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J. E. Bruce
4.0 out of 5 starsFacinating read but a bit rough in the writing
Reviewed in the United States on March 12, 2019
The author makes a very strong and cohesive argument for Neandertals being every bit as smart as "modern" humans. His research was meticulous, and the results fascinating without the sense that he was overreaching in his conclusions, so I definitely recommend this. That said, the writing in places needed a bit more polishing, with tenses changing within the same sentence and such and some sentences that just did not make sense, which were distracting, and some segues were so abrupt and nonlinear I had to stop and reread the previous passage, thinking I'd somehow missed something. This might seem to be unimportant, but to me it broke my train of thought and I found myself backtracking to regain my focus. I also found a certain repetition in the unnecessary descriptions of places he stayed--all early nights and hearty breakfasts and traveling through dark and snowy forests. All well and good for a travelogue but that's not why I bought the book. I wanted to learn about what he'd uncovered about Neandertals and their relationship to fast moving prey. There was also an issue with the images at the end of the book. Perhaps the issue is just with the kindle version, but the captions and images do not match. These issues were relatively minor, but should have been addressed before the book was published. I still give it a strong recommendation, especially to those who steadfastly maintain that Neandertals were little better than the old cliché of knuckle dragging "cave men", or possibly worse, being little better than brown hyenas.
4.0 out of 5 starsInsights into Neanderthal life from an unusual angle.
Reviewed in the United States on March 16, 2019
This is an interesting and odd book.
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.
5.0 out of 5 starsA fascinating read into the life of the Gibraltar Neanderthal
Reviewed in the United States on December 24, 2020
Well researched and written. After reading several books on the Iives and demise of our Neanderthal cousins, this book went one step further by creating fascinating visuals of what the world around these people must have looked like. I’m not a scientist so was even more entertained by their writing style. A great read for those folks that ponder the life of our distant cousins and how they interacted with the world around them.
1.0 out of 5 starsIf they were just like us, then why did they go extinct?
Reviewed in the United States on August 27, 2019
Clive completely glosses over and ignores brain differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. The readers will NOT learn that Homo sapiens had larger parietal lobes, larger temporal lobes, a larger cerebellum, and larger olfactory bulbs. Even if he did, he would have to conclude that these brain differences were inconsequential cognitively and behaviorally. But of course, these brain differences were consequential and ultimately led to the extinction of Neanderthals.
4.0 out of 5 starsSuperbly researched, well worth a read.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 21, 2019
The Smart Neanderthal is an important work which aims to reappraise Neanderthal hunting abilities, their grasp of the natural world, and their cognition and ability for symbolic thought. In the majority of cases the author is not only convincing but should be congratulated for knocking down some of the crude mistakes and generalisations made by earlier anthropologists and archaeologists. I do have some reservations, however.
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.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 19, 2020
This book was a fairly readable account of opinions derived from recent research into Neanderthals. Overall extremely interesting. However, from my point of view there was a bit too much emphasis on birds rather than Neanderthals. A lot of the bird data could have been given in footnotes or appendices.
2.0 out of 5 starslongish....and misses the real point
Reviewed in Germany on May 10, 2020
the author makes the case for Neanderthal's intelligence. But the book is full of autobiographic content and lots of stuff that just clutters the book. At the end of the day, the author suggests that Neanderthal was intelligent and thus did not differ from Homo sapiens.
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?