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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Adds to the picture, September 15, 2011
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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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