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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > March-April 1998 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

Old Europe

Jan Simek

The Neanderthal Legacy: An Archaeological Perspective from Western Europe. Paul Mellars. xix + 471 pp. Princeton University Press, 1996. $75.

Over the past two decades, professional and public interest in the origins of modern humans has been stimulated by a dizzying array of new discoveries, methodological innovations and polarized debate. Central to this interest are the Neanderthals, an early human population that lived around the Mediterranean between 130,000 and 28,000 years ago. Much debate has centered on whether or not Neanderthals, widely thought to be early members of the Homo sapiens species, were ancestors to modern human populations. Stunning new work, however, by molecular biologist Svante Paabo (Cell, July 11, 1997) suggests that Neanderthals are genetically quite different from modern human populations and may not be members of our species. In this context, Paul Mellars' wide-ranging and complex book, The Neanderthal Legacy, could hardly have been produced at a more opportune time.

Mellars synthesizes an enormous amount of information about Neanderthal behavior as observed in the archaeological record from Western Europe, where thousands of sites have been excavated. Thus, even though he wrote the book before Paabo et al. published their findings, Mellars still addresses the fundamental questions raised by the new molecular research: Was Neanderthal behavior similar to or different from that of early modern humans in the same area? How did they adapt to the changing Ice Age environments? How did they organize their economies and societies over time? Concentrating on data obtained in modern excavations, Mellars provides a glimpse of how archaeologists seek to understand past behavior and respond to these questions.

The Neanderthal Legacy is divided into 13 thematic chapters. The environmental context of the Neanderthal archaeology in Europe is discussed in Mellars' clear synthesis of the sometimes discordant paleoenvironmental data. Neanderthal stone tools are covered from various perspectives, with a thorough discussion of their manufacture. Mellars goes on to detail how Neanderthals acquired raw materials (which reveals how their groups moved over the landscape and illuminates certain aspects of their ancient economies), their actual modes of production and how the distribution of stone tools inside individual archaeological sites allows the definition of production-activity areas. He addresses morphology, use and typology of tools and the taxonomy and chronology of stone tool industries and puts forward his own view on the sequential appearance of various techno-typological periods during Neanderthal times in western Europe.

Mellars also discusses ancient subsistence—how Neanderthals got their food—and in particular the issues of meat eating, butchering techniques, scavenging versus hunting and competition with other carnivores or other humans. Here again, he gives a fine critical synthesis of recent research and discusses what we can learn from looking at the distribution of sites over the landscape and, more generally, at what the distribution of artifacts within sites can teach us about activities, group structure, etc. These chapters provide a picture of what we now know about Neanderthal social organization and the small family groups that were the foundation of their adaptations. The significance of artifact assemblage variability (differences we see among the contents of different sites) is the subject of chapter 10, in which Mellars presents the primary, sometimes contradictory, explanations proposed since the 1950s with an admirable objectivity. Chapters 11 and 12 treat Neanderthal culture and spirituality in order to define evidence for continuity or discontinuity between Neanderthals and early modern humans. In the final chapter, he presents, with care and objectivity, the quite variable perspectives on the relation between Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens advanced by various scholars over the past 20 years.

The Neanderthal Legacy, based on ample and detailed documentation, constitutes an important work of synthesis. It raises important questions to which the archaeological community (along with biological anthropologists) must respond. Now that aspects of biological evolution seem to be resolving, the ball is cast into archaeology's court for refinement and detail. One critical aspect of future research must center on the relation between behavior and biology in the human past. For instance, we know that Neanderthals and modern humans both lived in Europe between about 40,000 and 28,000 years ago. How did they interact (if at all) during this period? Can we detect differences in past behavior that represent measureable selective advantages held by one early human form with respect to the other? Only archaeology can define what ecological similarities and differences might have existed between Neanderthals and modern humans that resulted in the continued existence of one and the genetic disappearance of the other as argued by Paabo and colleagues.

With this book, Mellars has given us the tools to begin to consider these issues and has illustrated the need for more work, with modern methods and techniques, directed to their resolution. Those interested in early human evolution and prehistory, along with professionals, will find here much fruit for reflection concerning one of the most important subjects in modern archaeology. The Neanderthal Legacy is an impressive and important piece of work, and Mellars is to be congratulated for his fine effort.—Jan F. Simek, Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

 

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