Review: Wynn and Coolidge, How to think like a Neandertal

Wynn, Thomas, and Frederick Coolidge. 2012. How to think like a Neandertal. New York: Oxford University Press.  224 pp.

Reviewed by Summar Saad (Wayne State University)

With so many false representations and stereotypes floating around about the Neandertals, it’s difficult to know what is fact and what is myth. Armed with minimal archaeological evidence and their knowledge of primates and modern hunter-gatherers, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge attempt to reconstruct Neandertal cognitive abilities, sometimes very indirectly, based on their diet, hunting strategies, and technology. While the book is an exercise in speculation, Wynn and Coolidge treat the Neandertal story in an engaging, witty way that rethinks the notion that modern humans are light-years apart when it comes to their cognitive abilities.

Wynn and Coolidge begin by examining the skeletal remains of recovered Neandertal fossils to recreate the Neandertal image – big-brained, stocky, muscular, barrel chested – and illustrate the rough lives they lived based on their injuries and likely causes of death. By doing this they are able to deduce three personality traits that Neandertals possibly exhibited: 1) tenacity or dogged perception, 2) wariness, and 3) love (p.20). Throughout the rest of the book, Wynn and Coolidge continue to build on these personality traits, growing the list to nine, to include unimaginative, dogmatic, and even xenophobic. Central to their discussion is their evidence of the “Caveman Diet” and stone tool technology. In showing what kinds of game Neandertals hunted and how, they are able to ask how they thought and planned. What follows is a thought experiment, in which Wynn and Coolidge tease apart the cognitive functions necessary in negotiating landscapes and setting up ambushes, which they argue require long-term memory, communication of tactical information, and a working memory.

In chapter 3, “The Zen and Art of Spear Making,” Wynn and Coolidge discuss the Neandertal spears which employed two important techniques: stone knapping, to make the famous “Levallois point”, and the hafting or gluing of the spear point to the shaft. The knapping technique they employed, in which they prepared a core in a way that would allow them to knock off a triangular flake, they argue, requires embodied cognition or thinking through the stone. “For an experienced artisan, tools are extensions of perception, and hence extensions of the mind” (p.57). Following an in-depth discussion of technical thinking and mastery from blacksmithing to music to sports, Wynn and Coolidge assert that modern technical thinking is very similar to how Neanderthals thought through their stone tools. Neandertals, however, apart from using glue to assemble their spears, did not innovate like modern humans, perhaps partly because of their lower working memory but more likely because of social networks, which Wynn and Coolidge argue, were not effective for the social transfer of knowledge and expertise.

From chapter 4 onward, the discussion takes an even more speculative turn. Making inferences about cognitive abilities based on known hunting and technology strategies are one thing, but making them about family life, humor, dreaming, and personality is a whole different matter. Their analysis of Neandertal symbolic life and language is somewhat less presumptuous. While there is evidence for minimal corpse burial, the use of fire, and the presence of ochre and manganese dioxide possibly used for coloring something, Wynn and Coolidge conclude that Neandertal life was not immersed in symbols (p.121). They also conclude that Neandertals did in fact have speech, as evidenced by their expanded Broca’s area in the brain as well as the presence of the human FOXP2 gene found in DNA sequencing. However, their language was much different than modern language in that it was situated in task-relevant contexts with limited productivity. Wynn and Coolidge end by inviting the reader to imagine what life might be like for a Neandertal living in a period dominated by modern humans and a modern human living with Neandertals. The outcome, we can only speculate, does not look very promising for modern humans.

It’s fascinating to think that Wynn and Coolidge’s conclusions of Neandertal life came simply from knowing where Neandertals lived and traveled, the tools that they made, what game they hunted and how, and how they buried their dead. Sometimes Wynn and Coolidge voyage so deep into a single story you almost forget that it’s mostly conjecture, and that Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. Despite this, How to think like a Neandertal is an entertaining read that does offer some interesting perspectives on what the cognitive abilities of our shared ancestor homo heidlebergensis might have looked like. It also provides a useful methodological approach through which to examine cognitive archaeological questions for which we do not have all the evidence to answer. Aside from this, there seems to be no evidence to back Wynn and Coolidge’s often-frustrating claims about the behavior and culture of our prehistoric cousins who lived between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #10 | Doug's Archaeology

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