Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

I’ve been fascinated by human evolution for a long time, so Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ new book Kindred was a must-buy for me. Subtitled Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, it’s an up-to-date, wide ranging, in-depth look at everything we know about the Neanderthals as of spring this year.

As the author observes, following a decade of new discoveries – mostly in the field of genetics – this new decade is shaping up to be a good one for our long lost cousins. The author covers everything Neanderthal – discovery, fossilisation, site mechanics, species assessment and reassessment – before heading off into fields needing more nuance and interpretation: love, death and art. The chapter on death is particularly good. Sykes is a keen observer, stating probabilities where that is necessary, elsewhere unafraid of giving her own personal interpretation. The impression is of an author on top of her material, possessed of humanity, experience and insight.

The book overall is well written, albeit with a tendency for an occasional lapse – poor puns, for instance a particularly jarring dental one. Also the footnotes which litter the first half of the book become irritating quickly. These notes, most of which are incidental if not irrelevant, should have been numbered and relegated to pages at the back of the book. But overall, the style is okay.

I very much liked the author’s reassessment of the terrible masculine lapses of earlier archaeology. Not for her a male, Western view. The end of the book is a highly commendable look at how Neanderthals skills, minds and lives should be assessed from a human vantage, not a male, white, Western one. Non-Western hunter-gatherer individuals have for instance reinterpreted archaeological evidence, and in fact have found new evidence simply by looking at Neanderthal sites with “new” eyes.

An excellent book, highly recommended.