mordicai caeli (mordicai ) wrote,
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Homo superior. (15)

Lone Survivors by Chris Stringer.

Neanderthalis,
(sapiens in red ochre)
In gold pyrite paint.

I had a hard time getting a handle on this book at first, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. My confusion was (& still sort of is) who the intended market is. The first chapter starts off with a bang; big questions, big theories, blammo! Out of Africa! Multiregionalists! Assimiliationists! But then, as an academic, I think Stringer is just used to writing abstracts. It served him well but then the next couple of chapters? Drag on, for no real reason. I don't need to know about how dating works; I either already know, used to know & forgot, or don't care. You can just tell me how old a thing is, I don't need the specifics of Potassium-Argon Dating, let alone a history of the invention of it! The audience is either scholarly enough to know already or interested enough to take your word for it. That being said, it would make a pretty great piece of reading for a course adoption, for an Introduction to Anthropology or a first course in Human History. Though this puppy on your syllabus. I can't be all that mad about it, though, what, you're going to criticize the scientist for having too much rigor? No, go on man, be thorough, I'll just glass over here for a bit! Waiting for the good bits. The nut of this book is one of the things that most fascinates me-- heck, I use the notion for the kernel of the Races in my roleplaying campaign. "What happened to all the other near-human species & why did sapiens crawl out of the dogpile?"

Masters of the Planet by Ian Tattersall had the same premise, but I liked Lone Survivors much more simply because of one specific detail: how both authors talked about Neanderthals. See, I can't help but see the assumption that Homo neanderthalis was deficient mentally & vocally as just anthropic bias. People so eager to discount Neanderthals because, hey, look at the scoreboard. They are extinct, humans are alive, it must be on account of humans being so much whizbang better, right? Well, nah. If you ask me, the question is one of loading the dice, at best. Did humans have an edge? Or did the Neanderthals just roll snake-eyes & crap out? Or-- & this is what I think everyone wants to know-- did humans wipe them out? Heck, did humans just have sex with them till everybody lost track who was sapiens & who was neanderthalis? For a while it was looking like it wasn't a case of interbreeding, which kind of surprised me, since I assume that humans will have sex with anything...but now genetic studies are showing minor chunks of "ancient DNA" kicking around in the genome, giving that old saw new life. I don't think that compromises their status as separate species-- like coyotes & wolves, they can interbreed, & have swapped genes, but they remain distinct. Morphology especially must reign, since all we've got are bones. Hobbits, ancestral heidelbergensis interbreeding, all that jazz-- we're still talking about the same stuff, here. I don't think any of it was sufficient enough to call it "multiregional," but I don't deny the gene drift.

I know nobody asked me, but as long as I'm playing armchair anthropologist, I'll give it a whirl. First off, I think cooking made the genus Homo. In Catching Fire Richard Wrangham makes more conservative statements, but what the heck. I'll go big. From there I think Derek Bickerton's notions in Adam's Tongue make a lot of sense; I think "power scavenging" probably had more active elements to it, but there you go. Up until that point, I think sapiens & neanderthalis were on similar trajectories. Neanderthals were probably more egalitarian & focused on being apex predators, but I think those are qualitative differences, not quantitative. Except maybe when it came to caregiving. At this point I'll turn to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mothers & Others as the aforementioned statistical edge. I think alloparenting might have given humans that smidgeon of advantage. Neanderthals just don't seem to have had...well, grandmothers. I really do think it could have gone either way. Then seventy-five or fifty thousand years ago, there was the Great Leap Forward. I think that represents the point when the linguistic toolkit matured. I think population sizes & cultural cache had developed & that civilizations emerged out of that. I don't think you'll find Klein's mutation, even though I am a proponent of the Leap; I think memes just got into play. Behavioral modernity comes out of that, out of stories & language, out of memory & an enduring cultural toolkit. & if Homo neanderthalis had the same fortune, I think they'd have gotten to some kind of similar revolution.
Tags: anthropology, books, haiku, stringer
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