Correcting a Bad Rap

This may turn out to be the year of paleoanthropology for book reviews. It seems as if a year or two ago we had a glut of dinosaur books but now the hot topic has shifted to human origins. In this review I look at a work dealing with my favorite cave man - the Neanderthal - in The Last Neanderthal: The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relatives, by Ian Tattersall. Published in 1995 by Macmillan for The American Museum of Natural History, this hard cover book lists at $39.95 for its 208 pages.

Ian Tattersall is Chairman and Curator of the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was responsible for the exhibit "Ancestors: Four Million Years of Humanity" and the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, both at the American Museum of Natural History.

The Last Neanderthal differs from a previous book I reviewed - The Neandertals by Trinkaus and Shipman and The Neandertal Enigma by Shreeve - in that it is much more illustration oriented than text oriented. The book has 143 plates, most of which present high quality photographs of fossil specimens from virtually every known site. Artifacts are shown in like manner. Also included are line drawings and artists reconstructions. Coordination of the text with the figures is very good. I did find two minor nits to pick with the illustrations, both of which would seem to fall with the editor - Plate 48 reverses the labels for Acheulean and Oldowan tool cultures within the chart and the captions for Plates 125 and 126 are reversed. Both errors are easy to detect but I expect perfection in books of this quality.

The text is well written and easy to understand. I believe the format is ideal for the lay person, especially one who may not be especially familiar with the subject matter. Tattersall covers every bit as much ground as previously reviewed books with admittedly less text. He accomplishes this by presenting his information without going into great background detail or dwelling on technical minutiae.

The Last Neanderthal is organized into ten chapters. In summary: The first chapter defines the Neanderthal anatomically. The second chapter is an excellent narrative on evolution including the prevailing theories - no special cases allowed. Chapter three covers fossil dating methods including atomic dating, relative dating by associated fauna, and cultural dating by artifacts. The fourth chapter delves into hominid evolution prior to the Neanderthals. Historical discovery and interpretations are presented in the fifth chapter. Six describes the Neanderthal habitat - climate, range, and associated fauna. Evolution of the Neanderthals over their 200,000 plus years of existence is the subject of the seventh chapter. Eight presents inferred lifestyles and social structure. The origin of modern humans is dealt with in the ninth chapter. The last chapter briefly presents the possible causes for the final extinction.

Regarding the question of whether Neanderthals could and/or did interbreed with Homo sapiens, Tattersall has a different outlook than did Shreeve in The Neandertal Enigma. Shreeve offered the opinion that they could not have interbred because their reproductive cycles differed. Tattersall contends that whether they attempted interbreeding or not, sterile offspring (if any) would have been produced assuming Homo neanderthalensis is truly a distinct species.

The Neanderthals overlapped modern humans in both range and time during the last 10,000 years of their existence. Tattersall gives somewhat of a dinosaurian slant to their extinction by pointing out that Neanderthals were very successful for a very long time over a wide range of environmental conditions; extinction is inevitable for all species, even well adapted highly successful ones - such as ourselves. His closing comments, in part, stated that "the Neanderthals' strategy simply differed from ours"..."but it is profoundly misleading to see them simply as an inferior version of ourselves."

The Last Neanderthal is a book that I can highly recommend. Tattersall has covered the subject matter well and to a depth that any of us can easily understand. The quality illustrations add a great deal toward this ease of comprehension.

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