Science fiction and fantasy
How To Think Like A Neandertal
by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge
The book deals with their use of tools, and from the shape of their skulls we can deduce how they might have thought and learned thanks to our knowledge of the structure of the brain. There's little evidence for them innovating. However we can work out some things about the structure of their social groups and daily lives. The book covers how they used fire, tool creation and use, and how they buried their dead. It also looks at art, rituals, symbols and language, but the evidence for all of these is scant because of the ravages of time.
The chapter on sleep takes the way chimps and modern humans sleep and extrapolates that to estimate how Neandertals slept. The link between sleep, creativity and innovation is what makes this section interesting. However, the conclusions about Neandertal sleep are really just more questions.
The weakest chapter is the one on personality. Here the authors suggest various traits that many Neandertals may have had, and this is little more than a list of what-ifs, based on scant evidence. It does little more than recap what has already been said.
The authors try a thought experiment that puts a Neandertal in a modern setting, and a modern human 50,000 years in the past within a Neandertal community, to imagine how they would get on. To me the authors' description makes these people seem borderline autistic (which makes me wonder about their larger brains, a trait people with autism may also share).
How To Think Like A Neandertal is accessibly written and interesting. What it lacks is, I suspect, more a matter of what the study of human evolution lacks in its knowledge of this sub-species of humans, rather than any omissions on the part of the authors. The story of our Neandertal cousins is a tantalising one that's crying out for further research and discoveries.
15th April 2013
If you like this, try:The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being by Alice Roberts
Alice Roberts looks at the amazing journey of human development and why our bodies have evolved in the way they have.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
We are in the middle of a mass extinction event, caused by the actions of mankind. This book tells the story so far, and examines how we are changing the biosphere.
Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde with Sandra Blakeslee
This book explores the things magicians can teach neuroscientists about the way our minds work.
Review © Ros Jackson
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