Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an archaeologist and science writer, attempts to make Neanderthal life comprehensible by explaining with great joy and verve the current state of research and the conclusions that can be drawn from it. She makes the case that Neanderthals did not match the cliché of dumb brutes, but instead underwent major developments and were capable of immense adaptation during their existence of roughly 300,000 years.
However, there is a major problem with the book almost from the start, and that is basically the subject matter itself. As fascinating as the Neanderthals are, and as much as has been found out especially in recent years, we still know very little about them and their way of life for certain. This, for example, leads to very long sections that deal with lithic tools and knapping because there are a lot of finds and corresponding research results on these topics. These parts are so detailed that they can become tedious.
Many aspects dealing with social conditions, on the other hand, are based only to a small extent on hard scientific facts and more on logic and deductions. This leads to a somewhat strange mixture of fact and (possibly) fiction. Their disappearance some 40,000 years ago remains a mystery about which can only be speculated, as do many other aspects of their existence, but new finds and the ever-improving methods of science, some of which are explained in this book, will no doubt uncover more secrets in the not too distant future. At the beginning of each chapter there is also an additional short and somewhat cheesy text, a bit of “purple prose”, which is supposed to make the whole topic more accessible I guess, but I generally found them to be out of place in this type of book.
This sounds like a lot of criticism, but it is still a very good book, especially for those interested in the topic and the current state of research. The author is obviously someone with great expertise, and she presents the subject with an enthusiasm that is infectious to the reader. It would have been a great book if the writing had been more consistent and the editing tighter to make up for the difficulties presented by the lack of hard evidence.