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Five Books Imagining Neanderthals

recommended by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
by Rebecca Wragg Sykes


All archaeologists have to do some imagining because the data they work with is so partial and fragmentary, says Rebecca Wragg Sykes, author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and ArtShe picks five books that help bring to life our closest relations, from a historical novel by a Nobel Prize-winning writer to a work of sci-fi about a hybrid Neanderthal child.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

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Before we get into your five book choices, I think most people need a bit of orientation about what a Neanderthal hominid was because there are so many misleading stereotypes around.

We use the term ‘hominin’ now, although people are generally familiar with ‘hominid’.* The funny thing about Neanderthals is that everybody has heard of them. They’re probably the best-known hominin species, better known even than Homo erectus.

The other day, the name of my book was a question on University Challenge, and they got the answer—Neanderthals —right. It’s not because they knew my book, although I’d love to think that they had read it, it’s because they knew about Neanderthals already. This is always the challenge with talking to people about Neanderthals. They come already with a little framework idea of what they are.

I think most people now understand two things. One is that Neanderthals are closely related to us. In fact, in an evolutionary sense, they are probably the closest relation that we have, although there’s a bit of a debate about how you actually measure that (is it genetic or is it morphological?) and some people may disagree. But, essentially, they’re likely the closest relation to us.

The other thing that everybody now knows about Neanderthals is that there was interbreeding between us and them. That further complicates how people think of them. Are Neanderthals our cousins? Or are they our ancestors? In a sense, it’s a little bit of both.

If you think about the classic ‘tree of evolution’ image with many branches, in reality we’re not at the crown of the tree: we’re just one branch. The closest split in the branches to us, we think, is Neanderthals. One branch of Homo is going along, and then there’s a split, and one strand becomes us and the other becomes Neanderthals. That split probably happens somewhere between about 560,000 to as much as 800,000 years ago.

We’re a little unsure because, depending on whether you look at the skeletal evidence—the fossil evidence—and you work out how old particular fossils are with particular features, or you look at the genetics, you get slightly different answers. For example, a recent study on teeth pushes it more towards 800,000 years or maybe even a bit older.

That might sound hugely old, but, in terms of the deep history of all of the hominin family tree (ourselves, all other hominins, including species like Lucy that people are aware of, australopithecines), that goes back now to 4 million years ago. You have upright walking, and we already have the earliest stone tool technology that we can identify 3.3 million years ago. That’s vastly older than us and Neanderthals.

In that sense, Neanderthals are very close to us in time as well as their evolutionary relationship. For that reason, we would always probably expect that they would be quite similar to us. I think that’s also what the public have now picked up from decades of work. There’s been a trend towards shrinking the gap between who Neanderthals are (and who we think of them as), and how we think of ourselves.

Obviously, in your work, you’re putting together research from widely different disciplines to try and get a sense of what Neanderthal life was like. In your book, Kindred, you imagine, to some extent, what it would be like to be a Neanderthal. How did you go about that?

All archaeologists have to do some imagining because the data we work with is partial and fragmentary. We’ve gotten extremely good at squeezing out all different kinds of data from the material that we excavate, and that allows people to specialise. Modern archaeology, whether of Neanderthals and other species or of later prehistory, is fundamentally multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. You have stone tool specialists, you have pollen specialists, you have dating specialists—all different kinds of things.

Putting all those different things together gives us a surprisingly rich understanding of Neanderthals. It’s not just me that does that, it happens on every archaeological site, in every publication. Everybody has to work like that. It’s really fun and stimulating to do archaeology, because you do have to have a very broad understanding of many different kinds of data and their possibilities and their limitations.

I always like to quote a great prehistorian who taught me during my Master’s at Southampton, Professor Clive Gamble. He had a lovely analogy in one of his books, where you have to tack between the data as if you’re taking a little boat out, and you’re moving between these different ideas, and also, between the scales of data.

You can work with nanoscale stuff, in what we call a thin-section (a little slice of sediment that you take and look at through a microscope) where you can see the tiny fragments of bone within the ash of a hearth; and then you can scale up and look at tools or objects, and then you look at the site structure; and then you scale up again and look at how those sites interact, or you look at the genetics of one individual but it also tells you about populations. It’s that movement between materials and scales that makes it difficult but also fun.

It’s obviously scientific and historical, but it’s also creative and imaginative in the way that you’ve approached it, particularly when it comes to the descriptive passages. Do you shut your eyes and see the world, as it were, from a Neanderthal perspective? Do you imagine these scenarios? Is it visual for you?

Yes, very. It is. I never really thought about what I did until I finished the book and people started asking me this sort of question. I realised that, even before I was writing the book, whenever I read a scientific paper, say, an article about the refits between fragments of bone in Abric Romaní (a rock shelter in northern Spain that’s in the book a lot because it’s very rich), you have to physically imagine yourself in the shelter in order to understand the patterning that you are looking at in the figure in that paper.

You see the little scatters of things: it’s on a graph, you can see the grid squares where it’s excavated. You might have a plan view looking down, you may also have a vertical slice through, and you see their spatial patterning through the layers. You see that scientific depiction of data, but then you have to turn on your third eye and think, ‘Okay, how does that fit with the wall of the shelter? Where are the hearths? How much space is that? What does that actually look like?’

Also, with a lot of sites like this, it helps to think about the orientation. Where’s the sun coming from? That’s not always obvious from the publication. You do have to end up Googling for things. What is the site orientation? Would the sun be hitting that wall? Where is the drip line (the edge of the rock shelter’s overhang) and how far does that extend out? Is it covering those hearths? What would the bone heaps at the back have looked like, and smelled like, before they rotted down into these little fragments we excavate?

“In an evolutionary sense, they are probably the closest relation that we have”

I guess I did that without realising that’s what I was doing as a researcher, and then I was able to draw on it more for the book. It was a little bit scary making the decision to let that aspect come out of the shadows, that part of how I think, and to say, ‘Maybe this isn’t something that is just useful for me as a cognitive tool, but perhaps this is something that people might enjoy reading.’

I enjoy it. I enjoy imagining what the reality of those places and spaces and all the sensory stuff would have been like. Even if you can’t necessarily imagine yourself into the mind of a Neanderthal, you can place yourself in their world to some extent, because of the incredible richness of the reconstructed environments and everything that we have, you can do a little bit of time travel. I wanted to try to help people bridge that temporal gap because that’s the big challenge with ancient prehistory.

People are very interested in Neanderthals, but they find it a bit intimidating because it seems so distant. Also, the majority of the scientific literature is just not accessible to most people. After writing Kindred, I have received hundreds of wonderful letters and emails. A lot of people have said that they were able to imagine themselves back in the past thanks to my work, and they didn’t expect to have that emotional connection. That was what I was hoping.

Has much of this been spurred by  genetic testing? I did 23andMe and it says I’ve got more Neanderthal DNA than 80 percent of the people who’ve done the 23andMe test. Interesting. I then start to think, even though that’s slightly less than 2 percent of my genetic makeup that’s of Neanderthal origin, that’s not a negligible amount. Presumably, my parents are only 50 percent each. Two percent is quite a lot, and I’m interested.

I have to admit my mind stumbles over the genetics. It’s one of those areas of science where there are slightly contradictory things that exist at the same time in it.

You’re saying those reports are probably misleading or, let’s say, ‘open to interpretation’?

What’s funny is that every person I meet who has done these tests will say, ‘Mine said I have more than most other people.’

Perhaps the rest just keep quiet. The thing that’s mysterious to me is that some people don’t have any Neanderthal DNA, according to these tests, which seems weird if we have branched from the same bit of the tree.

This is where it gets really complicated. We share a lot of the same DNA with Neanderthals because we come from a common ancestor. Neanderthal-specific things evolved in their own population, just as we evolved our own derived genetic profiles, but we also know that there was interbreeding. That makes it all complex.

We know that there was some interbreeding, probably 200,000 years ago—a good few hundred thousand years after those lineages separated. We can think of them as populations, in a similar way that polar bears and brown bears are different species but can interbreed because they separated not very long ago. It’s the same thing.

With Neanderthals, we know that there is more than one phase of interbreeding. There’s an early phase around or before 200,000 years ago. Then, we think that there is interbreeding going on after 100,000 years, but in more than one place, and then some of it happens really close to the time at which they disappear as a population (around 40,000 years ago).

How do those little extra inputs affect our overall relatedness, in terms of the amount of incoming genetic material in each population, as well as its impact in biological terms? That’s the thing that is really tricky to disentangle, and a lot of the current work in ancient DNA and paleogenomic work is trying to unpick all these questions.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that every new sample we get has the potential to rewrite the Neanderthal story. To me, saying that we have about thirty Neanderthal genomes sounds massive, but it’s tiny compared to what we have for living populations of humans and animals, or even people from more recent prehistory. Also, where we get those genomes from, geographically, is quite limited. We can’t extract it from regions that have warmer climates because the DNA degrades over time. We have Neanderthal sites where I am, in Wales, and we’ve got them right through Northern Europe into Western Eurasia. The easternmost site we have is Denisova, in the Altai region. Denisova is a freakily amazing site for DNA preservation because it’s very cold and a bit moist, so they have great stuff. But the Neanderthals also lived southeast of there, in Central Asia, and further towards the Mediterranean coast of Asia as well, in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Israel, all those areas. We don’t have any DNA from there.

Everyone would like it, not just because it’s another region where they lived—and they lived slightly different lifestyles there, so you also have the potential for different genetic subpopulations—but also, those regions are where we know the dispersals of early Homo sapiens were moving outwards from Africa. Those are the places we would expect the highest levels of contact and interbreeding to happen, and we would like to be able to look at that genetically, but we can’t yet.

Are there any physical traits that have been identified as descending from Neanderthals? For instance, I’ve got one of those occipital bones on the back of my skull. People have sometimes said that’s a Neanderthal trait. Are there any things like that, which can be identified physically?

As you say, people made jokes about this for a long time, as well as the general thing of calling people Neanderthals, as a cultural jibe. Where we are now with the DNA, we can look at the presence of Neanderthal DNA across populations. We generally use the big DNA databases, which have a slight bent towards medical, biological or pathological stuff because that’s the data that gets recorded. What we can see is that in some cases, people who have higher levels of Neanderthal DNA relating to particular parts of the genome may tend to have a slightly different head shape or face shape, but we can’t home in on the precise details yet. It does look like maybe some elements of people’s physical characteristics, in a broad sense, are predictable on a population scale.

So we might soon be talking about facial recognition, AI, backwards analysis, looking at the face and then anticipating the percentage of DNA?

Yes, exactly. I’m sure things are going to move closer to that. Also, as we gain a better understanding of what the Neanderthal versions are doing, how they affect the development of cells or bodily structures.

That, in itself, is also slightly tricky because all we can do there is ‘neanderify’ a cell, and then (we’ve done this with brain neurons) you can see that they do develop a slightly different structure or different levels of interactions, but you’re doing that outside of a Neanderthal bodily ecosystem, and there are all kinds of complexities in how living genomes work as a whole, so it’s only a very small part of what the reality in the past would have been like. This is one of the other things that we understand now about our own bodies. You have the whole science of epigenetics, and the way that the environment or adverse experiences interact within the body itself, and can affect the expression of genes.  So you may have a genome that is a bit like a recipe, but the kitchen you cook it in is going to affect that.

In a sense, we are probably never really going to know some of the details of what those things meant for Neanderthals, but we can get a good idea of some of it. For example, did Neanderthal brains develop differently at a cellular level? It does look like they did. They’re not only a different shape as organs inside the skulls, but they grew differently as well. However, we are quite far away from being able to understand, if ever, what that meant for how they thought.

Things like that are always going to be tricky because our own brains are so plastic. You start off with an infant’s brain, and that infant’s life trajectory can drastically affect the potential for what is going to happen to them and how they think and feel and develop.

We should get on to the five books, although this is really fascinating.

I didn’t want to include lots of books that are slightly like mine, ones that bring together the scientific research. I was more interested in books which point to how we might think about Neanderthals. That’s what I thought might be fun for people.

Let’s start with The Inheritors, by William Golding. I’ve read most of William Golding’s books, but I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read this one. William Golding is obviously very famous for Lord of the Flies and he’s a Nobel Prize-winning writer, I believe. The Inheritors is a book imagining events occurring between Neanderthals from their perspective, so that you discover things as they discover them.

I have a lot of affection for this book because I find it interesting in many different ways. Lord of the Flies was Golding’s first published book—it was published just a year before The Inheritors.

This one is interesting because he is trying to imagine the world of Neanderthals, and specifically, their world as they encounter our world, the world of early Homo sapiens. He also lets himself go beyond the archaeological knowledge of the time: it’s not strictly accurate and he’s not really trying to be, so, in a way, it’s actually a little bit closer to what we might think of as speculative fiction now. It’s not truly a historical book in that sense, or historical imagining.

What he tries to do for almost the entirety of the book is to let you see the world through the eyes of a different kind of humanity, essentially, that’s what happens. It’s written from the perspective of one tiny group of Neanderthals and particularly from that of the protagonist, Lok, a young male. He lives in a little family group and they’re doing their own thing, as they always have done: existing out of time, in a sense, although they are aware that there is a history to their own people.

Then, they experience what to them is a series of very frightening and baffling incidents. You start to slowly realise that it is Homo sapiens that they’re encountering. What they encounter seems so monstrous that they can’t even compute the physicality of the Homo sapiens individuals at first. They’re talking about these horrible, ‘white bone’ faces and things like this. That’s interesting, historically, because it was the assumption at the time that the sapiens populations in Europe had white skin, which we now believe not to have been the case.

It’s a story, but it’s also about playing with writing, in terms of how you describe the experience of encountering a thing or an object or a scene that you’ve never seen before. How do you get a character to describe that, using language that’s unfamiliar to the reader as well? You want it to be unfamiliar, so you’ve got to use phrases that make sense to us but are also surprising to the reader, in order to create this distance at a cognitive level.

I find his attempts to do that fascinating, it’s the beauty of this book. For example, there’s a perception that the landscape itself is alive. All the way through the book, the trees are engaging with the Neanderthals, they are their own presences, and the water has an animism to it.

In terms of how we have imagined Neanderthals and how we have tried to write about them, it is the foundational text for the literary history of this. There are novels written earlier that involved Neanderthals, but this is one that seriously tried to engage with them as a creative literary problem. How do you get into a different mind, how do you envision that, and how do you communicate that to a reader?

It’s a lovely book. The most powerful aspect is that you go through the whole story, and you feel their emotion, their wonder, their awe, their fear. And then, the very last chapter completely flips it, and you’re in the minds of the Homo sapiens, seeing things as they do, and the language totally changes as well.

That sounds great. Your second choice is The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. This is quite a chunky book.

I have my well-thumbed copy here. It’s is the first in a series of six, the last one of which was published in 2011. This was published in 1980. I chose this one because it’s interesting for a number of reasons. One is personal. I read this when I was quite young (probably twelve or thirteen). It was hugely formative, although I didn’t realise it at the time, not only in terms of making me think the Palaeolithic is interesting, but also, the power of this book is not just its story.

You have a young, female protagonist—a Homo sapiens toddler who gets lost during an earthquake. She’s wandering, nearly starved, and nearly dying when she’s found by a group of Neanderthals, and they take her in. This book and the rest of the series of novels are about her life, and if you’re a young girl, that’s appealing, especially because she is incredibly resilient and skilled.

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The power of these books and of Jean Auel’s work is that she took huge amounts of time to research the archaeology, even bush skills: how you survive, what you could eat. She also describes the environment. For some people, she does this in mind-numbing detail; for me, it was incredibly inspirational detail. What does the mammoth steppe look like? What does it smell like? She’ll even talk about the grittiness that’s always in your teeth because there’s a constant wind blowing off the glaciers that contains this stuff we call loess, which is a talcum-fine sediment made up of ground-up rock that glaciers produce. We find this stuff, metres deep, in deposits all over northern Europe. The fact that it’s in your teeth all the time and that level of detail of world building is what made these books particularly powerful for me; but not just me.

So many people you encounter as an archaeologist have also read this book and were affected or inspired. Not always loving it—if they read it when they were forty, then there might be less of an impact; it’s quite funny. But for a lot of people who read it when they were younger, it really was something significant. I think it’s an important part of the milieu of Neanderthal imagining for that reason.

Also, there are intriguing elements that chime with The Inheritors. Golding’s ideas of the Neanderthals are that they’re not very verbal, but can share memories with each other. They can tune in to each other’s thinking and they can gain some knowledge from memories that are shared. The same thing goes on in Jean Auel’s novels.

Is that by some kind of telepathy?

It’s never really stated; it’s just an ability they have. The Neanderthals in The Clan of the Cave Bear also have something a little bit like this, but how you feel about them as a reader is completely different to how you feel about Golding’s Neanderthals.

Golding’s Neanderthals are interesting, but they’re also quite pitiful because they just cannot cope with what’s happening to them. Whereas Jean Auel was the first person to present Neanderthals as another kind of human: people you could live with, who would take in, love, and care for a girl, and share their own stories, and all of this.

It was a key moment in how we allowed ourselves to extend another level of humanity to Neanderthals. It’s true that there’s a fair amount one can be critical of too about some of the elements of the storytelling, especially in the later books. For example, the girl, Ayla, leaves the Neanderthal group and meets some Homo sapiens, and there’s a whole new narrative that developes. She has this great love affair, and it turns out that the guy is, at least from a modern feminist perspectives, a gaslighting bastard! But still, this is a book that was progressive in trying to refuse earlier stereotypes of Neanderthals as inherently bestial in some form: that’s what The Clan of the Cave Bear is really about.

Would you say that Golding’s book still clings to some of those stereotypes of Neanderthals as more basic, more primitive, more violent?

Yes, but I think it’s interesting because I don’t think he’s trying to stick with his contemporaries’ view of Neanderthals, which were actually improving in the 1950s; I think he intentionally makes them a bit more bestial. They crawl around.

To be fair to Golding, he makes Homo sapiens seem pretty bestial in Lord of the Flies.

This is it. Obviously, it’s a story about Neanderthals, but it’s about the encounters between cultures and the propensity of some cultures to see difference and to focus on the negative. As well as making the Neanderthals more animal-like, he also gives the Homo sapiens pottery and alcohol, though archaeologists at the time weren’t saying that Palaeolithic humans had those things. He’s stretching that distance between the two species, even more than it was, to make a point.

At the very end of The Inheritors, when you get this perspective flip in that last chapter, you’ve spent the whole book in the company of these strange creatures, but you’ve become emotionally connected with them, and then you see them through the eyes of the Homo sapiens. All they can see is this hideous creature, this beast, and they don’t perceive any humanity there. That’s a jolt.

Whereas in Jean Auel’s book, from the outset it’s assumed that Neanderthals are people and that you are going to relate to them. She does write in that sense very well. They’re all individual characters. They all have deep emotional resonances, and most of them are extremely caring towards the girl in the story.

The next imagined Neanderthal novel you have chosen is Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal.

I wanted to include this for two reasons. Claire Cameron is important as a very recent addition to this canon of people imagining Neanderthals in literary ways. Also, I’ve included it because it should be far better known. Although Cameron is a very well-respected Canadian author, this book was not published in the UK for some reason, but it should have been because it’s fabulous.

For some of the book you are in the company of a Neanderthal community 40,000 years ago, and for the other part of the narrative you are with an archaeologist excavating a Neanderthal site today. It’s a split timeline and there are some conceptual and emotional links between those two timelines. For me, the archaeologist story is interesting in itself, but it’s the writing about the Neanderthals that I think is spectacular. I think it’s fabulous.

Cameron, similar to Jean Auel but decades on, really took a lot of time to delve into the science and anthropology to try to understand where we are. This was published in 2017, and Cameron had masses more information than Auel had to draw on. Some of the things Auel wrote about, though, which people criticised her for at the time, turned out to be relatively accurate.

What sort of thing?

That Homo sapiens and Neanderthals met, and that they interbred. And also, a lot of plant use. Auel assumes that they had profoundly intimate understanding of the botany of their world and that they used the plants. In the ‘80s, that was a bit ‘hhmm’; now, it’s quite clear from the archaeology that this had to have been widely true.

It strikes me as analogous to some science fiction. Some science fiction writers immerse themselves in the science of their day and they have these remarkable imaginations that allow them to shape the future, but they also certainly predict things, which seemed unlikely at the time they were writing, with amazing accuracy and anticipation of the social consequences and so on. There’s something similar going on here, in that if you immerse yourself enough in the detail, you might be able to see something that perhaps a scientist or archaeologist is too nervous to imagine, in a sense, because they haven’t got the data.

You can create possibilities and potentialities, and some of those are maybe going to come to pass, to be supported.

Hypotheses to be refuted, perhaps?

That doesn’t really happen with The Last Neanderthal because it’s so recent still. What I find really beautiful about this book is that she has elements that are a little more akin to Golding’s, in the sense that she really tries to express the landscape, the world, their conceptual understanding of themselves, their bodies, materials, from their own minds. Like Golding, she uses a lot of interesting metaphors and similes and sensory descriptions, and I think it’s incredibly well done and really quite affecting.

People sometimes say to me, ‘Are you ever going to write a novel?’ And I always think, ‘I would have liked to write this one.’ Maybe not the archaeologist bit, but the Neanderthal sections are so close to the kind of feeling of what I would try to do.

Have you told her?

Yes, she knows! The copy of the book is actually an advance copy she sent, otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it.

There’s just so much lovely stuff, it’s not only the language or the imagining; it’s also a good story in that this is about a Neanderthal family, but in this context while once again it’s about meetings, the Homo sapiens individual is already with the group, though you only slowly come to realise that. There are various dramas and things that happen. Although ‘drama’ makes it sound melodramatic, it’s not. It’s very starkly described, there are quite intense things that happen, it’s even quite funny in places, but eventually it builds to a point where there is another meeting with other Homo sapiens at the end. That is really powerfully done.

And again, throughout it’s female protagonists. The main Neanderthal is a character just called Girl, and we never know who some of the other Homo sapiens are at the end, but they meet each other, and virtually the opposite of what takes place in The Inheritors. The encounter here is about recognition that there are differences, but that the similarities are more overwhelming, and both characters are emotionally overwhelmed with the incredible reality of each other.

It’s a really powerful way of reimagining this trope of how we encounter and how we frame Neanderthals as Other, and what the reality of that would possibly be like. I think this is a fabulous book and I wish more people knew about it.

On an evidence question, the encounter, the interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that took place—is there any circumstantial evidence about whether that was effectively rape or actually bonding of a kind that led to different kinds of family groups?

There is no evidence for us to definitively say, ‘This was the character of those interactions.’ The question actually connects well to the next book, The Naked Neanderthal, by Ludovic Slimak.

This is a non-fiction book?

Yes. The author is French, the English translation was published in 2023, and I reviewed it for the scientific journal Nature. Slimak is an archaeologist who’s been working for decades, a field archaeologist, excavating sites, publishing on them. He had written another book before, but I’m not sure that had an English translation.

I enjoyed this because it’s very forthright. It’s elegantly written. It’s funny, but it’s also intentionally provocative.

You’ve said it’s polemical.

Yes, and I really don’t agree with a lot of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful for me as a researcher and a writer to read it and think about it.

One of the things that he talks about, towards the end, is what happened to Neanderthals. To come back to your question, his position would be that the evidence for the nature of contact being aggressive is the fact that Neanderthals disappeared, and that there never was a full assimilation. We have negative evidence, basically. It’s true we can say from the genetics that there was not a population assimilation. They didn’t merge into us. There was some interbreeding, but it wasn’t like the ‘total assimilation’ performed by the Borg from Star Trek; a lot of Neanderthals were disappearing without being integrated into the Homo sapiens populations.

Do we assume that just because they could interbreed, it was as easy as breeding between Homo sapiens?


So there might be physiological reasons why people were less likely to give birth to offspring from these encounters.

To surviving infants, and especially to fertile infants. Yes, that’s part of it. There is something going on there. Even with that, speaking as a non-geneticist, as I understand it you would still see a different signal if it had been a wholesale merging.

Also, one of the places that Slimak excavates has now become a globally important site. It’s in the Rhône Valley in France, called Grotte Mandrin. I mention it a lot in Kindred, in the discussion of what is going on at the end of the world of the Neanderthals. This site has always stuck out because it had a particular, atypical layer in between Neanderthal layers below and above (and I’m talking culturally Neanderthal).

This layer in between seemed odd because of the nature of the stone tool technology. It had elements of what Neanderthals do, but executed slightly differently, in particular over a thousand stone points, many tiny, much smaller than they ever made them. Recently, analysis of a tooth from that layer has suggested that this probably is a Homo sapiens presence.

The reason why that’s significant is that it’s really old: 55 thousand years. It’s about 10,000 years older than any other evidence that we know of for Homo sapiens being in Western Europe. It’s this weird little blip. After that layer, you have more, classically Neanderthal material. What is going on in that site? It’s just one tiny little keyhole where you have this apparent sapiens presence and then they’re gone again.

“Every new sample we get has the potential to rewrite the Neanderthal story”

But even more amazing, and this is why I love Slimak’s archaeological work, his research group have used this fabulous pioneering technique where you look at soot microchronologies. Depending on the way your cave forms, you have calcite films accumulating over the inside walls. If you have a fire and it gets sooty, it’ll leave a dark layer on that. And then, if people go away, you just get more calcite, which is white. And then, people come back, and you get the soot.

You can see this build-up of layers, like a barcode, and just as we do with tree-ring chronologies, by examining the calcite fragments, matching the patterns, and refitting them between the layers, you’re able to say that the gap of time between the lower Neanderthal layers and the appearance of this weird one is probably less than a decade, maybe less than a year.

It is a super abrupt arrival. They’re there for a while, then nobody is in that region for centuries, maybe a bit longer, and then Neanderthals come back. There are other elements about the weirdness of this layer too: these people arrive, but the stone tool raw materials used and animals hunted suggest they were already ‘mapped onto’ the local resources, although they’re moving differently. There are all these anomalous things, and Slimak’s explanation is that this layer is effectively a signal for a local Neanderthal extinction event.

Maybe there’s some interaction, maybe the sapiens community is even learning some of the knowledge about where rocks are for example, because they seem to pick it up straight away. But the cultural signal of the Neanderthals who had been there is gone, and then after the sapiens are gone, nobody else is there. We don’t know why they left. We don’t know if they also died out in that region. Did they just move through, onto somewhere else? It’s a complete mystery.

From Slimak’s perspective, we’re looking at extirpation, perhaps with some initial co-existence, but it’s not a living-alongside-each-other, happy-ending story. I think this site, Mandrin, is the best case where you can maybe argue for a contact scenario without coexistence and continuance, because there’s clearly a rupture of some kind.

Obviously, infections can affect different groups differently—

God, yes. This is something that happens now since COVID, theories for what happened to Neanderthals always included novel pathogens, like ‘Oh, was there some random disease?’ Because we have horrible evidence from history, where you have immunologically naive populations encountering others, and we know what happens.

People have always responded to that idea, ‘Yeah, but you can’t see it archaeologically,’ and that’s true. You would have to have had particular diseases that would leave a very clear mark on bones, and that’s just vanishingly unlikely. But, everybody now having seen first-hand what happens when you have a new disease and how quickly it can spread (of course we have aeroplanes now, but still), and it has shifted views. We still don’t have evidence for a widespread imported disease being part of the picture, but as one of the elements of what may have been going on, it’s more plausible; plus we’ve now got the ability to look for DNA too, even from sediments.

Also, we have to remember that the scenario that Slimak is talking about in Southeast France, it’s just one of the Neanderthal ‘end of the worlds’. I was saying earlier how vast their geographic range is. It’s massive, and what is going on in different regions, in terms of endings, has to be plural. There’s not going to be one process or one mechanism that’s going to explain their disappearance across that whole range. It’s many, many different stories.

Would it be fair to say that Slimak is really doing the same kind of thing as the novelist? He’s imagining a scenario that has some historical plausibility, given the data of his time, but it’s not the only possible explanation of the evidence.

Yes, and I think this book is not only about this. A large portion of the book, before he gets to the question of what we think about the ending of Neanderthals, is a hugely critical and very philosophical dissection of, in his view, how we try to pigeonhole Neanderthals and how we do not like the Otherness of them.

It’s an interesting point because that Otherness of Neanderthals is always at the centre of how we talk about them in a literary sense, but our willingness to accept it has shifted in time. Historically it was their definitive character, that we wanted them to be different because it makes us wonderful. From the earliest days of their scientific discovery, that was the perspective.

And then, it shifted into them becoming this dark mirror for ourselves. Slimak’s claim and his very strong critique is that over the past thirty years or so, as archaeology has become vastly more complex, and richer, we have gone too far the other way. Now, if we find an eagle talon in a site with a bit of polish on it, you’ll get people claiming it is evidence that it was a necklace. It isn’t; it’s evidence that you have a talon with some polish on it, that therefore it rubbed against something hard.

I agree with him about a lot of his very particular critiques, and that’s exactly actually what I tried to do in Kindred. I don’t know if he agrees with everything I wrote, but I was trying to be cautious. I was trying to say: What is the totality of the scientific data? Can I give us a definitive account of where we are? What does it mean if you have an eagle talon that’s slightly polished, and with a bit of red pigment on it? What can we say about that?

The problem, always, with Neanderthals is that we do find these strange little standout things, but they are quite isolated. When you compare it to contemporary early Homo sapiens populations, say, in southern Africa, the difference is clear: you find many sites where you’ve got lots of layers and they’ve all got lots of strange little things in them. In Neanderthal sites, you might have one unusual object in one layer, or at most a couple, and they are different between sites too. The material evidence is much more isolated, so you’re forced to do the thing I was talking about before. You have to tack between materials and sites and say, ‘Okay, where do we see that they’re interested in birds? Is it for more than food? What can you really say about talons and feather collection? What about the pigment?’

You try to put all that together to understand that one object. That’s always going to be a process and there’s no clear lines. That’s a personal, interpretive thing. Some scholars will go further and others less, and Slimak’s main argument is that collectively archaeologists have gone too far. That today’s Neanderthals have become, as he calls them, these ‘macabre puppets’: we dress them up, and they’re like ‘dandies’ with feathers in their hair, and he thinks that’s preposterous.

Another thing is that through most of the book, it’s very interesting, going back to thinking about the positioning and the framing of them in The Inheritors, that Slimak talks about Neanderthals as ‘the creature’ or ‘the beast’.


Yes, but he’s doing that on purpose.

I can understand, but—

I bristled at it.

Isn’t that going against the grain, significantly?

Yes, and he’s intentionally doing it. It’s not that he thinks there’s nothing sophisticated or interesting in them; I think he’s warning us against wishing to create a being we might want to meet.

Yes, but would we want to meet an early Homo sapiens, either? I’m not so sure. Depends on what terms.

That’s us, in some sense! I do think The Naked Neanderthal is a really great book, as a challenge. It has annoyed a lot of people, and I can see why. I think he goes a bit far in some instances and is a little bit unfair, especially in terms of describing how his fellow scholars work or think. We’re not the very black-or-white characters that we’re depicted as. I think there’s a lot more nuance there, and Slimak too has his fair share of bias, including a very masculine perspective.

I think it’s still an important book because there is something true in his main point, which is that we are a little bit scared of uncovering a strange, negative other kind of human, because we know that the original monstrous vision of Neanderthals was rooted in inaccurate science and prejudice. We know that that’s not true, but that doesn’t mean that the archaeology says they’re exactly like us. It really doesn’t. There is a profound difference.

I think you can acknowledge difference without removing the ability for Neanderthals to have any sort of human-ness or even softness to them, because I think that’s part of being a primate and a mammal, and there’s very little of that in the book.

Let’s face it, there were stereotypes of gorillas that have been completely subverted by David Attenborough and various other people, and of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees were in the popular imagination super friendly, gentle beasts, and Jane Goodall and various people have shown them as much more complex and capable of extreme and gruesome violence. Those stereotypes get overthrown, and then we go backwards and forwards.

Yes, absolutely. I think the primate thing is a good way to understand his book because with chimps, I think most primatologists (maybe not the ones who work on chimps!) would say chimpanzees are the bastards, while bonobos however are lovely and friendly. But that’s also now a stereotype.

Always having sex with each other to make better relationships.

Yes, and there’s so much amazing new work that’s come out of studying bonobos, because they were several decades behind in the amount of attention. And we now can see, not only the whole shagging thing, but that they are massively more open to relationships with groups that are unfamiliar. The groups will travel together. Individuals will move between groups. It’s much more chill. That is not the case with chimps. They will attack and kill unfamiliar groups. Slimak’s point would be that we don’t want Neanderthals to be like chimps; we want them to be like bonobos.

And were Neanderthals much like chimps?

Maybe it doesn’t quite go that far. My point would be that we spent decades drawing only on chimpanzees to imagine Neanderthals, and we need that bonobo element as well. That’s why I think it’s a good book. It really does ask us to critically reassess how we’re imagining them.

Brilliant. The last book is The Seventh Son, by Sebastian Faulks. We’re back with a novelist imagining Neanderthals.

Yes, but this one’s bang up to date. I was involved with this because I was one of the people that he asked to read the text in terms of providing a view on what’s accurate or feasible archaeologically, and in terms of the discipline itself.

Did he ask Slimak to read it, do you think?

I don’t know! But Faulks’s novel is a worthy addition to this literary community. It’s important because it’s a different book to the others. It’s not about imagining Neanderthals in the past. It’s not even necessarily about imagining who Neanderthals were in their own world in relation to us now. It’s a book about all the complexities of the modern day and where Neanderthals might fit in. It’s science fiction, set slightly in the future. It involves an anthropologist, again, so there’s a little echo of The Last Neanderthal, but this is about genetic engineering.

When you work on Neanderthals, one of the questions that people always want to ask you is ‘How did they go extinct?’ One of the other questions that will be asked is either, ‘What would the world be like if they hadn’t been extinct?’ (which is impossible to answer) or, ‘What would Neanderthals be like if we brought them back?’ People are very well aware about the entire genetic engineering, de-extinction trend.

A bit like Stig of the Dump?

Yes. And with all of the stuff that’s going on with gene editing and everything, it is technically possible to imagine, or to do, what’s discussed in The Seventh Son, which is to have a hybrid Neanderthal child.

It’s probably not advisable, though.

No, and this is also part of the book’s themes, because it’s about hubris and personality. There’s a big tech giant who does this on the sly, but because of the involvement of an anthropologist in the story, it’s also linked to some of those themes from Slimak’s book of how we think about Neanderthals. Or, in particular, how our thinking about them is always also about ourselves.

That’s how Neanderthals function for us, in a cultural sense. We force them to be a mirror. Sometimes we’re interested in them for their own sake, but sometimes we just want to see our own reflection. We use them as a foil, and that’s also what this book is doing. It’s asking, ‘What would the personal ramifications be if a hybrid child really was created? What would they be for that child? What would they be for the family? What would they be, eventually, for the people around them if it became known that that had happened?

I think it’s a very useful addition to this whole literary history of imagining Neanderthals because it’s not really like the others. There are other books that have thought about hybrid Neanderthals, so Faulks is not the only one that’s done this, but he’s willing to think hard about how we would feel. It’s not really about Neanderthals at all. It’s about what it would be to be a hybrid child, what it would mean for the mother of that child, and asks if there’s any space for that kind of existence.

Your interest in the imaginative world of what it would be like to be Neanderthal, what it would be like to be interacting with Neanderthals, is deep. But at the same time, you’re a scientist. You’re evidence based, scrupulous, sceptical, about some kinds of evidence, some kinds of imaginative tropes. But you see that there’s an incredibly important role still for this engagement with the past through the imagination. Is that an obstacle to doing good science or is it actually what drives the science and makes it interesting?

I think it’s both. Scientists are humans, they live in a cultural world, they are affected consciously or unconsciously by ideas and notions and biases. And creativity and imagination have to be part of what we do. We create a critical frame and a scientific structure within which to try to contain that and use it, rather than letting it drive the entirety of our inferences and our thoughts. We do try to have a boundary around it, but it has to be there in the first place.

There’s plenty written about serendipity in science and the strange little discoveries that people got to, not only because of happenstance but because they had a little niggling feeling about it, or they subconsciously made links between things. You only are aware of that as a strange little feeling, you’re not necessarily processing that consciously, but I think it’s part of how almost all scientists work. The role of people who work in a cultural and literary sphere is important as well, because they can create a dialogue about what might have been going on in the past, and how we create knowledge now.

To make this point, I’m going to bring in a sneaky sixth book: Life As Told By a Sapiens to a Neanderthal. This book is the product of literal dialogues between a hugely well-respected Spanish novelist and writer, Juan José Millás, and a hugely well-respected Spanish paleoanthropologist, Juan Luis Arsuaga, although it’s actually written by Millás.

It is a very beautiful, affectionate, funny exploration of his own discoveries, as he talks to this paleoanthropologist, about what it means to be an evolved hominin. Also, it’s about the paleoanthropologist and his personal foibles and drives. It’s very Spanish—there are long conversations over meals with dishes of lovely beans and things like this, and they also go to visit ancient places, museums, even shops.

It’s the novelist who is the Neanderthal, so the Homo sapiens here is the paleoanthropologist. Millás is partly joking, but partly philosophical when he’s saying, ‘I feel like I’m a Neanderthal, I feel like I think this way.’ But it’s also about wonder. I think those are the things that really link what science does at its best, and what literature can do for the writer and the reader.

There’s a lot of beautiful language in the book, one wonderful line is “Prehistory lies in the animal that passes by like a shadow.” It’s all telling you that you are part of this massive, deep history of life, and it’s powerfully effective for that. Although it is not like any of the other books, and it’s not a ‘normal’ nonfiction book about Neanderthals either, it engages with those eternal themes that Neanderthals represent for us.

* ‘Hominid’ was shifted to mean all Great Apes (including us) and their extinct ancestors, whereas ‘hominin’ covers living humans and their extinct ancestors. However, it’s often used informally to include some species who were likely not directly ancestral to us, but part of the broader Australopithecus and Homo lineages.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

April 27, 2024

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Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Rebecca Wragg Sykes is an archaeologist, author and public scholar. She is an Honorary Research Associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge as well as Honorary Fellow at the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Rebecca Wragg Sykes is an archaeologist, author and public scholar. She is an Honorary Research Associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge as well as Honorary Fellow at the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool.