Kindred, Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art: a Book Review

Just over a week into 2022, and my definitely not a resolution plan to work through my Birthday and Christmas book stash is going well. I have just finished the first book on the list, Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, which was an excellent start to my post-Christmas reading.

Next on my list I think will be The Man in the High Castle which my wonderful wife bought for me. After hitting a couple of heavy non-fiction books in a row I am looking for some lighter fictional reading (even if it does include Nazis…)

Before I head into book 2, I should probably give you my review of Kindred, because this is a book you need to have on your own to be read pile!

Kindred, Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I first heard about Kindred on The Rest is History podcast when they did an episode on Neanderthals and praised the book in the process. When family and friends asked me what I wanted as a present for Christmas, this book was at the top of the list and I was not disappointed.

Ambitiously covering both our modern understanding of Neanderthals, the lives they lived and their culture, as well as exploring the archeological history of their discovery and the way our modern prejudices have clouded interpretation of the finds, it is incredible Wragg Sykes managed to fit everything into under 400 pages. While I thought I knew a fair amount about Neanderthals, page after page told me I had barely scratched the surface.

As well as covering expected topics when thinking about prehistoric peoples (fossils and stone tools), Kindred also explores more tentative or speculative conclusions about Neanderthals including hints at culture, death customs and art. Wragg Sykes is careful to both hypothesise only as far as the data will allow and to offer the range of potential explanations for the data when multiple conclusions can be drawn. To produce an academically rigorous text which is also enjoyable by a lay audience is quite a skill.

What I really liked

  1. Clearly well researched, the book gives a detailed exploration of everything we know about Neanderthals (and what we are still to understand) but delivered in a style which remained engaging throughout.
  2. The book is wonderfully illustrated, from the artwork at the start of each chapter setting the scene, to the figures dotted throughout the text. While used sparingly and kept as simple line drawings, they are all the more impactful for it.
  3. The chapter on genetics was a particular highlight, succinctly reminding me of the lingering genetic markers some of us still have of Neanderthal ancestors. The genetics of Humans, Neanderthals and other hominids is a complicated mess, yet Wragg Sykes has managed to write in a way which I think is approachable to the average reader.
  4. And finally while the book is an exploration of the scientific understanding of Neanderthals, it does not shy away from the very real lessons which can be drawn about our own society and some of the pressing dangers we face today. Of course you cannot make direct comparisons between Neanderthals and our modern world, but important themes can be explored which are to a degree applicable to us and Wragg Sykes is not afraid of writing as much.

The less good bits

  1. I only really have one gripe with this book; the epigraphs. Every chapter starts with a short piece of prose (which I assume Wragg Sykes wrote) and I could not see the point of them. If anything they distracted from the text which holds its own well enough. If (when) you do read Kindred, I’d suggest missing the epigraphs and get straight into the good stuff.

Summary

Kindred is a fantastic, readable, impressively detailed and clearly laid out exploration of all things Neanderthal. Whether you are an Neolithic novice or prehistoric professor, there is something for you in this book which will leave you in awe of both our ancient cousins as well as the incredible conclusions science can draw from just the smallest scraps of evidence.

I suspect every reader will take something different from Kindred. For me, I wonder if it is time to stop calling ourselves humans. There is no doubt Neanderthals were as much humans as we are. Perhaps it is time we consider ourselves Sapiens instead!

Have you read Kindred or got it on the TBR pile? What did you take from the book if you have read it? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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