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The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived [Paperback]

Clive Finlayson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 11 2010
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.

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Review from previous edition: "Informative." --Ewen Callaway, New Scientist 07/11/2009

"A provocative new book." --Sharen Begley, Newsweek 29.10.09

About the Author

Clive Finlayson is Director of the Gibraltar Museum and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. He is an evolutionary ecologist with a DPhil from the University of Oxford. For the past fifteen years he has combined his ecological work with birds with leading an international multidisciplinary project that has focused on excavations of the Pleistocene caves in Gibraltar, especially Gorham's Cave, recently confirmed as the site of the last Neanderthals on the planet. His previous publication was Neanderthals and Modern Humans: An Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective (CUP, 2004).

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Out of Africa! March 12 2010
By Peter R. Smith TOP 1000 REVIEWER
If the history of our species interests you, then this is a must read. The author obviously has a wealth of knowledge and a fascinating story to tell. We didn't stay bottled up in Africa and then suddenly break out and spread around the world. There were instead a number of excursions of different proto-humans, each of which thrived for a while before dying out. Although the title suggests that the book is largely about Neanderthals, they actually play a fairly minor role, taking up only a fraction of the book. As it turns out, the author's opinion is that there was little, if any, contact between Neanderthals and other human groups, but I won't spoil it by telling you why they eventually died out.

It is the kind of book that leaves you wanting to know more and ready to read about the next discovery. If I had a complaint it would be that the I often got confused, some timelines, maps and family trees would have really helped, so it does require concentration. But it was well worth the time and effort.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
By Stephen Pletko TOP 50 REVIEWER

QUESTION: why are we here and not the Neanderthals?

(Note that the Neanderthal or Neanderthal Man is an extinct member of the "Homo" genus that is known from ancient specimens found in Europe and parts of western & central Asia. In modern nomenclature, Neanderthals are either a subspecies of modern humans or a separate human species.)

ANSWER: we clubbed them over the head, of course.

Actually, as this book reveals, the answer is not this simple. As the author of this slim but comprehensive book tells us:

"The answer is actually a series of answers and, even though we are much closer today than we have ever been to resolving the question, these answers are incomplete."

Who is the author? The author is evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson. He is the Director of the Gibraltar Museum and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. (Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located at the entrance of the Mediterranean, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar.)

There are two main problems with this book. First, it can be tedious in parts. Second, it is rather light on its central topic. The title and preface suggests we are going to be reading about Neanderthals. Actually, one chapter is mostly about them, and they're mentioned repeatedly throughout the rest of the book. I had the feeling of waiting for the Neanderthal bit to come but never quite reaching it.

This book's subtitle is more illuminating: "Why Neanderthals died out and we survived" with an emphasis on "why...we survived."

It's worth ploughing through the tedious parts to get to this book's good parts because Finlayson can be very engaging. The story the author has to tell is also engaging and interesting.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Makes some good points, some flawed points Sept. 9 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book starts by challenging the popular theory that humans moved out of Africa in one big wave, killing all other competitors as they went. And that's where they author goes wrong. He makes a caricature of his opponents, claiming that they believed in an inherent superiority of the human species and nothing else mattered. Now there may well be anthropologists who believe that. But there can't be many educated ones who do. It's not that simple. There were multiple waves and geography matters. As did chance. That is Finlayson's argument, but it gets tainted by his overzealous challenge to what appears (to me) to be a straw man argument. Beyond that, he makes a few errors of his own. So let's look at his main points:

1- Ecology played a major roll in human evolution. THE major roll. Well, that's what I would expect from someone who has spent his life studying ecology and fossils. Or at least someone who did that and never bothered to read much else. Of course ecology matters. Humans never would have evolved in the early Triassic when oxygen levels were low, or if Africa was covered in ice by some freaky ice age. Of course the availability of habitats made an important difference for humans and neanderthal alike. But the environment is only part of the story. I think common flies are pretty happy pretty much no matter where they end, as are cockroaches. Where humans equally adaptive generalists? Certainly. So variable ecologies was probably a strength, not a weakness for humans. Why it wasn't so for neanderthals is not well spelled out here. The author repeats the "dogma" that they were too big and clumsy to adapt to new environments at the same time as he argues that they were superb generalists in their environment and perhaps just as smart as humans.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clear and well argued March 31 2014
By Gayle Gibson TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book covers all the usual material while examining the 'usual' assumptions about these ancestors in a fresh and serious way. Well-written, thought-provoking.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book March 16 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Excellent book, written by an expert in the field. The book tackles complex subjects such as anthropology, evolution, archeology, and an overview of the history of the geological and climatic changes that helped shaping the life on earth in different geological stages. Yet, it was written in a way to make it easy to read even for people with no previous exposure to those subjects.
It was highly engaging from the start till the end, and I liked its emphasis on the role of climate in shaping the human evolution, as it has a great relevance in this time of accelerating climate change.
The book will take you through the journey of the human race through history till the current time, at the same time giving you all the tools and information you need to try to follow the trajectory into the future.

Highly recommended.
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