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on 13 September 2012
How refreshing it was to me to read the story of Ice Age humans set against an ecological background. The dying of forests as the cold advanced, and the new provision of mammoth tusks and bones as building material, are just two parts of the everyday life of the humans surviving climate change.

As a professional in this field, I wish there had been more reference points about this: actual dates and locations where the temperature went up and down by 5-10 degrees during the main span of the last ice age, covering the critical period of human movements. Say 70000 to 20000 years ago.

He writes so eloquently about climate change that I could visualise the dying of the conifer forest and appearance of tundra. I wonder for how many years there was dead timber lying around that could have been used for fires. And the coming and going of woodland - I know from my own research that when the temperature climbed to that of the present day, trees didn't necessarily appear. Because they were too far away, and because the dispersal of fruits and seeds by birds would only be fast in landscapes with perches or reasons for the birds to venture outside the trees.

With good radiocarbon dating now available, I can see a detailed map of vegetation, human activity and climate over the planet is ready to be worked in detail. The book inspired me to think about this; about the Denisovan humans in Siberia; about the yeti (which I believe to be a very old folk memory of ice age humans, much as the myth of a great flood turned out to be real despite the thousands of years of the story being passed down generations).

I was also fascinated by the descriptions of major migrations of humans across Asia, and having myself wandered around much of the previously-glaciated Asian landscape and seen the effect of lack of iodine here: did cretinism have a significant effect on migrations and settlement and success?

Every book I have read on ice age humans on the steppe and tundra thinks they were just like us with added skills in crafts and construction, and unless they lived by a cliff over which to drive big game, they stalked their prey until they could get some arrows into it. OK, that was doubtless done. But archaeologists should spend time out in the steppe with people who still have skills not mentioned in any text book. They are not like us physically. They are more like our Olympian medallists, but stronger. It would not be a great effort to move around summer to winter, or to cover hundreds of miles on foot. Exercise was normal. I've seen people in Mongolia in small groups run down wild animals and even corner and restrain half-wild yaks bare-handed. Lassoos made of vegetable cord or animal sinews are used on big animals at a safer distance than spears, and cord traps and drop traps can be set. Marmots can be captured by putting on a white mask (deer face bones)and creeping right up to an animal.

Today, Mongolians use horses to carry them in order to save calories. I wonder whether 50000 years ago, before horses were tamed, if people deliberately took time out from physical activity when food was not abundant, perhaps in winter, and that arts and crafts were done by hunters and trackers, not just specialist individuals, because they needed to rest to stop using up calories. And mothers are not restricted by young babies even today in rural Asia - the baby is simply tied on to the mother's back and life goes on.

So - a verdict? Dunno, but I'm glad I read it and it inspired me, and was fairly easy to read. Like all such books it gets skewered by the next discovery, and it does go on a bit without pinning down dates and places - why keep digging a potential hole when you've covered what you wanted to say? Having said all that, I wish there were more books with a different slant on the past to counter the Out of Africa 'we-know-it-all' consensus.
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on 9 December 2009
The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived

This is the best publication I have read on the subject for years in an excellent hard cover publication. An original perspective on early Ice Age humans and their Neanderthal cousins and some quite innovative ideas on why we survived the intolerable Ice age conditions in Eurasia between 20000 to 50000 years ago and possibly why the Neanderthal, a better adapted human for the conditions, didnt. What I liked best was the Jared Diamond style perspective of looking at the human creature from a biological or even Zoological viewpoint without the natural biases regarding the perceived intellectual superiority of modern humans. There is no suggestion here that we had some superiority advantage over our cousins. Rather that good fortune and opportunism gave modern humans an advantage that could have just as easily benefitted Neanderthals, had their circumstances permitted.

I would strongly suggest to anyone wanting to expand their awareness of these poorly understood and under rated people to have a look at this one. Its worth the journey.


An addendum September 2011 given recent discoveries:

Having read some other reviews there is still I believe this concept of superiority many of us have of the modern human creature. I would suggest reading some of Jared Diamonds works to gain balance

The Neandertal people, though genetically different in some ways, suffered as I see it, a similar plight to the Australian Aboriginal people. Just as intelligent as other peoples in Europe, Asia and Africa, these people became somewhat isolated and had to adapt with the technology they brought with them 50-60000 years ago (though some came later) to unfamiliar and hostile environments, just as the Neandertal had to in Eurasia.

As with the Australian Aboriginal, their adaption to a hostile environment with the technology they had, led a serious reduction in population per area of ground to survive. And they apparently adapted very well to the environment they inherited over time. But just as the Australian Aborigine was restricted by a limited population, lack of agricultural plant life and beasts of burden, seriously diminished any technological advancements, the Neandertal's faced similar types of limitations, other humans did not have to cope with, in their extreme conditions. When the Europeans came to Australia, as with the humans to Ice Age Euarasia, they came better prepared through tens of thousands of years of cultural development and improved technology.

Europeans and Asians have had the advantage of exchange of ideas over the Eurasian continent during the Holocene, as well as agricultural foods and beasts of burden and therefore a greater population per area of ground. This has allowed significant technological advancement. Therefore when Europeans came to Australia to settle, the indigenous population were overwhelmed by a superior technology, a continuous influx of migration and of course new diseases that decimated the existing population.

A parallel surely exists with the influx of a technologically advanced African humanity into Eurasia 40-50000 years ago. Though they had to also adapt to the new conditions they had developped culturally and technologically in such a manner that they were eventually better able to survive and flourish. Just as with the Australian Aboriginal, the Neandertal could not compete and found their feeding grounds increasingly encroached upon by a more numerous and technologically more sophisticated people.

But the caveat here is that, as with the Austraian Aborigine, it was not intelligence that was lacking and led to the Neandertal's disappearance, but rather isolation from the greater numbers of humans, who had had greater opportunity to develop their technology. And as is evident now, just as with the Australian Aborigine, they didnt disappear, they merely became absorbed within the migrant population through intermarriage and interbreeding.
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on 28 December 2010
This was an exciting read that had an element of 'can't put down'.
The author is very good in explaining the politics that lie behind the received wisdom of hominid development and pointing out that the evidence is very scanty and has been worked too hard, often with the intention of placing a new find in direct lineage as an important step towards modern humans. This is a very valid and important revision. His technique of defining habitats and then showing that it is highly likely that humans who lived in a particular habitat would expand to fill all of it across continents is illuminating. The explanation of why Neanderthals went extinct is lucid and compelling, essentially they are overadapted for a woodland ecology and the ice ages destroyed them as their habitat failed. Yet he protests too much that modern man is just luckier than the Neanderthals. In similar rapid change situations described latter modern humans adapt better than Neanderthals and that is not just luck. He does also try to have his cake and eat it. The Neanderthals in Gorham's cave are not living like the hidebound ambush predators he describes earlier.
Similarly the explanation of the modern gracile body developing in the Steppe Tundra region fails to explain why the population left behind in Africa has equally gracile bodies.

I'd have given the book a 5* but for the rubbish chapter at the end. Having talked with great authority about 4 million years Finlayson then quite misunderstands modernity and how it is not like any form of the past. His theory is that conservatives who are highly adapted fail when rapid change occurs whereas 'innovators' living poor lives on the margins adapt better. Unfortunately for this view the centre of our culture is occupied by commercial and scientific innovators who will lead the response to change. Mankind is now only meaningful as a societal animal largely liberated from immediate physical constraints. It is the information, organisation and will of our collective brains that matters.
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on 3 May 2012
This is the perfect introduction for the general reader to this much misunderstood branch of our evolutionary cousins - the Neanderthals, covering what they looked like, where they came from & the various theories over their extinction.

The author has organised the volume is sensible & easily digestible chapters. He puts the entire context in place before walking us through some of the accepted doctrines & challenging them.

At the same time, he challenges some of the preconceptions we have, mostly which have developed from movies, TV & even newspapers.
There are a few illustrations & maps but I would have liked more to help break up the text.

One of the most startling elements of this book for the general reader is that it challenges the myth of our own superiority. The tradition version is that we survived & prospered as we are the better suited more flexible branch but you leave this book less certain of this & questioning some of the `facts' you have learnt. Maybe chance had a much larger role than we thought? It is a humbling thought.

All in all, a well-produced & put together general science book - the perfect holiday read if you fancy something different but no less addictive.
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on 20 January 2010
I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone interested in
1) the extinction of the Neanderthal line,
2) the progression from tree living primate to the world-wide distribution of modern man.

I have always firmly blieved that the demise of the gentle and intelligent Neanderthals was simply due to the much later arrival of the greedy, selfish, brutish, bullying behaviour of us; Homo sapiens.
This book has opened my eyes, and unlike many others written on this subject, I have been unable to put it down.
Thank you Clive, for a fascinating, factual, well written, and truly informative piece of work.
Money really well spent.
Thank you once again.
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on 17 July 2013
This book is largely an attack on the author's professional colleagues masquerading as a book for the general reader. He complains that palaeontologists generalise on the basis of very limited evidence, often confined to the single site they have spent years working on, and then proceeds to do the same himself. Generalisations are swept and hobby-horses are ridden into the ground. As for the supposed disappearance of the Neanderthals before modern humans appeared, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". This is the kind of science which Lord Rutherford had in mind when he observed that "All real science is physics; everything else is stamp collecting". If you want a balanced account of the current state of Neanderthal studies, save your money and look in Wikipedia.
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on 24 April 2014
Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch

The recent finding that there was mating between Homo sapients and Neanderthals, as proven by the retention of some Neanderthal DNA in humans of European and Asian descent, stimulated quite a number of books on the Neanderthals, all of them necessarily quite speculative as there are few remains from which their ways of existance can be deduced. And the Neanderthal genome project, however impressive, surely cannot tell us how they thought. But what I really find disturbing are hints that humanity has much to learn from the deminse of the Neanderthals.

Finlayson's book was written before traces of Neanderthal DNA were discovered in humans, which the author just had time to mention in the Preface. But this does not impair the quality of the book as a whole. It is well written and in some respects critical of then widely accepted views, such as on the "brutishness" of the Neanderthals, which is all for the better. But I find it hard to escape the impression that this book, as many others, is overinfluenced by contemporary concerns with climate change, however justified by themselves. His basic proposition that climate changes with which the Neanderthals could not cope resulted in their demise (and not conflicts with Homo Sapiens, as was widely thought) cannot be proven and requres, therefore, more reservations than offered by the author.

This applies all the more so to hints relating to the future of homo sapiens. The author, as many others, does not adequately recognize the radical break in the evolutionary continuity of our species caused by the advanced in science and technology, including on "human enhancement," with all their in part inconceivable potentials for better and worse (as discussed in my recent book).

Thus, Finlayson states "domestication is not a complete break with the past but rather a continuum of increasing human intervention from predation to genetic engineering" (page 203). This is incorrect. Synthetic biology constituting a radical break with the past, similarly to nuclear bombs not beilng a continuation of arrows and bows.

The author well states that "Most designs, perhaps all, given enough time, no matter how perfectly matched to the present they might be, will one day be confronted with the spectre of extinction" (pp. 209-210). But the dangers facing the existance of humanity are in the main the paradoxical products of its own ingenuity, with science and technology providing self-destruct capacities control of which requires radical innovations in human values, feeling and institutions - which may or may not be within our potentials. Tthis is an unprecedented challenge. I do not think there is much that can be learned on it from the history of the Neanderthals.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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on 12 May 2016
A really good book about human evolution. It was an interesting read and contained a lot of ecological points to our more recent evolutionary history as opposed to some of the other more anatomical and anthropological arguments to our species "success" that other books tend to contain. I am glad i read it.
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on 10 January 2014
I had high expectations, which have gradually diminished. The English is often quite irritating - poor punctuation such that I found myself having to re-read sentences quite often. His use of personal words rather than the normal is a bit annoying. It needs heavy sub-editing - it is repetitive and often confused and confusing. It is very well researched in some areas, and weak in others -- the Neanderthal DNA in homo sapiens is a case in point. I had expected a "neutral" treatise, but in fact it is just as biased as many others.

Having said that, there is lots of intyerest. The whole process of mankind spreading out, the Ice Ages and other climatic aspects is very illuminating, and some interesting materials on life styles. It is not the definitive book however, not very well illustrated, and ultimately I found myself not really wanting to pick it again.
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on 7 December 2013
This is in the form of a lengthy and often very repetitive argument. If you want a book that gives a popular and accessible account of the main points of interest rather than a laboured treatise, this is not the book for you.
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