagination of the pioneers, but even a formidable task for current scientists to keep on top of.

Kindred internal 6This avalanche of information and techno-wizardry could have resulted in an inaccessible monolith of a book. There were a (very) few places where I felt Sykes careened into a dense thicket of details, such as when discussing the different lithic techno-complexes – for us mortals, the different styles of stone tools. And she does not always explain technologies – I assume most people will not know what the deal is with ancient DNA or what mtDNA even stands for. By and large, however, this book stands out for being fascinating, accessible, and terribly exciting – this is a golden age for archaeology! Most chapters are just the right length to avoid information overload, while a handful of drawings illustrate tricky concepts.

The picture that emerges of Neanderthals is that of hominins who are increasingly indistinguishable from early Homo sapiens; inventive, smart, social creatures, likely capable of spoken language, that survived for a very long time while weathering ice ages and warm periods. This picture is delivered in vivid writing that sometimes borders on lyrical – there were passages where I felt Sykes channelled the voice of deep time:

“Amid ancient surfaces densely spangled with myriad artefacts, fireplaces are like archaeological wormholes, bridging the impossible chasms of time separating us from long-vanished dwellers.”

But there is much else in her writing to admire. There are fascinating histories: how some skeletons ended up scattered over different countries, surviving multiple wars before the different body parts were reunited decades later. She reveals how archaeologists used to work and think, and how that has changed. For example, early excavators could not tell the difference between naturally shattered versus intentionally knapped rocks, thus discarding vast bodies of evidence at dig sites without recording them. In some cases, these are now being re-excavated for renewed examination. She repeatedly warns of simplistic interpretations and sexed-up headlines that dominate the news, instead stressing the far more interesting nuances, such as the fantastically complex patterns of population dispersals, influxes, turnovers, and interbreeding revealed by ancient DNA.

Kindred internal 4One of Sykes’s side-projects is co-curating the website TrowelBlazers which celebrates the achievements of women in archaeology, geology, and palaeontology. Thus, I expected a certain progressive outlook. Indeed, why should the evidence for interbreeding always be interpreted as rape? Why is “desire and even emotional attachment […] regarded as more of a fairy tale than other explanations”? But she goes well beyond that, positively surprising me. Such as when parsing the complex and incomplete evidence for cannibalism in Neanderthals. She challenges the reader to consider different ways of interpreting this behaviour. Or by highlighting how Indigenous knowledge from hunter-gatherer communities can offer completely fresh perspectives on the archaeological record. This can illuminate blind spots of Western scientists, whether practical (the identification of tracks in the physical record) or more fundamental (challenging our ingrained tendency to see everything through a lens of dominance, exploitation, and conflict).

“[…] this book stands out for being fascinating, accessible, and terribly exciting – this is a golden age for archaeology!”

Kindred internal 5Finally, one decision that might divide opinions. Sykes opens the book explaining why, after careful thought, she did not include citations for claims and statements, focusing instead on the narrative. She has provided a 122-page bibliography online, but unfortunately there is no link between references and what part of the text they are relevant to. Although I understand her reasoning, I have always found the use of superscripted numbers leading to individual notes and references to be a minimally intrusive middle road.

Though Kindred is not the first book to point towards a certain Neanderthal renaissance, its scope and authoritativeness eclipse what has come before. Whether you wonder what book to start with when new to the topic, or which book to pick if you only have time for one, Kindred is without a doubt the go-to book for a nuanced and current picture of Neanderthals.


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

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

Kindred hardback, ebook or audiobook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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One comment

  1. The writing sounds extraordinary! I’m forever trying to learn more about some of our vanquished hominid kin, and this book’s use of some eye-opening research tech makes it even more appealing.

    Like

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