The Humans Who Went Extinct : Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived, Paperback

The Humans Who Went Extinct : Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


Just 28,000 years ago, the blink of an eye in geological time, the last of Neanderthals died out in their last outpost, in caves near Gibraltar.

Thanks to cartoons and folk accounts we have a distorted view of these other humans - for that is what they were.

We think of them as crude and clumsy and not very bright, easily driven to extinction by the lithe, smart modern humans that came out of Africa some 100,000 years ago.

But was it really as simple as that? Clive Finlayson reminds us that the Neanderthals were another kind of human, and their culture was not so very different from that of our own ancestors.

In this book, he presents a wider view of the events that led to the migration of the moderns into Europe, what might have happened during the contact of the two populations, and what finally drove the Neanderthals to extinction.

It is a view that considers climate, ecology, and migrations of populations, as well as culture and interaction.

His conclusion is that the destiny of the Neanderthals and the Moderns was sealed by ecological factors and contingencies.

It was a matter of luck that we survived and spread while the Neanderthals dwindled and perished. Had the climate not changed in our favour some 50 million years ago, things would have been very different.

There is much current research interest in Neanderthals, much of it driven by attempts to map some of their DNA.

But it's not just a question of studying the DNA. The rise and fall of populations is profoundly moulded by the larger scale forces of climate and ecology. And it is only by taking this wider view that we can fully understand the course of events that led to our survival and their demise.

The fact that Neanderthals survived until virtually yesterday makes our relationship with them and their tragedy even more poignant.

They almost made it, after all.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 288 pages, 5 black and white illustrations and 1 table
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Popular science
  • ISBN: 9780199239191



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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

Review by

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 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.

Review by

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 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.

Review by

Basically a book that criticises making concrete judgements on the little data we have available, and then makes some of his own, which is kind of how a lot of this works, so no surprise there. On the technical side, I found his style off-putting: it seems to suggest an intentionality and directionality to evolution that does not exist. Overall, the basic thesis is interesting: that climate and chance drove human evolution, and determined which branches of the evolutionary tree survived. That's accepted when it comes to other animals, but in humans we do tend to make arguments about Neanderthals being stupider than humans, etc. And yet, put me in the environment the Neanderthals thrived in, and I'd have a lot of trouble, too -- and here I am with bits of paper I can show you to prove my intelligence by our standards.I did find some things funny, like Finlayson's self-righteous little comment about people in their comfort zones pretending to care about people in less fortunate conditions and doing nothing. He's writing for Oxford University Press -- that glass house he's sitting in is <I>very</i> conspicuous.(Probably this irritation is somewhat prompted by the fact that I am one of those people in my comfort zone. On the other hand, I tithe a portion of my income to various charities, and give up significant chunks of my free time to charity work. I don't think Finlayson's research does as much good for the human condition, in the grand scheme of things. For all I know he donates all the proceeds of this book to charity, but still, he also flies all over the world doing his research and spends his time writing books like this. There's a place for that, but you'd probably best not be making disparaging comments about your likely readers while you're sat in that place.)