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19Dec

Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes review – a new understanding of humanity

In this impressive reassessment Neanderthals emerge as complex, clever and caring, with a lot to tell us about human life

Homo sapiens’ relationship with our long-lost relatives the Neanderthals has undergone a lot of rethinking since our relatively recent reintroduction in 1856. Until then, three years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, we had no idea that they existed. Thanks to the Parisian anatomist Marcellin Boule, who “inaccurately reconstructed” a skeleton in 1909, the popular image of them has been of an ugly creature with a stooped spine and a “decidedly ape-like” appearance. Now, a blink of an eye later, we know that many of us – at least, those without sub-Saharan heritage – carry between 1.8 and 2.6% Neanderthal DNA. So it’s reassuring to read that these people whose genes we share were not the brutish caricatures of Victorian myth, but complex, clever and probably caring individuals with a lot to tell us about human life.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes has studied their landscapes, territories and tools and emerges as an expert and enthusiastic character witness for Neanderthals and their way of life. In Kindred she looks at their “life, love, death and art”; and in the light of the fascinating evidence that is painstakingly presented here it seems likely that they had sophisticated tools, built home environments, art and ornamentation, family structures and possibly even “a richer culinary world than ours”. There is even evidence that they tidied up. Neanderthals probably didn’t have PR, but they do now.

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