Book Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct

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In spite of the title, this book is less about the Neanderthals than you might expect. It’s far more about the rather small amount of fossils we’ve built our understanding of the habits and cultures and migrations of early humans (of several species) on. Particularly, it pays a lot of attention to climatological details that are frequently considered part of the background.

Before we get excited and turn over everything we think we know about the Neanderthal extinction and where they lived and why, the author regularly admits that he doesn’t have remotely complete data to work with either. A lot of his world building and theory making is based on not much more data than the main group of paleontologists and archaeologists who study pre-modern humans. He dismisses a little bit of what they use and then layers in what is known about the climate and environment of the relevant time frames to build a different picture of how things went.

Our ancestors become less about genocide and more about responding to their own population pressures, moving into gaps left behind by the retreating Neanderthal populations. Yes, they may have helped them along here and there, but the wholesale slaughter of our poor, less adaptable cousins was probably not the way things worked.

Note that Finlayson’s version of events (supported by other people and research) ends with the Neanderthals no less extinct, just for slightly different reasons. Those reasons still fit inside the empty space of our knowledge with a great deal of room for updating and new information.

The reading itself is a little on the dry side. It’s a non-fiction book about pre-history, extinct species, and ancient climatology. That’s not awfully surprising, especially considering this is probably less a popular science book and more one that assumes a certain level of familiarity with current/recent theory and understanding of human evolution.

Overall rating: 3 stars. I didn’t come away from the book thinking that Dr. Finlayson had the absolute right of things, but the reading was interesting overall and I certainly came away with a broader perspective and the reminder that there’s a lot more to learn on the subject before we can make the level of assumptions we appear to have already made.

Be well, everyone.

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