Updated: December 9, 2022

Rebecca Wragg Sykes explores the lives of Neanderthals, their relationships, and their place in our shared history. The author uses the latest findings in Palaeolithic research to share our new understanding of these ancient humans.

Favorite quotes from the book:

All human cultures also have a desire for transcendence. Whether expressed through painting cave walls, raising cathedrals, singing millennia-old sacred songs or climbing among airy mountain peaks, this urge is common to all peoples across time and space.

Though hominins were present in Eurasia well before 1 million years ago, the oldest H. sapiens fossils are certainly African. However, old notions about a particular 'cradle of humanity' have now been superseded. The most recent fossil and genetic evidence suggests we evolved from an anatomically diverse meta-population, connected across many regions of the continent.

Though Neanderthals remained physically distinct even in their last visible skeletal remains, the scale and repetition of interbreeding, plus the range of retained genes in us, means they were - and are - human. Biologically speaking, individuals who can mate and create viable offspring are the same species.

Fundamentally, the long obsession over the Neanderthals' fate reflects our deep dread of annihilation. Extinction is frightening; even the syllables slam up against each other. Is it a coincidence that as our species belatedly wakes up to what may be its greatest threat, apocalyptic fiction becomes all the rage? In the face of obliteration, we desire comforting parables where we are always the Ones Who Lived. What's more, we want to feel special: most of the stories we've told about Neanderthals have been narcissistic reassurances that we 'won' because we're outstanding, destined to survive.

The earth hosts many creatures that possess sentience, intelligence, self-awareness, even culture. Not only do we fail to show much interest in really communicating with elephants, crows, cetaceans or primates (other than chimpanzees, though only on our terms), but the scale of abuse we commit against them is a damning indictment of what we could permit to happen to Neanderthals, despite knowing what - and who - they are.