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Book review: ‘Kindred,’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes



However, Sykes’s compelling arguments about the capacities and diversity of the ancient Neanderthals lead us back to the inescapable question of Sapiens. Scholars have always noted a suspicious coincidence that the Neanderthals escaped exactly when Sapiens appeared at the scene. But as long as scholars consider the Neanderthals to be simply brutalists barely present during the European ice age, it is easy for Sapiens to benefit from doubt. Some scholars say that climate change makes conditions more suitable for Sapiens while Neanderthals cannot cope with it. Other scholars argue that the Neanderthals were on the brink of extinction even before the Sapiens left Africa. Another option is that the Neanderthals are completely non-extinct ̵

1; they are assimilated into the increasingly expanding Sapiens population.

But Sykes’s new synthesis seems to rule out all of these options. For more than 300,000 years, the Neanderthals successfully overcame many climatic cycles and adapted to many habitats. They have the ability to innovate and adapt. They disappeared quite suddenly about 40,000 years ago as a result of a sudden shock rather than a prolonged course of decline. And although we now have convincing evidence that some Neanderthals crossbred Sapiens, the evidence suggests these are isolated incidents and the two populations do not merge.

So what happened? If the Neanderthals were so good, why would they disappear? Sykes did not give a definite answer, but her findings reinforced suspicions that Sapiens had been involved. Obviously, the Neanderthals are sophisticated and creative enough to cope with diverse climates and habitats, but not with their African cousins.

Sykes offers convincing evidence that on an individual level the Neanderthals are not inferior to Sapiens. The Neanderthals fit well, their hands were skillful, and their brains were large – if not larger – than the Sapiens. Sapiens’ advantage may lie in large-scale cooperation.

Sykes explains that Neanderthals living in small groups rarely cooperate with each other. The only clue is that Neanderthal bands can trade goods coming from a few stone instruments. By analyzing the various mineral symbols, scholars can determine the exact origin of each type of rock. In some notable cases, the rock has originated from more than 100 km. However, it is not clear whether this indicates that Neanderthal bands selling precious items or the Neanderthals traveled long distances.

By the time they encountered the Neanderthals, Sapiens also lived in small bands, but different Sapiens bands probably collaborated on a regular basis. There is more evidence for long-distance trade between Sapiens and spectacular burials such as the 32,000-year-old Sunghir tombs clearly reflect the combined efforts of more than one band.

The large-scale cooperation does not necessarily mean that 500 Sapiens unite to wipe out the 20 Neanderthals. Cooperation is not just violence. Sapiens can easily benefit from the discoveries and inventions of others. If someone in a nearby band discovered a new way to locate hives, to sew ao dai or heal wounds, those knowledge could spread more quickly among Sapiens than with the Neanderthals. Although the individual Neanderthals may have been as eager to learn, imaginative and creative as individual Sapiens, the preeminent network allowed Sapiens to quickly overtake Neanderthals.


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