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91 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humanistic understanding of our closest not- quite ancestors
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...
Published on December 7, 2009 by F. Scott Valeri

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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not much in this book about Neanderthals
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...
Published on March 5, 2012 by dnewspeak


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91 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humanistic understanding of our closest not- quite ancestors, December 7, 2009
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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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82 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My brain is reeling--enthralling brilliant book, January 4, 2010
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shanarufus (Asheville, NC) - See all my reviews
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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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fresh look at evolution's "brutes", September 27, 2010
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W. V. Buckley (Kansas City, MO) - See all my reviews
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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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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not much in this book about Neanderthals, March 5, 2012
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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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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Makes some very good points, June 11, 2011
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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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Humans who went extinct, May 19, 2011
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This review is from: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived (Paperback)
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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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Adds to the picture, September 15, 2011
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algo41 "algo41" (philadelphia, pa United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived (Paperback)
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A complete package - pre-history & philosophy, March 19, 2012
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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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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Concise, Enjoyable, Informative, December 10, 2010
This review is from: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived (Paperback)
I recently borrowed a copy of "The Humans Who Went Extinct" from my physical anthropology professor. I almost laughed out loud as she handed it to me; the thin book was fringed with book marks and neon pink and green Post-It "flags." But it wasn't long after opening it that I learned why (though it was a while before I could make myself put it down).

In this fascinating, informative book, Clive Finlayson, an evolutionary ecologist, tells the early history of our species from the standpoint of, well, an evolutionary ecologist. He refutes the silly (but common) notion that our extinct hominin relatives (Neanderthals, H. erectus, and others) were slouching, dim-witted brutes, destined to be driven to extinction when a brave band of Homo sapiens (the very pinnacle of evolution!) decided to set forth out of their African homeland and claim the rest of the world.

Instead, he tells of the less glamorous, far less conceited reality: We are a pretty clever primate species who, with our long bodies and ranged weapons, happen to be pretty gosh darn well-adapted to living on grasslands. When cold, dry climate trends created savannah-like grasslands outside of Africa, our ancestors radiated outward and filled their ecological niche. Now you'll note that I said "radiated outward." There was no cro-magnon Magellan. Like house sparrows or cattle egrets, our ancestors simply filled more and more geographic area over the course of subsequent generations.

The Neanderthal, which has come to be synonymous with "thug" or "moron," was no such thing. There is no indication that they were anything but a very intelligent, highly capable species that was successful for many thousands of years, before the ecosystem they were specially-adapted to changed more quickly than they could. Their downfall was no fault of their own, and our species' success should be no more a source of delusions of superiority than that of the aforementioned house sparrow. Like any other organism, we are the product of ecology, climate, and chance.

Though a bit tedious at times (I certainly won't say "wordy" for such a short book), Finlayson wastes no time (or paper) on filler, and manages to remain enjoyable and interesting while providing a great deal of information on every page. I suppose the biggest complaint I have is that the book is a bit in-aptly titled, as it's more about the rise of the Homo sapiens than it is about the fall of the Neanderthal.

That my chief complaint is such an obvious quibble should speak volumes about Finlayson's work. Prior to reading "The Humans Who Went Extinct," I had never so enjoyed being so humbled.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book that answers the question: "Why isn't a Neanderthal reading this book??", November 6, 2010
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QUESTION: why are we here and not the Neanderthals?

(Note that the Neanderthal or Neanderthal Man is an extinct member of the "Homo" genus that is known from ancient specimens found in Europe and parts of western & central Asia. In modern nomenclature, Neanderthals are either a subspecies of modern humans or a separate human species.)

ANSWER: we clubbed them over the head, of course.

Actually, as this book reveals, the answer is not this simple. As the author of this slim but comprehensive book tells us:

"The answer is actually a series of answers and, even though we are much closer today than we have ever been to resolving the question, these answers are incomplete."

Who is the author? The author is evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson. He is the Director of the Gibraltar Museum and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. (Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located at the entrance of the Mediterranean, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar.)

There are two main problems with this book. First, it can be tedious in parts. Second, it is rather light on its central topic. The title and preface suggests we are going to be reading about Neanderthals. Actually, one chapter is mostly about them, and they're mentioned repeatedly throughout the rest of the book. I had the feeling of waiting for the Neanderthal bit to come but never quite reaching it.

This book's subtitle is more illuminating: "Why Neanderthals died out and we survived" with an emphasis on "why...we survived."

It's worth ploughing through the tedious parts to get to this book's good parts because Finlayson can be very engaging. The story the author has to tell is also engaging and interesting. It's about survival, adaptation, mutation, climate, environment, innovation, extinction, and luck. As well, this book's epilogue is especially well-written and ties all the themes together.

Another feature of this book that I enjoyed is that Finlayson questions and even challenges established dogma about our past. He comes up with his own interesting arguments.

Finally, one revelation (of many) given in this book is that Neanderthals were not the stereotypical dumb, lumbering, heavy-browed, ugly brutes we've been told about in the past. The cover of the hardcover version of this book (displayed above by Amazon) shows a child, actually the reconstruction of a Neanderthal child whose remains were found in Gibraltar. Doesn't he look human?

In conclusion, this is an engaging book, a must-read for anyone interested in exploring and understanding our past!!

(first published 2009; list of illustrations, preface, prologue; 10 chapters; epilogue; main narrative 220 pages; endnotes; index)

<<Stephen Pletko, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived
The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived by Clive Finlayson (Paperback - December 9, 2010)
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