Book Review

Click to buy

THOMAS WYNN & FREDERICK L. COOLIDGE. How to think like a Neanderthal. xii+210 pages, 13 illustrations. 2012. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-974282-0 hardback £16.99.

Review by Beccy Scott
The British Museum, London, UK (Email:

Scott image

My heart lifted when I first opened this book; Wynn and Coolidge, from the outset, have achieved what so many of us fail to do as Palaeolithic archaeologists—trying to reply to the questions about Neanderthals that people really want answered. The authors engage with such fascinating questions as whether Neanderthals told jokes, what their dreams might have been, and what their personalities were like, the types of question that we might ask of any new friend. Not only is the subject matter gripping, but the style is engaging; reading this book feels more like a cosy chat in the pub than an academic text, and it challenges us to consider new lines of enquiry in the same way.

The first three chapters begin to build up a picture of Neanderthal cognition using the nuts and bolts of Palaeolithic archaeology: hominin fossils, faunal material and stone tools. Cognitive archaeology has always sat a little uneasily with me; I am neither a neurosurgeon nor a psychologist, and never feel that I have the tools to pull apart the assertions that my less circumspect colleagues are so keen to import from these disciplines. Wynn and Coolidge infer particular cognitive and personality traits based on generalisations about Neanderthal lives, suggesting that their tough lives encouraged a stoical attitude, perhaps, and that instances of care for the elderly or injured reflect a compassionate nature. This way of proceeding I found most compelling in the chapter dealing with expert knowledge and stone tool production; it is here that their approach is mostly closely tied to direct archaeological evidence, and they offer some intriguing speculation as to the nature of apprenticeship and skill acquisition.

However, the authors could not be accused of letting the facts get in the way of a good story; particular interpretations of headline sites (La Cotte de St Brelade on Jersey, Shanidar in the Zagros Mountains) are reiterated as fact, and generalisations about Neanderthal lives inferred from these. Suggestions about the nature of the Neanderthal mind are then extrapolated from these; certainly a popular book is not the place to rehearse the existential angst of the Palaeolithic archaeologist, but I do worry that at times rather too much certainty has crept into the text. Similarly, generalisations about modern human cognition, presumably based on a similar body of debated literature, are presented as facts. For instance, modern human sleep patterns are presented as monolithic—a single long sleep period of about 8 hours. Sleep patterns actually vary enormously cross-culturally and according to life-stage (as any nursing mother will testify!).

And so it is that as the authors turn to consider more esoteric aspects of Neanderthal cognition and personality, they move further away from the archaeological record—from family structure (chapter 4), through symbolism and spoken language (chapters 5 and 6), to jokes, dreams and 'personality' ( chapters 7 to 9). This last aspect I find particularly problematic: we would not consider describing a standard modern human personality. How, then, are we to generalise what the personality of all Neanderthals was like? Here specific incidents are invoked to stand for the whole group of people; for example evidence of cannibalism at Moula-Quercy in the southern Rhône valley is used to suggest that all Neanderthals were pragmatic. Whilst this exercise is light-hearted in tone, I worry that, when read by a non-specialist, such observations quickly become translated into 'fact', especially when overlain with the scientific veneer of psychology.

The informed archaeological reader may, however, choose to set aside, for a while at least, his or her scepticism; we know that uncertainties underwrite all our conclusions, and Wynn and Coolidge actually challenge Palaeolithic archaeologists to consider the inaccessible in novel and intriguing ways. The authors have done so, and in the process they have written a rattling good yarn, one in which Neanderthals are, for once, the heroes, and not the fall guys.