If a book can be “hot” in the world of paleoanthropology, then Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is that book. Published in the fall of 2020, Kindred is the latest in a long line of books about Neanderthals, but anyone who has read Kindred knows that it is not like the others.
What sets Kindred apart from its predecessors is that it is told not through the lens of discoveries, names, and numbers, but of emotionally understanding who Neanderthals were. Sykes does not only want to bestow you with facts about Neanderthal migration or tool-making techniques. She wants to help you shed your idea of them as wholly other and instead see them as capable, thinking people worthy of our admiration. She wants you to be able to picture yourself there with them, knapping a tool from flint, hunting horses, or sleeping around the fire, tucked in furs. One of my favorite ways that Sykes does this is her introduction to each chapter, poetically written scenes that force you to see Neanderthals as alive, active, and warm, not long-dead fossils found among rubble.
This brings me to one of my only criticisms of the book. I’m sure this is merely personal preference, but at times the imagery in these scenes made me squeamish. I could tell that Sykes enjoyed explicitly depicting scenes of Neanderthals hunting, down to the dirty details of slicing through fat (she really likes the word “fat” in imagery) to sucking marrow from bones. It really does paint a picture of Neanderthal life, but what I’m learning is that they were much less afraid of butchering animal carcasses than I am.
My only other criticism is that there were a few chapters that got into more detail about Neanderthal tools, diet, and migration patterns than what I can really retain. This makes me think the book may be aimed for readers who are a little more academically in-depth on Neanderthals than I am. I found myself skimming through some of these middle chapters, making notes every few pages on their big ideas.
After these, though, I really enjoyed the last third of the book; it went more into possible Neanderthal social lives, child rearing, funerals, and those always-nagging allegations of cannibalism. It turns out that we don’t know anything with the assurance that we always crave, but the uncertainty can be exhilarating. And luckily for us—anthropologists and casual students alike—we are beginning a decade that, thanks to the advances in molecular studies and the technology used to excavate (or re-excavate) sites, will surely bring a wealth of knowledge to our many unanswered questions.
In my interest in paleoanthropology, Neanderthals have always taken a back seat. This might be because Lucy was the first book I read in the field, or because I was mystified by the idea of the australopiths as the “missing links” between Homo sapiens and other apes. But the more I want to learn about our ancestry, the harder it is to avoid the Neanderthals. Due to their relatively recent run on Earth, we simply know more about them than we probably ever will about Australopithecus afarensis or its contemporaries.
Kindred was a welcome window into Neanderthal life, an ode to our cousins that are simultaneously living in our DNA and forever lost to us. Sykes not only helped me to better see Neanderthals, but she helped me to see the world through Neanderthal eyes. For that, I am grateful.