The Neanderthals, Denisovans and many others once shared Earth with us. What happened – and where are they now? Archaeologist Tom Higham has written a great insider account
24 March 2021
ASK any well-informed human living up to 40,000 years or so ago if they were the only intelligent being around, and they would have answered, “No”. That is because at that (geologically) recent time, our ancestors would still have been sharing Earth with several other human groups. In a very real sense, we were not alone.
Today we are. The Neanderthals who roamed Europe and western Asia are long gone. So are the Denisovans of east Asia, the “hobbits” of Flores Island in Indonesia and many more. Who were they? What were they like? What happened to them?
Archaeologist Tom Higham at the University of Oxford tackles these questions in his first book for a popular audience, The World Before Us: How science is revealing a new story of our human origins. It is a slightly misleading main title because Higham barely discusses the world before Homo sapiens emerged about 300,000 years ago: you won’t find Lucy or any other ape-like australopithecines. But he does deliver on the subtitle, with a fascinating insight into groups belonging to the same Homo genus as us that lived alongside us for much of their existence.
Higham has been involved in many of the biggest discoveries in human evolution in recent decades. A specialist in dating methods, he helped trace the Neanderthal extinction, studied the mysterious Denisovans, who are mostly known from DNA extracted from bone fragments, and helped push back the date H. sapiens arrived in the Americas.
“When it comes to what happened to groups like the Neanderthals, Higham wisely embraces nuance”
The book gets off to a shaky start, as the opening chapters are overstuffed with unnecessary detail that isn’t immediately explained. For example, Higham repeatedly mentions nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, but doesn’t explain them until chapter 5 – although at one point there is an apologetic footnote directing readers to that part.
However, once past these bumps the book settles into a lively groove. Higham devotes whole chapters, sometimes multiple chapters, to each extinct hominin group. He packs in startling discoveries, impressive insights and the occasional debunking of a foolish idea.
Higham’s personal involvement means he has lots of good stories. He vividly describes Denisova cave in Siberia, Russia – where the first traces of Denisovans were found – along with its adjacent field camp.
There are also thumbnail portraits of the scientists involved. A highlight is Higham’s account of the discovery of Denny, a girl who lived in or around Denisova cave, with a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. One of Higham’s students, Samantha Brown (now at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany), spent weeks testing bone fragments before identifying one that belonged to a hominin.
Higham reproduces the flurry of excited, expletive-ridden texts he sent after being told the news. The reader gets a real sense of what it is like to “do” science as Higham emphasises Brown’s boring, reward-free slog before she finally struck pay dirt.
When it comes to the perennial question of what happened to groups like the Neanderthals, Higham wisely embraces nuance and complexity. It is unlikely there is a single explanation for the extinction of such a group as widespread and adaptable as the Neanderthals – and conservation biologists tend to find that species experience a multitude of threats.
For groups like the Denisovans, of whom we have barely any remains, he refuses to commit himself at all. He knows it is too early to make a big claim about what happened when we don’t even know the extent of their range or what they looked like.
In any case, many of them haven’t entirely gone. Thanks to interbreeding, the DNA of Neanderthals and Denisovans lives on. In our genes, at least, we still share the world with them.
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