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Athena Review  Vol.2, no.4:   Neanderthals Meet Modern Humans

Book Reviews

The Last Neanderthal: The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relatives

by Ian Tattersall.

Boulder CO, Westview Press 1999. 208 pp. with 103 color photographs, 4 b/w photographs, 2 maps, 24 illustrations and 10 tables. ISBN 0-8133-3675-9. $25 (paperback).

As a longstanding scholar in the field and an expert on human evolution, Ian Tattersall has put together a very appealing account of the issues surrounding Neanderthals. Filled with over 140 different tables, maps, illustrations and photographs in bright, vivid colors, this book is an engaging reference source that places as much emphasis on showing the evidence as it does on describing the theories.

Tattersall is a proponent of the “out of Africa” hypothesis, as he repeatedly admits to the reader. One of the implications of “out of Africa” is that Neanderthals are a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis) from anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens), and they never interbred. For anyone who may be engaging in the field of paleoanthropology for the first time through this book, and for those who are as yet unfamiliar with the intricacies and complexities of evolutionary theory, this work’s approach to “out of Africa” vs. “multiregionalism” may point too simplistically to the author’s predetermined conclusions.

A major achievement of the book is its multifaceted approach to the complex subject of Neanderthals, aiding one’s understanding of both the field of paleoanthropology in general and of these specific fossil hominids. Starting in the second chapter with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which states that all organisms gradually change over time, Tattersall then describes “Evolutionary Synthesis,” the microscopic workings of natural selection through shifts in genetic frequencies. Finally, he brings up Niles Eldredge’s and Stephen Jay Gould’s more recent theory of punctuated equilibrium, by which organisms change not gradually, but through rapid spurts.

Tattersal 's chapter three provides clear explanations for processes of fossilization, and the many dating methods used in archaeology, including electron spin resonance, thermoluminescence, uranium series dating, carbon-14 dating, and faunal comparisons. A brief overview of major tool traditions (Oldowan, Acheulean, Mousterian, Aurignacian) is also included.

In the fourth chapter, Tattersall provides an overview of hominid evolution from Ardipithecus ramidus to Homo ergaster, H. erectus and H. heidelbergensis in light of his views of human evolution and technological developments. The remainder of the book concentrates on the Neanderthals, describing the history of their discovery and process of their acceptance by the scientific community, the climate and overall ecology within which they lived and thrived, and the sophistication evident in their culture. However, he argues that the latter was not nearly equal to that of Homo sapiens.

The achievement of combining these substantive issues with clear explanations of basic methods of paleoanthropology and many high quality photographs and figures makes The Last Neanderthal a useful, content-rich book for anyone interested in a subject often too oversimplified for the general public.

Abridged from Athena Review, Vol.2, no.4 (p.87).

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