Friday, December 21, 2012

The Humans Who Went Extinct

The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived
© 2010 Clive Finlayson
256 pages

Whatever happened to the Neanderthals? Did Homo sapiens drive our beefy cousins into extinction in the first of many exercises in genocide as we spread across the planet? Poppycock, suggests Clive Finlayson, to whom such a suggestion is the very height of hubris. His The Humans Who Went Extinct paints of a picture of generations of climate change hitting the planet like a rolling barrage, stressing increasingly marginal bands of hominids -- humans and Neanderthals alike. Eventually the Neanderthals succumbed; the difference between the species, Finlayson writes, is that human populations were lucky enough to be in areas where they could adapt to the unpredictable environment. 

I've never had a problem with the Humans Are Homicidal Maniacs theory as applied to Neanderthal death, because we have a proven track record in that regard. Name a living species, and we've probably driven most of their extended family into extinction. Finlayson thinks the idea is rubbish, and while he's at it he also doesn't cotton to the idea of humans being responsible for other mass extinctions, like the mammoths. No, the malefactor was climate change, and climate change alone. Neanderthals weren't the slow, stupid brutes that people like to fancy themselves as having killed off in a feat demonstrating superior ability and intelligence: they were bigger-brained than we were, using tools and creating art just as we did. And their kill sites demonstrate that they were an adaptable and agile species to boot, devouring tricky prey like rabbits and birds.

Finlayson's work is very much inspired by Guns, Germs, and Steel, which he refers to repeatedly: his last substantive chapter leads directly into Diamond's work, which demonstrated the importance of geography in human affairs. In Humans Who Went Extinct, geography and climate are the main actors. He relies both on traditional archaeological evidence and genetic tracking to put forth his case, but the overweening emphasis climate change seemed a bit much for me. I can accept human populations being marginal and strained, but surely we bear some responsibility? In those instances where Sapiens and Neanderthals shared the same area, I find it hard to imagine the two living in peace.  Part of the difficulty for me in accepting Finlayson's arguments wholly is that the evidence is hard to come by, relying in part on inference. The scope of the question also poses a problem for anyone looking for definitive Answer: the drama of extinction played out on a a stage that encompassed most of the "old world", and thousands of years. My biggest beef with Finlayson is  his dismissal of our having any role in killing off any of the ice age fauna, though that's only a sidenote and he may have been referring only to the European species.

The Humans Who Went Extinct gives readers curious about the world early humans lived in something to chew over. Its view of that world as being turbulent and hostile, one that we were lucky to survive in, let alone conquer, is definitely one to consider, as is his depiction of the Neanderthals as people quite like us who had the misfortune of being in the wrong spots of the globe at the wrong time, whose population bottlenecks resulted in extinction.

1 comment:

  1. I think that we probably did have some impact on the Neanderthal extinction - probably simply by out-competing them and pushing them to the margins where they where much more likely to reduce in numbers enough so that any little perturbation afterwards would push them over the edge.

    Oh, and by 'out-competing' I basically mean kill everything in sight so there's nothing left for them!


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