Customer Reviews: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived
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on December 7, 2009
A terrific and well written analysis of human prehistory with emphasis on a nuanced understanding of our relationship and competition with Neanderthals. Incorporates new knowledge about the rapid cycles of climate change that influenced modern human success and other hominid failure in the last 100,000 years. This slim book gives a great overview of primate and hominid evolution with emphasis on how luck and good fortune in addition to possibly "superior" traits influenced Homo sapiens' ultimate success. Presents more of a focus on facts while withholding some prejudiced judgements that have previously colored our interpretations of prehistory by the final "victors" (us). Very thoughtful and thought provoking, with superb writing that makes technical topics accessible to the lay reader. Evolution is not just about DNA but also must take into account climate change, geography, and habitat stability/transformation in a complex interplay of forces. A smart read that suggests we should be a little more humble about our evolutionary success, and even more concerned about how our impact on climate can affect our future.
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on January 4, 2010
I have been interested in paleo stuff for about 20 years. Read about botany, geography, linguistics, genomics, archeology, evolutionary biology etc etc all in the paleo world. Not being a science-y person (I read literary fiction 70%) it's a lot of information to sift through but after reading maybe 20-25 books I have a sense of the core. Finlayson just debunks and knocks around a lot of the conventional wisdom not really evidence-based and ego-defined debates in the field. My one criticism is that there were not good maps. When he is describing ancient ice ages and interglacials, a few maps with some arrows to show the encroaching glaciers and the receding ones would have ben handy and dandy. I prefer footnotes to end notes but that's a quibble. The fact that my library got this book at all is simply amazing. And trying to get other books that were in the endnotes has proven to be impossible for me. The book is dense and only 220 pages. There is not one wasted word. Finlayson does say in which chapter something is mentioned first when referring to it again which was helpful. This is not really a science book for the layperson and it is hard for me to imagine coming to it without any background at all. Chapter by chapter I never wanted it to end and I stretched out a 2-day read into 4 days. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel exhilarated me just as this book has. Aside: I just recently read Finding Our Tongues by Dean Falk which was wonderful, and Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, which was good. Finlayson gives the origin of language short shrift--just a quick mention of the gene for language acquisition, and he writes a bit more about how eating meat allowed for larger brains. So a little from this one, a little from that one, and over time there is the over-arching story. That we are here is an accident. It could have been one of our evolutionary cousins, but our proto-Ancestors and then direct Ancestor were at the right geography when climate favored us. Edit 5/29/10: 1% to 4% of the DNA of Non-African European people is Neanderthal. Whether this remarkable scientific achievement based on the extraction of DNA from one Neanderthal fossil holds up to scrutiny remains to be seen. I just love this so much and hope it holds true. My dream is to go to Gibraltar and spend the night in one of the caves where the last Neanderthals lived.
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on September 27, 2010
Neanderthals have gotten a bad rap. First they were considered evolution's brutes - a branch on evolution's tree that failed to go anywhere but to a dead end. Then they were classified as being inferior to their Homo sapiens counsins. They were victims of genocide at the hands of early modern man whose gift for innovation outpaced Neanderthals' ability to adapt. Some even postulated that Neanderthals interbred with our ancestors, but even our genes were superior to theirs and wiped out Neanderthal traits.

Now comes Clive Finlayson with the most detailed and complete theory about why our ancestors survived while Neanderthals went extinct, the last of the species dying out in the caves of Gilbralter. In essence, Finlayson's idea of why Homo sapiens prospered can be summed up in a single word: luck. Our ancestors simply moved out of Africa and into the Middle East and Asia at just the right time to take advantage of a changing climate. As the Ice Age locked up ocean water and opened new territories and land bridges for our ancestors, our distant Neanderthal relatives scattered across Central Asia and Europe were being squeezed out by ice shields as well as climate that changed their landscape and ability to hunt. Change a few variables and it could have just as easily been us who disappeared while Neandthals triumphed.

Finlayson's research is superb as he explains how hunting in a forest is different from hunting on a vast, treeless steppe and what these changes meant to the fight for survival. But despite the science that has gone into the book, it's easily accessible to the layman who is interested in paleo-anthropology and evolution.

Let's face it: most of us grew up having to memorize the periodic tables or the chemical process of photosynthesis. No wonder so many of use were turned off by science. It's a shame we didn't have scientists like Finlayson to make science textbooks come alive.
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on June 11, 2011
Although I'm not sure I go along with the Multi-regional Theory of human evolution, I do think that Clive Finleyson's book "The Human's Who Went Extinct" touches on some very cogent points that often get overlooked or glossed over by those with their eyes on the Out of Africa Hypothesis. I certainly found them enlightening and have tried to incorporate them into my own way of thinking about the human species.

More than anything, while authors often give lip service to the fact that people are animals too, they often neglect what that actually entails especially for early humans. Many of the patterns of behavior among early people, regardless of their genus and species, were dictated by necessity and what was possible--even by sheer luck. These writers also seem to ignore the fact that most genera have more than one species in it and that those few that don't are usually under some degree of distress. I think this is something we should pay more attention to than we do when we look at our Neanderthal cousins as "failures," since it has ramifications for our own kind. In this context the author points out that this means that, far from one species "succeeding" another and winning the sweepstakes, there may have been many types of humans alive at any one time, each occupying their own little niche, much as other species in other genera do. That our co-genera species are no longer with us may have something important to tell us about our own contract with Mother Nature. One does not usually blame most extinct species for being "too dumb to live," as we are prone to do with our own ancient ancestors and their peers. All species are suited to the environment in which they evolved; it's only when nature changes the game plan that they may find themselves in trouble. The author makes this evident in his work on human species as well. I found that refreshing.

From the point of view of the archeologist, dealing with material remains from such a long time ago, the author notes that there isn't much by way of fossil evidence. He notes that many grand theories that massage the hubris of modern man's notion of himself have been built on next to no evidence. What there is of cultural material is biased toward what lasts in the record, stone and pottery--what there is of it. As he points out, this gives a much skewed perspective of what happened and who brought it about. His most interesting contribution is a discussion of just what technology is useful in what environment. Here he notes that it is probably the habitat in which any given human found himself that dictated the materials employed, what shapes were created and how the resulting tools were used; and not the intellect or the species of the individual user. He makes a number of references to modern, non-human animals who perform many of the feats of hunting and even trans-marine travel without nearly the mental ability of our distant ancestors and their contemporaries. I think this is very important. It is perhaps uncomfortable for us to believe that Neanderthal or Heidelberg men could become extinct, at least without our help, unless they were somehow mentally or physically defective. (This attitude brings to mind the old biases regarding races other than "our own.") To do otherwise puts us in the awkward position of having to admit that our success has as much to do with dumb luck as it does with our much vaunted "brain." It also makes it more evident that our luck could just "run out" one of these days just as it did for other species of human in the past. Here the author refers often to Jarod Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies which makes similar points about the European contact with the inhabitants of the Americas.

I found the author's reference to the ranges of some modern animals, particularly the collared dove, very interesting and grounding. One tends to forget that the "great migrations" of our distant ancestors took place as they did and do with other animals and not as some grand manifest destiny. As population density increases, part of the group moves over a bit to have space and resources with which to raise their own "kids." Over generations, the range of the species expands until it hits some obstacle it can't go over or around. If major change occurs pockets of species may remain in refugia waiting for better times. If better times fail to come along, these populations may become extinct. With humans one tends to get the impression of a great "mission" or "destiny" with the expansion of ancient human populations that just isn't there anymore than it is for other animals. Even in more recent times, most people left their homes to find new ones so that they could promote their own interests. While a Genghis Khan might bring about a major migration for the purpose of conquest in the post agricultural world, in the pre-agricultural world this is most unlikely to have been a motivator. For one thing, "conquest" or "exploration," even "migration" would have to have been concepts that could even have arisen, and I'm not sure they could or did at the time. It's very unlikely that the ancestors of the Native Americans suddenly decided to mass migrate from Siberia to North America one day.

One of the issues that the author brings up with respect to which individuals survive hard times to populate the environment was particularly interesting and relevant. As he notes, it was those who lived marginal existences around a settled and conservative population that managed to navigate through whatever bottleneck occurred. This seems to have been the case with most plants and animals. He also suggests that the modern individual is essentially as "domesticated" as are the plants and animals upon which and with which he or she lives. The "wild form" of our own species is rapidly being crowded out of existence. While no human is less "modern" than another, some live closer to the "wild" existence than most of us do. In the event that a catastrophe occurs that brings about the collapse of society as we know it, it would be this "wild" population that would probably repeople the world--that is if we've allowed them to continue to exist--because they have the greatest experience with "making do" with almost nothing. I know I couldn't; I'm not sure I'd even want to. We might remember that destroying the dissenters of the world--like those living in the mountains of Afghanistan, the forests of South America and other marginal areas--may well put paid to the human experiment if and when Mother Nature decides she's had about enough.
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on March 5, 2012
I give this book 2 stars not because it is a bad book but because the title suggested to me there would be an extensive discussion of Neanderthals. Unfortunately this is not the case. In fact these words on page 124 sum things up pretty well: "Let us forget about Neanderthals for awhile...." indeed, the author forgets about them for about 90 percent of the book. He does discuss the human family tree, climatic events, flora and fauna, but information on Neanderthals is sparse and conjectural. Perhaps this is less the writer's fault than the fact there is so little evidence about Neanderthals. In fact all that this book has about Neanderthals could be summed up in one magazine article.
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on May 19, 2011
Well written account of some recent thinking on a fascinating topic. Detailed but well phrased arguments comprehensible to those of us with no background in archaeology but with an interest in this period of time when pre-humans were transitioning to humans, even more than one type of human. This may be deflating to some who prefer a more vigorous history of why sapiens are here and the others are not, but satisfying to those who prefer a view that is more natural with less emphasis on violent elimination.

The only reason I did not give it 5 stars was the lack of good maps of the areas discussed. There was a lot of geography presented and the presence of many more readable maps would have help with the clarity of the discussion.
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on September 15, 2011
Were the Neanderthals less intelligent than we are? Finlayson would argue no, although he seems a bit less certain in his final chapter, in which he acknowledges that our brains may be more efficient and better organized (p.211). In any event, Finlayson is convincing in arguing that we do not need to resort to some kind of inferiority to explain the Neanderthal demise. Many human populations went extinct as a victim of climate volatility combined with relatively small numbers. Finlayson speculates that the Neanderthals were less adapted to the steppe-tundra which took over Eurasia, because while brawnier, they were not as swift or energy efficient. I prefer arguments that suggest they were not as capable at operating in larger groups, necessary to trade information, and cooperate in hunts of fleeter animals. After all, the wolves were the most successful predator by far, and they hunted in packs. Finlayson is convincing in arguing that there is no evidence that our ancestors ever displaced Neanderthals living at the same time in the same general location; also the Neanderthals survived longest in southern Spain, in a more accommodating environment, and lived a comparable life style, absent art, than our ancestors did in the same location, thousands of years later.

Art is tricky. There is evidence of figurative art produced by proto-humans 160,000 years ago (p.170), but I would argue that just as animals use rudimentary tools, this does not preclude an advance in human abilities leading to the amazing cave paintings. Finlayson is on firmer ground in asking us not to think of human migrations out of Africa, but of habitat expansion and colonization of this expanded habitat, comparable to what animal species frequently experience. Moreover, Asia and Africa really constitute one supercontinent, with a relatively easy connection in the Middle East. Finlayson emphasizes that the innovating population groups were likely those living on the margins of different habitats, especially when life for them was less comfortable. This makes intuitive sense, and reminds me of the old argument that intellectual leaps in modern times were more often made by people caught between cultural groups, and therefore marginal to both.

This book would have been a whole lot easier to follow if there were more tables and maps, some even in color, and perhaps a bit more reworking of the material.

Some random nuggets. It turns out that there were all kinds of mammals before dinosaur extinction, including medium sized predators. Current belief is that ape ancestors used bipedal walking, like orangutans today, although mostly in the trees. Stone tools date back 1.8 million years. Just by accidentally drifting on natural rafts, macaques reached remote islands, never connected to mainland.
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on January 11, 2014
This book is about the effects of climate change on local ecologies, and their effects on the evolution of hominids.
Much of it is well-reasoned, and much of it is very speculative.

But one thing this book is NOT is analysis of why the Neanderthals went extinct. So I was disappointed.
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on March 19, 2012
The author takes us through our pre-historic world, theorising on our origins and those of our near kin in convincing terms, very suitable for the layman. The meek really did inherit the earth - it was those surviving in the marginal areas that had to change and adapt to survive - the innovators living on the periphery, the original risk managers! And don't forget chance, luck and climate change which proved to be critical factors in the tragic end for Neanderthals and Homo erectus. At least, thankfully, we don't carry the responsibility/guilt of wiping them out. As for Homo sapiens, a mixture of chance, being in the right place at the right time - `we were born from the poor and feeble that had to spend every ounce of energy searching for the scraps that kept them alive,' but sadly we seem to have become too successful/too ignorant, the `pests that invaded every nook and cranny that became available'. And the future - those best able to survive a looming catastrophe, the innovators and survivors, will probably take us on the next step in evolution.

It was a tough prehistoric world, now coloured by a kinder/gentler view of evolution. Very interesting.
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on April 24, 2014
Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch

The recent finding that there was mating between Homo sapients and Neanderthals, as proven by the retention of some Neanderthal DNA in humans of European and Asian descent, stimulated quite a number of books on the Neanderthals, all of them necessarily quite speculative as there are few remains from which their ways of existance can be deduced. And the Neanderthal genome project, however impressive, surely cannot tell us how they thought. But what I really find disturbing are hints that humanity has much to learn from the deminse of the Neanderthals.

Finlayson's book was written before traces of Neanderthal DNA were discovered in humans, which the author just had time to mention in the Preface. But this does not impair the quality of the book as a whole. It is well written and in some respects critical of then widely accepted views, such as on the "brutishness" of the Neanderthals, which is all for the better. But I find it hard to escape the impression that this book, as many others, is overinfluenced by contemporary concerns with climate change, however justified by themselves. His basic proposition that climate changes with which the Neanderthals could not cope resulted in their demise (and not conflicts with Homo Sapiens, as was widely thought) cannot be proven and requres, therefore, more reservations than offered by the author.

This applies all the more so to hints relating to the future of homo sapiens. The author, as many others, does not adequately recognize the radical break in the evolutionary continuity of our species caused by the advanced in science and technology, including on "human enhancement," with all their in part inconceivable potentials for better and worse (as discussed in my recent book).

Thus, Finlayson states "domestication is not a complete break with the past but rather a continuum of increasing human intervention from predation to genetic engineering" (page 203). This is incorrect. Synthetic biology constituting a radical break with the past, similarly to nuclear bombs not beilng a continuation of arrows and bows.

The author well states that "Most designs, perhaps all, given enough time, no matter how perfectly matched to the present they might be, will one day be confronted with the spectre of extinction" (pp. 209-210). But the dangers facing the existance of humanity are in the main the paradoxical products of its own ingenuity, with science and technology providing self-destruct capacities control of which requires radical innovations in human values, feeling and institutions - which may or may not be within our potentials. Tthis is an unprecedented challenge. I do not think there is much that can be learned on it from the history of the Neanderthals.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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