The humans who went extinct : why Neanderthals died out and we survived

by Clive Finlayson, 1955-

Book, 2009

Status

Available

Call number

GN285 .F54

Publication

Publisher Unknown

Description

Neanderthals, no less than another kind of human, almost made it, finally dying out just 28,000 years ago. What caused us to survive while they went extinct? Ecology holds the clues, argues Clive Finlayson. It comes down to climate change & chance. There was little in it, & things could have turned out quite differently.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Jewsbury
This book is about us, and our evolutionary history. Not surprisingly, the paleontological record is quite incomplete. We have found very few hominid fossils. Thus the discovered evidence is inconclusive. We could naively link the fossil evidence in the simplest way and pretend this is the story.
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On the other hand, Finlayson draws into the picture what we know about the spread and variability of other species, the past changes of the climate, the genetic markers in our DNA, and the physical barriers. In this way, he ventures way beyond the fossil record and makes a considered story.

It is a well-told fascinating story. As evolution toys with possibilities, the various primates, apes and humans are seen as related strands dispersed in space and time. Only occasionally do different strands meet. When this happens, one strand does not outcompete another. They generally coexist side-by-side. Eventually changes in climate, fauna and flora determine if anyone survives.

Finlayson argues that sometimes it pays to innovate, and sometimes to keep doing what you do well. Evolution is a series of random choices, which may or may not pay off. Often specialists do well in times of plenty; whereas innovative generalists fare better in the bad times. Adapting to tough environments can prepare groups for the exploitation of vast new opportunities only if they present.

He starts the story with the emergence of the primates in Africa. The climate has been changing for millions of years. The growth of forests in the Eocene, led to the expansion of primates from the tropics to most corners of the world. Then in the Miocene, with tough teeth and a digestive system adapted to eat nuts and leaves, apes spread from the forests of Africa across Eurasia. As we became woodland occupiers and ground dwellers, different early hominid strands explored beyond Africa. Of those groups pressured to innovate or perish, most succumbed. A few were successful beyond their dreams, at least for a while. The keys to their success were versatility, good luck, inquisitiveness, good genes and resilience.

The human story links ancestors living on the edge of survival. They make the difficult moves from the canopy of the rainforest to the ground and to woodland, from woodland to savannah, and from savannah to steppe. As we venture more into the open, technology and culture become important for survival. Our strand could have gone extinct when Mount Toba blew its top 73,500 years ago precipitating an Ice Age. However, we struggled on. Then 30,000 years ago some ancestors found their way into the steppe-tundra of Southern Russia. Skill, innovation, technology and community conquered a bountiful new environment. We have not looked back since. Just 10,000 years ago agriculture took off. Agriculture removed an ecological restraint on numbers. Modernity had arrived.
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LibraryThing member AnnieMod
Despite its subtitle, this is not a book about the Neanderthals. They do feature in the story and the question of why they died out is somewhat answered - but as a part of the much bigger questions of why we survived and so many other races did not.

Finlayson goes through all the available
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information (up to 2008 at least) and tries to explain what happens using the climate as one of the main actors in the drama that unfolded. The other actors ended up the earth and oceans movement and the chance. Humans, as much as we like kidding ourselves to be superior and what's not, had never been the determining factor in what was about to happen (not until some more recent times that is). And in that drama, the actors that seemed the most suited to succeed failed - because the rules changed. And in the shuffle of the changed rules, the people that were on the verge of disappearance and of being the looser in the roulette called evolution somehow made it trough. Some of them finally succumb after a few disasters, some of the persist and one of those groups beats all the odds and ends up as Homo Sapiens Sapiens.. Finlayson does not go that far - he leaves off the story a bit earlier, at times when there is no other line that could have won and at a time when the climate is already stable and there is no way for outsiders to win. But while reading the book, I kept thinking how easy it could have been for the story to be different - a delayed volcano here or an Ice Age coming a thousand years later would have changed everything.

The author has his own hypotheses about what happened in the past but every time when he shares one of them, he makes sure he explains the rest of the options and why he believes this to be the correct one. In some cases, he is probably wrong. In some, he is probably right. The truth is that we probably will never know, no matter how much the technology improves (and DNA and dating and so on had already made a huge difference in what we think). But the main threads that Finlayson keep returning to are pretty clear and logical - Neanderthals could have won if the climate had changed differently, they were not less intelligent than the ancestors of the human population that lived at the same time and chance had been the deciding factor for what happened - the very human "in the right place at the right time" had always been with our race.

The book is technical enough (the author does not shy from going into the technical details of the early civilizations... although he does not go through all of them and does not go in too much details of the minor difference) and as such it is not a light reading. The first chapters are a great panorama of the world before the first ancestors of the humans appeared. And then came the chance game. And the unexplained occurrences (the Flores bones from 2003 for example (and apparently a similar type of bones found in 2008 that turns everything on its head again)) and the changes of opinions through the years (Lucy is not really part of the human chain apparently despite of what we had been taught at school) come to show us one thing - no matter what we think we know, there is enough hidden truth that is yet to be found. And the author makes a great work of pointing out how generalizations had plagued the sciences which are part of pre-history - they are needed if we want to have any knowledge but when people keep to them even when a new finding argues for something else is something that the scientific community is very good at.

The one thing that really annoyed me through the books were the repetitions. It is not a book where the separate chapters make up for separate narratives - it's an interconnected text and as such, repetitions between chapters are not really needed. Nor are the summaries at the end of each chapter or at the end of the book. But then it is a common enough style in science so the author was just doing what everyone one else does. Which does not make it less annoying. And the book could have been improved with a few more maps and figures - I know where the rock of Gibraltar is compared to Africa and Spain for example) but a map showing exact location would have helped - especially when he was talking about the migrations of the proto-humans. A good atlas of the pre-historical world or simply checking internet helps but maps would have made it a self-contained work.

Overall a pretty good overview of why we are here and the rest of the races are not. And the linking of the events with the climate that worried me at the very beginning (we are the era of the Global Warming after all - this is the hot topic and everyone tries to connect everything to it) turned out to be the best thing in the book - because put in such a perspective a lot of things make more sense.
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LibraryThing member schatzi
The common view of Neaderthals, at least in popular society, is that of dumb brutes who were conquered by our ancestors' superior mental capacities and skills. Many are probably influenced by Clan of the Cave Bear, in which the Neaderthals were dark, hulking, and relatively unintelligent compared
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to the blonde, beautiful, willowy, and smart Daryl Hannah.

But what if none of that was true?

Finlayson argues that we are "children of chance," that our ancestors weren't necessarily superior to the Neanderthals and those other human branches that came before us - just different, and better suited to the changing environment. If things had gone just a little differently, the humans of today would be descended from the Neaderthals, or some other branch, and would be pondering over the bones of our ancestors today, wondering why they were the ones who survived.

It's an interesting premise, and the book itself is an interesting read. Littered with information that was new to me - Neanderthals weren't all dark (in fact, some of them had red hair, which is tied to having light skin), and we have no idea how often they came in contact with our ancestors if at all - Finlayson argues that our ancestors were less like conquerors and more like lucky lottery winners. The environment changed in such a way that the lighter-bodied Homo Sapiens were favored in the end.

My only real complaint was that Finlayson seemed allergic to commas, which lead to some rambling sentences that I had to read a few times to get his meaning. Other than that, an intriguing look at our early history, and it makes one wonder what might have been if things had only been a little different.
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LibraryThing member nosajeel
This book addresses the question of why the neanderthals died out while homo sapiens survived. It rejects the genetic superiority of the later and is scathing on the thesis that homo sapiens played a causal role in the extinction of the neanderthals. Instead, Finlayson argues that the main culprit
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was the cooling climate. Moreover, he argues that this development disproportionately affected the somewhat more successful neanderthals because they were more used to one way of life, rather than the more marginal and thus more innovative homo sapiens. The analogy he offers is a study in Gibraltar that found that rich families suffered less from diseases from poor water. But when there was a drought and everyone had to drink dirty water the poor survived (because they were resistant) while the rich suffered comparatively more.

It is a somewhat interesting thesis, although marred by the suspicion that one politically motivated narrative (conquest by the superior homo sapiens) is just being replaced with another (climate change combined with a form of moral relativism). The evidence for the later seems thin, especially given the many large climatic changes that took place over the approximately 500,000 years since homo sapiens and neanderthals split off from each other.

As for the writing, two complaints: (1) the author is prone to grandiose statements about how this book differs from the previous literature (e.g., he finds the rejection of the "Out of Africa" hypothesis particularly important, even though he just replaces it with the observation that the eurasian zone was geographically and climatically contiguous with Africa). (2) the first third/half of the book is an uninspired retelling of evolution through about 50,000 years ago.

All of this aside, Finlayson hits his stride in the second half of the book when he focuses on the period from 50,000 years ago (when neanderthals were in Europe but homo sapiens were not) to 10,000 years ago (the end of the last ice age and the invention of agriculture). This is presented with a reasonable amount of detail and grounding in the original scholarly material, to which Finlayson is a contributor.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Finlayson is a paleontologist from Gibraltar who writes in this book about Neanderthals as a species of human that evolved parallel to the ancestors of homo sapiens. Finlayson challenges common beliefs such as the "Out of Africa" theory, noting that ancestral humans and proto-humans could move
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freely back and forth between Africa and the Eurasian landmass, especially when the ocean levels were much lower than they are now. He also theorizes that the fossil record of a many early human communities that lived by the shore have been lost to ocean levels rising. The role of climate plays a large part in Finlayson's model of human evolution, and attributes homo sapiens adaptation to the climactic changes that made the Neanderthals go extinct more to luck than the superiority of our species. His defensiveness about how his view contrast with the common wisdom make me wonder if he's a renegade that cannot be trusted. While writing on a fascinating topic, Finlayson's writing is a bit dry so the book is less engaging than I would've hoped.
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LibraryThing member jasonlf
This book addresses the question of why the neanderthals died out while homo sapiens survived. It rejects the genetic superiority of the later and is scathing on the thesis that homo sapiens played a causal role in the extinction of the neanderthals. Instead, Finlayson argues that the main culprit
Show More
was the cooling climate. Moreover, he argues that this development disproportionately affected the somewhat more successful neanderthals because they were more used to one way of life, rather than the more marginal and thus more innovative homo sapiens. The analogy he offers is a study in Gibraltar that found that rich families suffered less from diseases from poor water. But when there was a drought and everyone had to drink dirty water the poor survived (because they were resistant) while the rich suffered comparatively more.

It is a somewhat interesting thesis, although marred by the suspicion that one politically motivated narrative (conquest by the superior homo sapiens) is just being replaced with another (climate change combined with a form of moral relativism). The evidence for the later seems thin, especially given the many large climatic changes that took place over the approximately 500,000 years since homo sapiens and neanderthals split off from each other.

As for the writing, two complaints: (1) the author is prone to grandiose statements about how this book differs from the previous literature (e.g., he finds the rejection of the "Out of Africa" hypothesis particularly important, even though he just replaces it with the observation that the eurasian zone was geographically and climatically contiguous with Africa). (2) the first third/half of the book is an uninspired retelling of evolution through about 50,000 years ago.

All of this aside, Finlayson hits his stride in the second half of the book when he focuses on the period from 50,000 years ago (when neanderthals were in Europe but homo sapiens were not) to 10,000 years ago (the end of the last ice age and the invention of agriculture). This is presented with a reasonable amount of detail and grounding in the original scholarly material, to which Finlayson is a contributor.
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
I was interested in this book because I thought from the title it would be about the Neanderthals. It really wasn't. They are minor offstage characters. I was disappointed.

Although the book is short, and not too technical, it is full of repetition, often used as justification for a viewpoint. It
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makes the book rather boring and makes it seem full of filler. The book would have been shorter and its points clearer if the repetition could have been eliminated and the premise boiled down into one story, with supporting evidence cited and with contrasting theories and evidence presented. The author chose to organize it differently leading to almost cut and paste type of situations in chapter after chapter.

I also agree that more maps especially of the configuration of the world at the various times discussed could have been interspersed in the text to help visualize the sweep of the story.
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LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
A rather disappointing read for me as The Humans Who Went Extinct spent more time covering proto humans rather than neanderthals, the very topic of this book.

Finlayson's general thesis is that luck played a huge part in why we are now here while neanderthals aren't. The Humans Who Went Extinct is
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now a decade old and seems quite out of date in the light of recent discoveries around neanderthals and denisovans. I did however learn some interesting things about Gibraltar, so don't consider this a complete loss.
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