Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: The Humans Who Went Extinct

Something that I’m sure I’ve mentioned on this blog is that I’ve always been fascinated by the origins of our species. To me, the scientific origins of our species are far more interesting than the biblical one, and I always keep an eye out for the discovery of new species that may help enlighten us further on the evolution of humankind. At one point, there were multiple human species roaming the Earth but unfortunately we are the only one that managed to make it to the present day. Something that we’re all guilty of is believing that because we are the only human species left, that we are somehow superior and species such as the Neanderthals inferior and stupid. Today, this is seen as a huge fallacy as research has shown time and time again that they were pretty much equal to ourselves in terms of culture, society and many other metrics. One of the books that I feel was instrumental in changing this perception was The Humans Who Went Extinct that was written by Clive Finlayson and published in 2009. I recently read this book and I thought I’d share my thoughts on it with you.

First of all, despite the fact the book is a little dated (we’ll come back to that later), it gives a compelling account of the evolutionary history of humans. This also includes factors such as ecology as well as providing information on palaeoclimate. This synthesis of information also draws upon the existing fossil, archaeological, environmental, biological, and genetic evidence available to Finlayson at the time. and data that is so aptly described by Finlayson in this fascinating account. Something that struck me reading the book is that we are the product of a number of extraordinary lucky events. If the wind had blown in the opposite direction, it could very well be the Neanderthals sitting here trying to figure out why we went extinct. Whilst there isn’t too much looking into the rise and the fall of the Neanderthals, Finlayson does look at the bigger picture and helps to show that climate change was the biggest cause of extinction (or survival) in some human populations of various different species. With these changes in climate came changes in the ecology and habitat of certain areas which made survival hard if a woodland habitat completely disappeared and reverted to savannah within a human lifetime.

There is a lot to take in from this book and ultimately, it is quite sad that the Neanderthals aren’t with us any longer, except they are. One of the things that Finlayson didn’t quite get right (not even Darwin got everything spot on), was that there was no breeding between us and Neanderthals. Evidence published since Finlayson’s book, has shown that some of the genes of Neanderthals live on in humans, with varying ethnic groups having more or less than others. Given that there was a fairly long period of time where both peoples occupied the same regions at the same time, this isn’t surprising. But back in 2009, we had no idea this was the case so I can’t fault Finlayson there. Palaeoanthropology has moved so far ahead since the publication of The Humans Who Went Extinct that I suspect that there are some other inaccuracies contained within too, but as this isn’t my field of research, I haven’t been able to pick them out as easily. I would love to know how the new human species that have been discovered in the past decade and a bit, fit into the puzzle of this book, such as the Denisovans. Overall the book is superb although I personally thought it took a while to get going, if you’re interested in human evolution and the origin of our species then this is a book for you. If you do give it a read, please let me know what you think.

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