April 13, 2012

Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived" by Clive Finlayson

This is a terrific book, and one that I highly recommend.  Let me see if I can do the book any justice with my efforts at producing a meaningful review.  I work with endangered species and degraded riparian ecosystems along a large river system in the American Southwest, and I very much appreciated Clive Finlayson's incorporation of the environmental and ecological aspects associated with his portrayal and description of human origins.  In Finlayson's The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived he takes great care to deftly weave together the latest information about paleoclimate conditions, the paleoecologies, and the paleoenvironments of the regions that were occupied by our hominin ancestors.  Broadly speaking, Finlayson's tale is an "Out-of-Africa" story, and that is as it should be in my humble opinion.  The Out-of-Africa model associated with modern human origins really does seem to make the most sense when held up to the existing fossil, archaeological, environmental, biological, and genetic evidence and data that is so aptly described by Finlayson in this fascinating account. 

The important take-away for me upon finishing this excellent book was two-fold.  First, we--modern humans--are incredibly lucky to even be here today.  Little differences here or there over the past 75,000 years and it is very likely that Homo sapiens would be just as extinct as other human species, like the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).  Second, climate-change was the big game-changer over the six or seven million years of human evolution, and it was the ability to rapidly react and adapt to these swings in climate and ecological conditions that made it possible for some human populations to ultimately succeed while many others did not.  This is a lesson that we need to pay careful attention to now.  Just because humans occupy the planet now really is no guarantee that we will still be here twenty millenia from now.

There's a lot of information in this book, and much of it is quite thought-provoking.  I can honestly say that I am just a little bit sad too, that our incredibly long-lived close cousins--the Neanderthal peoples--are extinct.  Somehow I think the planet is just a little bit lonelier without those people who lived here for hundreds of thousands of years in great harmony with their environment.  It seems simply amazing to imagine that there was a fairly long period of time where Neanderthal peoples and modern humans actually occupied the same regions and probably even competed for the same resources in the day-to-day struggle to survive.  This is a great and grand story, and in my continuing quest to more fully understand my own human origins I am so glad to have encountered and read Finlayson's superb book, and to now have it on my shelf to go back to periodically.


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