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A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 140

Rebecca Wragg Sykes — Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

The common narrative of Neanderthals is that they were a group of dullard losers whose extinction 40,000 years ago was due to smarter competition and a little of interbreeding with our own forebears. Likening someone to a Neanderthal was and, most likely, still is a top-rate anthropological insult. But, in the past few decades, Neanderthal finds have greatly contradicted our perception of the species. In Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes combs through the avalanche of scientific discoveries of the species and uses her experience at the cutting-edge of Paleolithic research to share our new understanding of Neanderthals, shoving aside cliches of rag-clad brutes in an icy wasteland. She reveals them to be curious, clever connoisseurs of their world, technologically inventive and ecologically adaptable. They ranged across vast tracts of tundra and steppe, but also stalked in dappled forests and waded in the Mediterranean Sea. Above all, they were successful survivors for more than 300,000 years, during times of massive climatic upheaval. Shermer and Sykes also discuss:

  • the nature of species and if Neanderthals and Homo sapiens are one or two species,
  • the deep time span of Neanderthals,
  • the wide geography of Neanderthals,
  • how archaeologists work today to discern Neanderthal lives and minds,
  • Neanderthal DNA and what we have learned from it,
  • Neanderthal bodies,
  • Neanderthal brains and minds,
  • Neanderthal tools and what they tell us about their lives,
  • Neanderthal hunting/caloric needs,
  • Neanderthal art,
  • Neanderthal sex and love and social lives,
  • Neanderthal death, burial, afterlife beliefs, and possible religious beliefs, and
  • extinction: what happened to the Neanderthals?

Rebecca Wragg Sykes has been fascinated by the vanished worlds of the Pleistocene ice ages since childhood, and followed this interest through a career researching the most enigmatic characters of all, the Neanderthals. After a Ph.D. on the last Neanderthals living in Britain, she worked in France at the world-famous PACEA laboratory, Université de Bordeaux, on topics ranging from Neanderthal landscapes and territories in the Massif Central region of south-east France, to examining how they were the first ancient humans to produce a synthetic material and tools made of multiple parts. Alongside her academic activities, she has also earned a reputation for exceptional public engagement. The public can follow her research through a personal blog and Twitter account, and she frequently writes for the popular media, including the Scientific American and Guardian science blogs. Becky is passionate about sharing the privileged access scientists have to fascinating discoveries about the Neanderthals. She is also co-founder of the influential Trowelblazers project, which highlights women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists through innovative outreach and collaboration.

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This episode was released on October 27, 2020.

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