The Smart Neanderthal is an important work which aims to reappraise Neanderthal hunting abilities, their grasp of the natural world, and their cognition and ability for symbolic thought. In the majority of cases the author is not only convincing but should be congratulated for knocking down some of the crude mistakes and generalisations made by earlier anthropologists and archaeologists. I do have some reservations, however.
The misleading strapline is: bird catching, cave art and the cognitive revolution. There is plenty on bird catching, almost nothing on cave art, and little on the cognitive revolution. However, unlike other reviewers, I don’t have a problem with the emphasis this author places on the natural world. Such emphasis is vital.
Essentially, this is a book which does not knock over prevailing views of the cognitive revolution, but which does almost as valuable a service in clearing away absurd black-and-white generalisations about the Neanderthals (especially their hunting skills) in favour of something much more nuanced and accurate, which the author provides by way of his decades of bird watching experience.
His main thesis is that we have to understand the Neanderthals via natural history. Across Europe, Neanderthals lived in very different environments and had very different diets, so they must be understood on this basis. The book spends a lot of time detailing bird species, their distribution, their distribution in confirmed Neanderthal sites (notably caves in Gibraltar, which Finlayson has spent decades excavating), and their habits. All of this is vital, albeit a tad long-winded. The main point of this book is to open our eyes to the variety of food sources many Neanderthals had access to, which the author does superbly.
Linked to this is Finlayson’s other main point, that the Neanderthals were the same as us cognitively. He rightly opposes earlier, cruder interpretations, and gives his own speculation, all of which is welcome. But here I think there is not enough supporting evidence. The material on feather colour and raptor talons is absolutely fascinating and will surely stand as a testament to Finlayson’s work, but the evidence for symbolic thought like ours seems slight. Of course, as is noted, lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.
My main worry with this second strand of the book is that speech and anatomy evidence suggests a qualitative difference in cognitive ability, not a quantitative one. As Lieberman & Crelin showed in their ground-breaking work, Neanderthals would have had great difficulty or been unable to pronounce the [i], [u] and [a] vowels, in addition to being unable to pronounce g and k consonants. The inability to pronounce [i] is particularly significant, since it is used in all human language as the main intelligibility marker. In addition, Neanderthal speech would have sounded nasal compared with ours. All these factors limit the ability (unconscious in all modern humans) to recognise the formant frequency of heard speech, which reduces speech capacity. Neanderthals undoubtedly had complex speech, but they would not in my opinion have been so exceptional as homo sapiens. This, to me, seems a qualitative difference not a quantitative one, acting against Finlayson’s hypothesis that there was effectively no cognitive difference between the two species.
Having said that, this book is significant, valuable and well worth reading. The author’s skill and experience in understanding birds translates well into his archaeological work, bringing a deep new insight into Neanderthal life. This emphasis on placing the Neanderthals into their environment is particularly brilliant – a welcome new aspect to our understanding of human origins.