The Invaders: How Humans and their Dogs Drove Neanderthal to ExtinctionThis bo…

The Invaders: How Humans and their Dogs Drove Neanderthal to Extinction

This book written by Pat Shipman is of an interesting family: those written by academics after retirement in which they dare explore contentious ideas more openly than they might have while building their career except during drunken conversations with colleagues and this tome does not disappoint. As an anthropologist studying the question she brings in the usual multidisciplinary gamut of evidence that characterises modern archaeology, with the added ingredient an ecological element, namely invasive species science and their consequent trophic ecosystem cascades, pointing out of course that the ultimate invasive species is us, even though we appear on no official UN or other list of such.

After an introduction to the historical overlap between Neanderthal and modern man and a couple of chapters covering the development of our knowledge and views of the subject over the last couple of centuries, including recent redating work that throws into question the reliability of current views of the interaction of us and our cousins in Southern Spain some 30 thousand years ago. She moves on to a discussion of invasive species ecology and the various reactions ecosystems can have to different kinds of changes, focussing on the top down effects when a new top predator appears. The first is the elimination or restriction of the competition (with modern data of the changes in Yellowstone since the wolf was reintroduced including a new lower stability of the elk population and a drastic lowering of coyote numbers), and she brings up archaeological evidence that as well as food animals early humans (and not Neanderthals) were big on hunting other predators, whether consciously as direct competition for the same resources or less so in order to obtain furs etc.

The next section covers the migration of modern humans around the globe and the politically contentious probability that wherever we arrived we hunted everything larger than a large deer into extinction quite rapidly, culminating in new Zealand in the 1200’s CE (the physical evidence of this series of megafaunal extinctions is hard to argue with). As an aside I’d offer the likelihood that the much praised stewardship of the land of native peoples worldwide developed as a reaction to having to make a living in a deeply impoverished ecosystem once it was too late to go back on their past deeds.

She next examines the different theories for the extinction of Neanderthal man, pointing out that despite their relative rigidity (less rapid evolution in lithic products and greater seeming conservatism in diet) they had still survived several spells of climate similar to the changing one that supposedly wiped them out as the globe entered a period of instability at the beginning of the last Worms glaciation (roughly 40-20,000 years ago). She posits that the main difference was the appearance and spread of modern man, and shows that no securely dated remnants of Neanderthal exist younger than about 20Ka. Population analysis on sites in France also revealed how Cro Magnon sites show faster population growth to Neanderthal ones, implying that we outbred them and amounted to enough competition to push them over the edge into disappearance. She also delineates evidence that human pack hunting was much more efficient than the Neanderthal version, based on analyses of remains in dwelling and kill sites.

She then cuts into another angle, the sudden appearance in large swathes of Eastern Europe and Ukraine/Belarus/Russia of large scale adult mammoth killing, resulting in villages of houses made form mammoth bones and contributing to the disappearance of the once largest ecosystem on Earth: the Mammoth Steppe (see She then offers the possibility, supported by cranial analysis and genetic evidence that man domesticated wolves earlier than thought, and that their presence may have tipped the ecological edge to give us a crucial advantage, both against our prey and our competition. The mammoth killings and the vanishing of several other types of predators roughly coincide in time with this proto domestication that she advances.

Whether her hypothesis proves correct or not, the evidence she advances makes a convincing case, and the book overall was a fascinating journey of exploration into the current state of knowledge on the topic combined with a novel ecological approach that I found very convincing, and borne out by evidence from many other places on Earth. In some ways this process we started when we moved into Europe to meet our cousins there only ended with the slaying of the last Aurochs in Poland sometime in the 1600’s.


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Image credit: 1, Neanderthal skeleton: Ryan Somma 2: wolf, unattributed cc on pixabay 3: Mammoth bone house made from real fossils as per excavated versions for an exhibition: Nandaro 4: Vincent Lit