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The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers [Hardcover]

Juan Luis Arsuaga

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Book Description

17 April 2003
The Neanderthals were members of a parallel humanity that evolved in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years. They manufactured stone tools like the Cro–Magnons, the modern humans – with whom they were in direct competition for thousands of years – and they used language. They were human not only because of their place in our evolutionary group but also in the spiritual nature of their beliefs and in their emotions, in their very human minds. The way they lived and the reasons they disappeared fifty thousand years ago offer a surprising mirror in which we can examine and learn more about our no–so–alien lives.

In The Neanderthal′s Necklace, Juan Luis Arsuaga – Europe′s most celebrated paleoanthropologist – displays not only his well–known scientific acuity but also his talents as an engaging teacher and storyteller, giving us a concise and readable description of what we know about who we are and how we came to be so.

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"...He certainly knows his stuff...necessary evolutionary and environmental background to this complex story, all well told for the general reader..." (New Scientist, 11 January 2003)

"...a splendid read...this book will be much admired and valued by academics and those who want an informative account of the human past..." (Fortean Times, May 2003)

"...this is good reference work that will benefit students and researchers..." (Focus, September 2003)

"...his book proves a valuable counter to accounts relegating this group to a peripheral role..." (Times Higher Education Supplement, 6 February 2004)

"...I praise Arsuaga for his commitment to all aspects of human and social sciences and for this synthesis that is relevant to the aspirations of every extant culture." (Endevour, March 2004)

"a very good and up–to–date introduction to the evolution of consciousness." (Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2004)

"...He certainly knows his stuff...necessary evolutionary and environmental background to this complex story, all well told for the general reader..." (New Scientist, 11 January 2003)

"...a splendid read...this book will be much admired and valued by academics and those who want an informative account of the human past..." (Fortean Times, May 2003)

"...this is good reference work that will benefit students and researchers..." (Focus, September 2003)

"...his book proves a valuable counter to accounts relegating this group to a peripheral role..."Â (Times Higher Education Supplement, 6 February 2004)

"...I praise Arsuaga for his commitment to all aspects of human and social sciences and for this synthesis that is relevant to the aspirations of every extant culture." (Endevour, March 2004)

"a very good and up–to–date introduction to the evolution of consciousness." (Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2004)

From the Inside Flap

Has there ever been a life form on earth that was as conscious of its own existence as ours? Quite possibly.

The Neanderthals occupied the earth for around 100,000 years and co–existed with our ancestors for at least 10,000 years. Their intelligence was probably very close to our own. They were able to manufacture stone tools like the Cro–Magnons, our ancestors, and they used language, hunted, socialised and practised funerary rituals. Additionally, they were physically better adapted than our ancestors for a cold climate.

Yet the Neanderthals died out while our ancestors survived. Juan Luis Arsuaga suggests that our ancestors’ ability to use symbols combined with their dexterity with tools, such as sewing implements, may have helped them to survive.

This is a story of the sweeping landscapes of a young Earth, of mountains and lakes and of the Ice Age. Within this vista, a drama is being played out between two species. Both are intelligent, conscious and part of reasonably sophisticated communities – only one will survive.

This is a book about our origins and where we came from.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Neanderthal as a nearly contemporary, parallel species 25 Jun 2003
By Dennis Littrell - Published on
This is a fine book that sheds further light on what the Neanderthals were like and what happened to them. Written in an engaging, clear and almost poetic style (the translation by Andy Klatt is first rate, his surprising use of "irregardless" on page 182 notwithstanding), this book gives us a sense of the latest understanding with an emphasis on evidence from the Sierra de Artapuerca excavation site in Spain where paleoanthropologist Professor Arsuaga is co-director. The black, white and gray illustrations by Juan Carlos Sastre nicely augment the text.

Arsuaga begins with the observation that today we exist almost alone in the sense that there are no very similar species extant, the last one being the Neanderthal in Europe. Arsuaga then traces our descent until he arrives at "Domesticated Man" in the Epilogue. His detours and asides are very interesting. I was especially pleased to learn that there are well-preserved wooden lances (or spears) used by archaic humans fully 400,000 years ago. (p. 182-183) I also found interesting his digression on what caused the extinction of the megafauna of America some 10,000 years ago (in Chapter Six, "The Great Extinction").

Primarily, though, this book is about the cultural, behavioral and conceptional abilities (as derived from the archaeological evidence) that separate humans from other living creatures, especially the Neanderthals. Arsuaga reveals his purpose on page 280: "I have been trying to summarize the evidence available concerning the thorniest problem of human evolution, the development of consciousness, which is the defining characteristic of humankind." He had asked in the Prologue on page ix, "Apart from us, has there ever been a life form on earth that was conscious of its own existence and of its place in the world?" In short his answer is yes, the Neanderthal, whom he defines as our contemporary, not as an archaic human species. (p. 278)

Arsuaga's story begins about 2.5 million years ago when Homo habilis emerged in Africa (presumably from another post-australopithecine species) with a noticeably bigger brain than the first upright walking apes. "A short while later" (geologically-speaking) Homo ergaster (probably the same as Homo erectus) appeared. Arsuaga sees Homo ergaster as the first hominid to migrate out of Africa about 1.5 million years ago, spreading to Europe and southeast Asia. Not only did these proto-humans have a significantly larger brain than Homo habilis, they had also begun "to create a social and cultural environment...that afforded them ever more independence from the physical environment," which is one of the reasons they were able to survive in diverse climates, especially in the cold of the northern latitudes.

Then about 300,000 years ago Arsuaga sees the development independently in Europe and Africa of a "second great expansion of the human brain" producing "somewhat different results." (p. 307) When modern humans again emerged out of Africa about 150,000 years ago they arrived in Europe to find the Neanderthal. The somewhat different results of their independent evolution prevented the species from merging and eventually the Neanderthal died out.

Although some authorities have emphasized competition with modern humans as the reason for the Neanderthal's demise, Arsuaga believes we need more information before we can say "in a convincing fashion" what happened. (p. 292) He does say somewhat imprecisely that the Neanderthal was "defeated by the cold" while the Cro-Magnons due to "superior technology," especially with bone awls and needles to fashion well-fitting animal skins, etc., were able to survive the glacial maximum 25,000 years ago. (p. 302) However on page 78 while noting that the Cro-Magnons had developed physical features that made them look relatively childlike--a gracile build and a "small, minimally protruding face," ("neoteny" is the technical term for this phenomenon)--Arsuaga may have tipped his hand. He observes, "Cro-Magnons must have looked cute to the Neanderthals! They may have discovered later, to their dismay, what kind of people they were dealing with, and as sweet as the Cro-Magnons may have looked, what kind of behavior they could expect."

(I had a sudden vision here of an abandoned Cro-Magnon child found by a Neanderthal family. They tenderly take the child in, nourish it and bring it up as their own. At a certain age, the child realizes that it is not Neanderthal and... Well, I'm sure there are a few science fiction stories that resolve this premise for better or for worse.)

Arsuaga's account therefore presents the Neanderthal as a co-existing species, not our ancestor, with whom there was little to no interbreeding. Nonetheless Arsuaga has great respect and affection for the Neanderthal. He writes on page 284 that "It would thrill me more than anything if I could say that I had even a drop of Neanderthal blood to connect me with those powerful Europeans of long ago." His portrait is of a "human" species different from (not less than) ourselves that had culture and ritual and self-adornment (as evidenced by, e.g., the Neanderthal's necklace found at Grotte du Renne in France), a being that had achieved consciousness, although of a sort undoubtedly different than ours. In one particular, Arsuaga argues that the fossil evidence suggests that the Neanderthal's phonetic apparatus would not have been able to produce "sounds as distinct as ours," (p. 268). This physical characteristic may have reduced its ability to develop a culture as extensive as the Cro-Magnon's which we know about in part through the cave murals that they painted in France and Spain.

What one feels strongly from Arsuaga's account is the sense of loss that the Neanderthal is no longer with us. How much we could have learned from a being that was at once much like ourselves, but intriguingly different.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Understanding Evolution and Ourselves"
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique perspective on the evolution of consciousness 27 April 2003
By Robert Adler - Published on
The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers
It's a rare book that delivers more than it promises, but Juan Luis Arsuaga's _The Neanderthal's Necklace_ does just that. The book jacket presents it as a story of the 10,000-year-long encounter between the Neanderthals and our own Cro-Magnon ancestors, a story that ends with the disappearance of the Neanderthals some 27,000 years ago. Arsuaga discusses that epochal culture clash at length and with many fresh insights. However, he weaves that narrative into a much grander story--his expert take on the evolution not just of the Neanderthals and our own very young species, but of all the other walking primates that preceded us back to whatever great-grandparent species we shared with organutangs, gorillas and chimpanzees some 6 million years ago. For good measure, Arsuaga throws in his original and highly readable takes on many key evolutionary issues, on the nature of consciousness, and--really the theme of the book--on when, where and how our own "hypersymbolic" human consciousness emerged.
Arsuaga, a leading Spanish paleoanthropologist, has strong views on many topics. He's convinced that modern humans are unique. "Anatomically, we are but erect primates . . ." he argues. "At the same time, we humans are radically different from all other animals due to the astonishing phenomena of our intelligence, our capacity for reflection, and a broad self-consciousness of all aspects of our behavior." Accordingly, he denies consciousness, at least as he defines it, not only to non-human animals, but even to many of the upright, tool-using species that preceded us. " . . . animals lack both self-awareness and perceptive awareness, or consciousness. They are no more than biological machines." (Immediately after this hackle-raising statement, Arsuaga is perceptive enough to apologize "to all cat- and dog-lovers," whose beloved pets, he concedes, may possibly have "perceptive consciousness.")
After in-depth discussions of almost every line of evidence, Arsuaga comes to several very interesting conclusions about the development of the fully human consciousness he so highly values. Surprisingly, he grants first membership in the consciousness club to a truly ancient ancestor, _Homo ergaster_, whose 1.8 million-year-old fossils have been found in modern-day Kenya. Not only did _H. ergaster_ have a body closer in size and shape to our own, but a brain that was a significant chunk larger than our first tool-using ancestor, _Homo habilis_. Unlike _habilis_, _ergaster_ fashioned biface stone tools--"chipped on two surfaces with obvious skill and concern for symmetry. "These primitive human beings were conscious of what they were doing, and they cared about the tools they carried in their hands," Arsuaga writes.
Like most current researchers, Arsuaga is clear that Neanderthal's were not our direct ancestors, but a relatively recent, parallel, and ultimately extinct human branch. Still, he grants them a mental world nearly equal to our own. After all, he points out, they made tools just as carefully as their archaic human neighbors, made fire, and buried their dead. Still, he concludes from anatomical studies that they could not produce fully articulated speech, and that they never entered the richly symbolic world that we inhabit (with rare exceptions such as the necklace-wearing Neanderthal referred to in the book's title). Arsuaga focuses on two clues to this consciousness gap. It was the Cro-magnons some 32,000 years ago who began to represent the world they saw and imagined in those haunting cave paintings, and who devoted enormous amounts of time and effort to personal adornment. That's when, he writes poetically, "the world was made transparent." By that he means that with their newly re-tooled minds, our immediate ancestors projected all their intuitive understanding of each other, all of their deep immersion into symbols, onto the entire world. "All of a sudden and unexpectedly," he writes, "the spirit of our land, old _Europa_, came alive. The rocks, the rivers, the sea, the trees, and the animals, also the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars above; all sang to humankind, and the wind carried their song."
It's a lovely summary of a lovely and deeply informative book. Anyone who is interested in a well written, well thought out and non-standard view of how we came to be the way we are will enjoy it thoroughly.
Robert Adler, author of _Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation_ (Wiley, Sept. 2002), presenting highlights in the history of science from the ancient Greeks to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Alternative Humanity. 11 Jan 2003
By Tony Harper - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Juan Luis Arsuaga has written an informative account of his own research on the earliest Europeans as represented by the copious skeletal deposits in the Sierra de Atapuerca and in particular with respect to the remains discovered in one very special site of that region, Sima de los Huesos, the Pit of Bones. The study of hominid origins, in this case involving conspecifics of the genus Homo, is always an intriging field filled with a variety of opinions, reasoned and otherwise, and Professor Arsuaga gives a balanced treatment to the problem of the origin of the first Europeans and to the role that Neanderthals had in this evolutionary play. He is also not reluctant to state where his own sympathies lie with regard to our specific ancestry and the fact that, while, in his opinion, Neanderthals are not our direct ancestors, they do represent an alternative humanity, sentient, creative, and technologically proficient in their own right, and an alternative humanity that we shared the greater part of Europe with for some ten thousand years.
I do have some minor concerns with regard to this book. First, American readers may be put off by Arsuaga's repeated use of researcher's full names when givng credit for the work of others. This is, I believe, a cultural artifact, but it makes the reading laborious in more than one instance. I wish also that more time had been spent addressing the significance of the skeletal remains of the child found in Portugal, dated to twenty-four to twenty-six thousand years ago, and purported to represent a combination of both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal characteristics. Finally, the book subtitle suggests that the cognitive piece of the Neanderthal puzzle will be addressed at some length, and the discussion of this topic did not completely meet my expectations.
Putting aside these criticisms, this book is thoughtfully written and gives even the novice reader ample background in demography, paleoecology, biogeography, evolutionary biology, and anthorpology so that both conceptually and empirically the aspects of archeology pertinent to Prof. Arsuaga's conclusions can be clearly understood. I recommend this book most strongly and suggest that the ideas shared here will provoke the reader to ponder just what life might have been like when two alternatives to the question, What does it mean to be human? existed side by side over no small period of time.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 10 May 2005
By Jerry Engelbach - Published on
Arsuaga focuses on discoveries in his native Spain, and they are many. His hypothesis is that Neanderthals had the brains to be as intelligent as we, but lacked the physical equipment to develop sophisticated language.

The author ranges afield into areas of natural history and biology that give the book a depth beyond its title. I'm reminded, in a very small way, of course, of The Golden Bough, which set out to explore one cultural artifact and wound up as an encyclopedia of cultural anthropology.

I like Arsuaga's informal style and his fair-minded exposition of points of view that differ from his own. While the book is not a page-turner for the average reader, it is so for anyone seriously interested in its subject.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars broad elaboration based on scanty evidence 31 Mar 2008
By L. Vierhout - Published on
Consciousness is a thorny subject to begin with. Arsuaga tries to find it in the humanoid fossil record. Because there isn't enough material there, he gives a generalized story of the evolution of mankind, wanders into the vegetation of Spain and gets lost in the world of philosophy of language and consciousness. Info on Neaderthal life is little given the title of the book.
The book is clearly written with love for the subject but the premise doesn't legitimize a 300 paged book. There is just to little flesh on that Neanderthal bone to put your teeth in.
For an outstanding introduction into the field of human evolution read "From Lucy to to Language" by Donald Johanson & Blake Edgar. If you are interested in consciousness read Antonio Damasio or Dashiel Dennett.
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