Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Review: "How to Think Like a Neandertal"

As you know if you've read very much of this blog, I am a huge anthropology geek. It's what I studied in school. It's what I've loved since I was seven years old. And so, when a good friend who is currently studying anthropology at Cal recommended How to Think Like a Neandertal (Oxford University Press, 2012; 210 pages), by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge, I immediately requested it from my local library system.

Wynn and Coolidge, an anthropologist and a neuropsychologist respectively and both professors at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, have been studying the evolution of cognition for several years. Part of the result of their study is this book. It's fascinating stuff, written with enough rigor that it is a text for the course on Neandertal cognition that my friend is taking at Cal, but it is also accessible to the layperson. No, not just accessible. It is a well-written, informed, and witty look at how Neandertals might have lived and thought during their time on Earth, from around 200,000 (or a little earlier, depending on which expert you consult) years ago to about 30,000 years ago, when the last of their kind died, probably somewhere on the Iberian peninsula, where they had been pushed by the dominant anatomically modern humans who had arrived late in their history, from the Neandertals former range across much of Europe and western Asia.

The authors cover the expected ground: how Neandertals lived and hunted, including what their tools and weapons reveal about what kind of thought processes they might have used. And really, what the Neandertals left behind in the form of campsites, food remains, tools, and weapons, plus their own remains, are all researchers like Wynn and Coolidge have to go on to figure out how the Neandertal mind worked. Thoughts themselves, after all, do not fossilize. Wynn and Coolidge speculate on what kind of family life the Neandertals had, and point out that it is clear from the remains of some Neandertal individuals that they helped out their fellows who were injured or ill, at least in some cases. However, the authors also show that evidence earlier interpreted as proof that Neandertals buried their dead with religious ceremony and therefore had a concept of an afterlife really only shows that they took some minimal care of their dead but then probably later pushed the bones aside in a manner that was no more caring than their treatment of the bones of the animals they killed for food. And, in fact, they share evidence that at least some Neanderdertals practiced cannibalism at least some of the time.

Aside from matters of survival, Wynn and Coolidge also explore such topics as whether or not Neandertals had language, concluding that the Neandertals probably did have language, at least to some extent. They also explore what Neandertals' personalities were like, explaining their belief that Neandertals were probably stoic, pragmatic, unimaginative for the most part, empathetic and sympathetic to the extent that their pragmatism would let them be, but likely intolerant of change, not welcoming of those outside their local group, and dogmatic. The authors also take up the subject of whether Neandertals slept and dreamed as we do and what that says about their capacity for memory and ability to learn. The Neandertals probably did have REM sleep, but their dreams were probably not as creative as those of modern humans, and they probably did not have as much working memory capacity as we do. They also ask the question, could a Neandertal tell a joke or clown around? The conclusion Wynn and Coolidge come to is that the Neandertals could smile and laugh, as we do and as chimpanzees do, but they probably could not tell a joke, although they do say that there might have been some Neandertals who would clown around to elicit laughs from other Neandertals.

The authors also analyze what it would be like for a Neandertal to live among modern humans today, and what it would be like if a modern human could time-travel back to the time of the Neandertals. They conclude that adults of either species would not deal well living out of their time and with those not of their species. However, they also say that a baby Neandertal raised by modern humans or a modern human raised among Neandertals would likely be able to function in a society not naturally theirs, although not in all roles and not as well as natives to the society. They also say that a Neadertal raised in modern times would probably fit in somewhat better than a modern human raised by Neandertals.

This is a good book. It is not dry and dusty prose even though the science here appears accurate and rigorous. It is obvious that Wynn and Coolidge enjoy their subject, which they write about with humor and vitality. Just a glance at the chapter titles will tell you that - the chapter on humor is titled "A Neandertal Walked Into a Bar...". There is even a reference to time travel and Doctor Who in the chapter on how Neandertals would fare in modern times and we in theirs, with the authors providing a definition for "Doctor Who" in the glossary for their readers who are not Whovians.

More science writing should be like How to Think Like a Neandertal, and just for that it deserves to be read widely.

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