In search of the truth about the Neanderthals, Shreeve takes readers on a prehistoric journey as he examines the scientific evidence and addresses the controversy surrounding their fate. He offers a fascinating theory of what might have allowed two equally human species to share a moment in evolution history, as well as what may have led to the triumph of one and the poignant disappearance of the other.
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Neandertals, early humans who appeared first in Europe about 150,000 years ago, were not brutish primitives, as was long believed, but strong, intelligent hominids who crafted sophisticated stone tools. Shreeve, coauthor with famed paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson of Lucy's Child, pieces together an absorbing speculative portrait of Neandertals, buttressed by interviews with geneticists, anthropologists and archeologists in France, Israel, Zaire, South Africa and the former Czechoslovakia. He suggests that Neandertals possessed rudimentary language and recognized nature spirits but that the males and females lived apart, mateless. By contrast, early modern hunter-gatherers evolved a "sex contract" whereby women secured for themselves the continuing economic services of a spouse. Shreeve also ponders why Neandertals dwindled to extinction around 30,000 years ago, after apparently coexisting with more anatomically advanced humans for tens of thousands of years in the Near East. He deduces that language played a key role in the intergroup cooperation that led to Upper Paleolithic humans' sudden creative explosion in symbol, art and technology some 40,000 years ago.
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Searching for the relation between those muscle-bound, thick-browed, knuckle-dragging neandertals (author's spelling) and Homo sapiens, science journalist Shreeve traveled the world but found no certainties. Instead, he discovered raging academics carrying on their controversies with bare-knuckle intensity. At stake is an explanation of why the neandertals disappeared about 35,000 years ago: Were they wiped out by humans streaming out of Africa, or did the two groups meld into each other? Known as the replacement-versus-continuity debate, its resolution depends on inferences made from fossils, artifacts, and DNA analysis, which Shreeve clearly and enthusiastically explains, based on talks with experts at the principal dig sites. Following his informed speculation about what might have characterized the neandertal-human encounter in the Levant and in Europe, readers will conclude that Shreeve favors continuity. In such a fluid field, where a new discovery can upend everything, as did the "Lucy" fossil about which he previously wrote (Lucy's Child, 1989), Shreeve's guarded views should appeal to readers seeking a solid overview of humanity's possible neandertal ancestry. Gilbert Taylor
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