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A nuanced portrait of Neanderthals encourages empathy and understanding

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Bloomsbury Sigma
400 pp.
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Over the past several decades, many academic and popular writers have attempted to narrow the long-entrenched gulf between humans and Neanderthals, focusing, for example, on the misinterpretations and racist presumptions of the 19th and early 20th centuries out of which the dim view of our evolutionary cousin arose, or on more recent paleoanthropological, archaeological, and genetic evidence suggesting that they interbred with our ancestors and displayed a range of sophisticated behaviors. In her new book, Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes nevertheless brings something new to this discussion.

The book’s scope is impressive, spanning from the initial discoveries and interpretations of Neanderthals to the diverse aspects of their biology and behavior, including their childhoods, lifestyles, technologies, art, and approaches to death. All of these individual components are beautifully detailed, combining overviews of state-of-the-art evidence with parallels from everyday experience, which frame the interpretations and challenges inherent in the data in more familiar terms.

A recurring perspective in Kindred is that diversity can and should be expected in Neanderthal behavior, given their existence over hundreds of thousands of years and their vast geographical range. The culture of groups separated by space or time would likely have seemed just as foreign (had they met) as it does when we encounter unfamiliar cultures today, argues Wragg Sykes. “Those living in Wales would have been surprised—even turned their noses up—at what others of their own kind from Palestine consumed with relish,” she suggests, for example, about the population’s varied food cultures and preferences.

Wragg Sykes evaluates the available evidence on Neanderthals with empathy and even-handedness, revealing the group to be less “them” and more “us.” She rejects aggression-centered narratives that have previously shaped our interpretations of Neanderthal interactions with each other and with human ancestors, and she convincingly argues that we must recognize the potential role of other characteristics, including cooperation, sharing, and social bonds, in shaping their lives.

Wragg Sykes takes a similarly considered approach in discussing why Neanderthals went extinct. Rather than framing the question in terms of winners and losers, or superior and inferior species, she evaluates modern humans and Neanderthals in parallel, comparing the successes and shortcomings of each. While it is true that Neanderthals are the ones that went extinct, our story is not one of unmitigated success, she notes. Modern humans did not successfully settle in Europe until long after we evolved in Africa and reached Asia, for example, and those earliest modern humans in Europe were eventually replaced by later waves of migration. Meanwhile, the fact that Neanderthals existed for around 350,000 years hardly suggests failure. We, too, may yet succumb to environmental challenges or bring about our own downfall.

In Kindred’s final chapter, Wragg Sykes tackles broader ethical questions faced in paleoanthropology and adjacent fields, which have recently come into sharp focus. She highlights the problematic ways in which human remains and cultures have been treated in research, arguing that these practices must change and, where possible, be redressed. These are uncomfortable topics to confront, but it is vital that we do so in order to understand the full legacies of the field and to hold future research to higher ethical standards.

She also addresses the possibility of reviving Neanderthal tissues in the near future and the major ethical concerns this could entail, arguing that the recent production of Neanderthal brain organoids (1), together with the unsanctioned gene editing of human babies (2), makes Neanderthal de-extinction not as far-fetched a notion as it may initially seem. Without forcing the point, Kindred closes by returning to the value of empathy and compassion, arguing that both deserve a more prominent place in our theories about Neanderthals and in our attitudes toward our fellow humans and other sentient creatures.

References and Notes:
1. J. Cohen, Science 360, 1284 (2018).
2. D. Normile, Science aba7347 (2019).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3DZ, UK.