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The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution Hardcover – Illustrated, May 1, 2019
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"IThe Smart Neanderthal offers both a fascinating exploration of the latest Neanderthal discoveries and a superb study of the evolution of Neanderthals as cultural icons ... highly recommended to readers interested in evolutionary theory, human prehistory, and the complex afterlives of bones." -- Lydia Pyne, Los Angeles Review of Books
"The Best Science Books to Read For Summer 2019: From Gibraltar's swelter to a frigid Norwegian fjord, the evolutionary biologist takes readers on an adventure in unexpected revelations about this lost lineage of humans." -- Gemma Tarlach, Discover Magazine
"This is an anecdotal and quirky book, an act of storytelling in effect, but nonetheless persuasive for that ... The Smart Neanderthal is a touching, slightly eccentric contribution to an evolving story, finding, as all do in this field, tremendous significance in still scant evidence - but it is wonderfully suggestive and engaging." -- David Sexton, Evening Standard
"No one has done more for Neanderthal public relations than evolutionary archaeologist Clive Finlayson... I found The Smart Neandethal fascinating." -- David Miles, Minerva
"Well-written and accessible." -- Antiquity
About the Author
Clive Finlayson is an evolutionary biologist whose research areas focus on birds and the behavioural ecology of Neanderthals. He has been the Director of Excavations at Neanderthal sites in Gibraltar since 1989, and has been involved in major recent discoveries, including that of the first known engraving made by a Neanderthal. A regular contributor to BBC News Online (Science and Environment), he is also the author of several books, including The Improbable Primate and The Humans Who Went Extinct.
- Item Weight : 13.3 ounces
- ISBN-10 : 0198797524
- ISBN-13 : 978-0198797524
- Hardcover : 240 pages
- Publisher : Oxford University Press; Illustrated edition (May 1, 2019)
- Dimensions : 8.6 x 1 x 5.6 inches
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #833,870 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The author, Clive Finlayson, is an anthropologist whose base of operations is Gibraltar. Finlayson has two scientific passions, bird-watching and Neanderthals. In this book, he brings the two together as a way of providing insights into the lives of Neanderthals. Finlayson makes the point that while most of the megafauna that interacted with Neanderthals have long gone extinct, the birds we see today are the same species that the Neanderthals saw.
The book's principal focus is the claim that Neanderthals were less cognitively developed than modern homo sapiens. The argument is made that the homo sapien's cognitive advantage gave them a greater ability to exploit the environment by hunting smaller and faster animals, while cognitively limited Neanderthals were restricted to slow and large animals. Finlayson argues against this position by pointing out that Neanderthals could easily exploit the bird population and that there is archeological evidence that Neanderthals captured raptors for their feathers. The evidence comes in the form of cut marks on the fossilized wing bones of birds that are consistent with taking feathers. The speculation is that the feathers were taken for display and that perhaps Neanderthals taught homo sapiens to wear feathers as ornaments.
One point made by Finlayson that was particularly interesting was his explanation for why it took modern homo sapiens approximately 60,000 years to move from the Middle East to Europe, namely the Neanderthals kept them out of Europe. That is a simple and direct explanation, but it conjures the idea of a border way lasting fifteen times longer than human history.
The book has drawbacks. If you are a birder, you will find the long descriptions of birds fascinating, but if you are not, then they may be something to skim through. Likewise, Finlayson wants to give the book a human feel with descriptions of his life as a birdwatcher and his family's work on Gibraltar. Some of this is interesting but it gives the book a somewhat scattered feel as a quasi-travelogue, quasi-text.
Nonetheless, I did find the text interesting. It does offer some insights into Neanderthal life from an unusual angle.
Top reviews from other countries
The misleading strapline is: bird catching, cave art and the cognitive revolution. There is plenty on bird catching, almost nothing on cave art, and little on the cognitive revolution. However, unlike other reviewers, I don’t have a problem with the emphasis this author places on the natural world. Such emphasis is vital.
Essentially, this is a book which does not knock over prevailing views of the cognitive revolution, but which does almost as valuable a service in clearing away absurd black-and-white generalisations about the Neanderthals (especially their hunting skills) in favour of something much more nuanced and accurate, which the author provides by way of his decades of bird watching experience.
His main thesis is that we have to understand the Neanderthals via natural history. Across Europe, Neanderthals lived in very different environments and had very different diets, so they must be understood on this basis. The book spends a lot of time detailing bird species, their distribution, their distribution in confirmed Neanderthal sites (notably caves in Gibraltar, which Finlayson has spent decades excavating), and their habits. All of this is vital, albeit a tad long-winded. The main point of this book is to open our eyes to the variety of food sources many Neanderthals had access to, which the author does superbly.
Linked to this is Finlayson’s other main point, that the Neanderthals were the same as us cognitively. He rightly opposes earlier, cruder interpretations, and gives his own speculation, all of which is welcome. But here I think there is not enough supporting evidence. The material on feather colour and raptor talons is absolutely fascinating and will surely stand as a testament to Finlayson’s work, but the evidence for symbolic thought like ours seems slight. Of course, as is noted, lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.
My main worry with this second strand of the book is that speech and anatomy evidence suggests a qualitative difference in cognitive ability, not a quantitative one. As Lieberman & Crelin showed in their ground-breaking work, Neanderthals would have had great difficulty or been unable to pronounce the [i], [u] and [a] vowels, in addition to being unable to pronounce g and k consonants. The inability to pronounce [i] is particularly significant, since it is used in all human language as the main intelligibility marker. In addition, Neanderthal speech would have sounded nasal compared with ours. All these factors limit the ability (unconscious in all modern humans) to recognise the formant frequency of heard speech, which reduces speech capacity. Neanderthals undoubtedly had complex speech, but they would not in my opinion have been so exceptional as homo sapiens. This, to me, seems a qualitative difference not a quantitative one, acting against Finlayson’s hypothesis that there was effectively no cognitive difference between the two species.
Having said that, this book is significant, valuable and well worth reading. The author’s skill and experience in understanding birds translates well into his archaeological work, bringing a deep new insight into Neanderthal life. The emphasis on placing the Neanderthals into their environment is particularly brilliant – a welcome new aspect to our understanding of human origins.
Yet, why then did Neanderthal (and Denisovans, Naledi, and all the others) go extinct? The author has no answer--to his credit its still a big mystery.
Social organization, large groups - may be not intelligence after all?