The Neanderthals’ relationship to this world began 350,000 years ago. Rebecca Wragg Sykes (London, 40 years old) with them began shortly after she turned 14 years old. On a visit organized by his college, Wragg Sykes saw up close how work was done on an archaeological site from the Roman era. “Then I realized that I wanted to study archeology,” he says.
Years later, a video projected at the Museum of Caves in Altamira (Spain) made her focus on what really interested her. Roman remains were cool, but the Pleistocene period was a much more “passionate” field. “We don’t have texts, we don’t have written records, even compared to the most recent prehistory we don’t have as much material, so we have to use even more creativity to get as much information as possible,” says Wragg Sykes in a videoconference interview.
Fifteen years of study are now concentrated in your book. Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art (“Relatives: life, love, death and art of the Neanderthals”, unpublished in Brazil), included by The New York Times among the Top 100 of 2020. “A complete new story about Neanderthals that synthesizes thousands of academic studies into a single accessible account,” said the newspaper in one of its reviews. The aim is to bring all audiences closer to the great recent discoveries about Neanderthals, but also to bring other details about their life and daily life that have no space in many conventional media.
Question. What was your purpose in writing the book?
Response. Neanderthals are interesting because they appear a lot in the media. I often say they are like celebrities. If there is a discovery about Neanderthals, it is often reported. But what is not reported is the other information that archaeologists know, and which is complicated to explain in a single article. So I wanted to write a book that would bring together everything modern archeology can say about Neanderthals, including the great discoveries, but also how archeology works today. I would like to point out the various difficulties we encounter in what we do, and how we resolve them to create this rich knowledge about Neanderthal life. I think sometimes we don’t communicate outside our scope. Some of the main issues that appear on television or in the big newspapers are often related to their extinction, and I wanted to talk about the rest of the Neanderthals, from the 300,000 years before that happened, which are also very interesting. And I wanted to think of them on their own terms, without having ourselves in the background.
FOR. How was the creation process, with the pandemic in the middle?
A. I started talking to my editor about the subject about eight years ago, but it actually took me about three and a half years to write it. I started in early 2017 while I was in France and then moved back to the UK. While it was a wonderful experience, it’s hard to go beyond an academic language, where for every example you have to base yourself on a DNA test or demonstrate your point of view, to write for all audiences. I had to restructure the book. It was twice as long as it is now. For all that, the process was difficult, although I enjoyed writing the introduction to the chapters, which are much more narrative. In this I had a lot of fun. As for the pandemic, it wasn’t difficult for me compared to what other people had to face on a professional level. At the end of the book I mention covid-19 and the pandemic, because the epilogue already focused on existential questions related to the climate crisis and the concerns of people around this topic. The pandemic was another element. For me, it showed how opportunity and luck play a key role in what happens to us as a species, and I think that’s very important.
FOR. One of the most interesting stories is the origin of the name of the Neanderthals. Where do you come from?
A. It’s one of those weird historical connections. There’s a lot of old stuff in Neanderthal history that I haven’t even included because it’s so weird. For example, at one point in World War II, there was a Neanderthal skull under the altar of an old Catholic church in Rome. [risos]. A very strange thing. The name of Neanderthals as a species originally comes from the Feldhofer cave in Germany, which is in the Neander valley. [Neandertal, em alemão]. This valley was named this way in allusion to a poet and composer [Joachim Neander] the 1600s, some 100 years after his death. But before that it was already a very beautiful valley, it was a very touristic place, where people would be inspired. Interestingly, the original surname of this family was Neumann, but due to the fashion of the time, his grandfather changed his surname and adopted Neander’s. Neumann means “new man”. So the Neander Valley was named, unbeknownst to them, the “New Man’s Valley,” many years before the first remains of Neanderthals were found there. You cannot imagine a more suitable place.
FOR. Reading the book gives the feeling that we know everything about Neanderthals. And so?
A. There are many things we don’t know about. We don’t know which is the most eastern point they inhabited. Denisova cave, in Siberia, is the most eastern point where we find remains. But that doesn’t mean it’s the most eastern point they’ve come to. Between Denisova and the Pacific there are only steppes and a few mountains, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t go significantly further. Nor do we know how far they were able to travel as individuals. We have two ways to measure this. We can look at the isotopes in their bones, which tell us they could walk 50 kilometers. But it might not be a real measure. The only other way we can do this is to track the stone of the tools they were creating, and say that a tool came from a mountain that is 100 or 300 kilometers away. When you have these great distances, does it mean that Neanderthals moved individually on these scales? Or were they delivering such objects in some kind of exchange? We do not know yet.
We don’t even fully understand why there are so many ways to make stone tools, because there were. They weren’t made in one way, and we don’t know why all Neanderthal groups knew all kinds of technology. This is very difficult to explain. If there is a very well-preserved archaeological site, it can say amazing things about what was going on there, how this place is connected with other sites, with the landscape. But there are fundamental aspects that we don’t know. Did they move in groups? How often? It’s hard to say. We can look at it from an individual perspective and think “maybe they moved a lot between groups”, but proving that everyone did this is tricky because they lived for a huge amount of time and in a very wide area. But I think we’re getting better at understanding that we need to expect a lot of diversity in the things they did.
FOR. The book also intends to overturn the clichés surrounding the figure of Neanderthals. Why are these clichés so ingrained?
A. I think it’s a strange thing, because Neanderthals were the first hominids we found. It was the first time we knew there was another type of human on the planet. They have been shown to be something to compare us to from the beginning of human origins. I think in that sense we always look very enthusiastically at differences and stress that they are like garbage. We have a negative view because we want to explain why they are no longer here. There are no Neanderthals around us, and we want to explain this in a way that will put us in a good place. And we want to do that because that’s how we frame our explanation of things. There is definitely a persistent negative view of Neanderthals, both in science and culture. But on the other hand, if I meet someone, on a train or a similar situation, and say that I work with Neanderthals, very often they tell me, “Oh, they’re not as stupid as I thought.” But people still like to use the word Neanderthal as an insult. This has separated from archeology, the insult is still there.
FOR. But Neanderthals lived in groups, cared about others, slept in beds, were interested in art, had a culture and something like a language. We might think that deep down we are not so different.
A. If you notice what the homo sapiens did when the Neanderthals were alive, most of that time, between 350,000 and 40,000 years ago, the archaeological remains are very similar. There is very little difference. It’s only a little after 100,000 or 60,000 when you start to see some differences on an aesthetic level and possibly also in some hunting technologies […]. I think one of the big elements that can make a difference, in terms of extinction, is that at this point the groups of homo sapiens they had a different social organization. We have archaeological evidence of symbolic objects such as stone pendants. Even genetics suggests that the first groups of homo sapiens they were not isolated from each other. They lived in small groups, but they were well connected. And this looks a lot like what we see in the recent extractive population. People moved between groups all the time. Many of them were not blood-bonded, but had extensive support networks. And that’s what maybe the Neanderthals didn’t have, so I think what maybe really made the difference is related to the social communities of the early homo sapiens.
FOR. Neanderthals were almost as smart as we are, but they disappeared anyway. Can we learn something from this?
A. I think they had an impressive intelligence, and somehow we can say it was the same. But maybe they didn’t think of the world exactly as we do, like this idea of unions between people. Maybe they didn’t make as many connections between ideas. I think we have to think that the Neanderthals were very successful at what they did, not failures. A good comparison is to look at Earth’s deep history and previous great mass extinctions. There are often animals that were very well adapted to the environment, and yet they have gone extinct. There was an element of luck. And we have to ask ourselves why it took so long? We know that the homo sapiens they left Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. If we were so superior, why did it take us so long to replace them and get to Europe? Why did it happen so late? Even more so when what we see from this period is that there were numerous encounters, so we see through genetics, we know that there was miscegenation. There is something that is different, and perhaps luck is the main factor. Our desire to connect with everyone and socialize doesn’t make us smarter, it just makes us different. And that could help.
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