11/15/2009 03:11 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Book Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct

One hundred and fifty-three years ago, in a quarry in the Neander Valley in Germany, quarry-workers stumbled on a strange skeleton. Local experts called it the skeleton of some diseased person, or maybe the bones of some foreign soldier (a Cossack?) who died on the spot in the Napoleonic War fifty years before. The skeleton remained a mere curiosity until similar bones were found in other places in Europe (and later also in Asia). The time was ripe. Darwin and his theory of evolution started making headlines three years after the find in the Neander Valley, and before long the bones were recognized by anthropologists as both human and not-human, a kind of human that came to be called the Neanderthals (or Neandertals).

So what happened to them? The fate of the Neanderthals of Europe and Western Asia has preoccupied our imaginations for more than a hundred years. Except for the religious fantasists who propose with no evidence that humans suddenly appeared on the planet five or six thousand years ago, every literate person on Earth understands that humans evolved from earlier creatures. The current idea in anthropology is that the Neanderthals had at least 200,000 years of successful adaptation to the various climates of northwestern Eurasia -- and then it appears they suddenly disappeared between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, quickly replaced by modern humans.

The details are in science -- anthropology and the sciences relevant to it. Since anthropologists tell the human story based on available evidence, one can expect the story to change in minor ways from generation to generation as bits and pieces of bones and tools and geologic surroundings are carefully dug out of the ground and analyzed. Anthropology is the branch of science that studies the history of Man as a biological species, and what the anthropologists tell us is usually infinitely more important and interesting than anything coming out of the heads of fantasists or political pundits of the Right and Left.

The story of Man on Earth is not emphasized enough to our children. Our unique American intellectual tragedy is that of all Western countries we have the largest percentage of people who propose that modern humans essentially descended intact from the clouds (maybe by some celestial parachute floating down from Heaven). That's what The Descent of Man means to such fantasists. The proposal is not far from the idea that our planet is as flat as a pancake and resting on the backs of four turtles, one at each corner, the turtles half-asleep as they swim slowly through the Cosmos.

Physical anthropologists, the people who study human fossils (more than 400 Neanderthal fossils have been discovered), travel easily in geologic time. The rest of us too often forget that the proper time-frame for understanding humanity is maybe 20 million years: 10 million years in the past to 10 million years in the future. Prognosis is problematic, but one thing may be certain: in only a million years they will collect our skulls and call us Early Man.

But for us now, in our own era, the Neanderthals are Early Man (or Early Pre-Man), and knowing about them is like knowing about the early childhood of our species. Truly, knowing about our early childhood is essential to knowing what we are.

So we have the question: What happened to the Neanderthals? It's a puzzle in the human story. Clive Finlayson is a biologist and anthropologist who spends his days digging out Neanderthal bits and pieces in a cave in Gibraltar -- Gorham's Cave -- a cave believed to be the last Neanderthal site on the planet. The Neanderthals went extinct, and Finlayson has written a fascinating new book about what may have happened.

Finlayson also has some electrifying ideas about what will happen when our own civilization will suffer apparently inevitable economic and social collapse. He writes as follows:

"And when it all comes tumbling down, who will survive? There is enough in our story to suggest it will not be those of us in the comfort zone, the auto-domesticated slaves of electricity, motor cars, and cyberspace, who would not last more than a few days without supporting technology ... The innovators will once again win when the rapid and powerful perturbation that will be economic and social collapse, generated by the conservatives themselves, will ironically mark their own downfall. And evolution will take another step in some as yet unknown direction."

Strong words -- an apocalyptic vision that puts a chill down one's back. But a book that makes you think remains one of the reasons to get up in the morning. Have a look at this one.

[Clive Finlayson: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived. Oxford University Press, 2009]