There is a new essential read for anyone interested in human evolution. An important question in this debate has always been why did modern humans survive and the Neanderthals did not? Personally, I find the topic fascinating. That’s why I picked up the recently published book “The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.” Written by anthropologist and retired Penn State professor Pat Shipman, it makes some interesting arguments. It brings a new perspective to the question of our success over Neanderthals, with a diverse array of evidence from ecology, paleoanthropology, and beyond.
Shipman begins with her assertion that humans are best understood as the most successful invasive species our planet has ever seen. By using the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park as an example, she describes what happens to an ecosystem when a new top predator is introduced. Not only does the new species increase competition for limited resources, the invaders often deliberately target their closest competitors. Fossil evidence suggests this might also have been the case when modern humans moved into Europe. Competing predators like cave bears, cave lions, and ultimately Neanderthals themselves, disappeared not long after our arrival.
But what I found most interesting was the discussion of our relationship with dogs. The book claims those canine relationships can be credited with our ultimate success as a species. It’s possible that Neanderthals were already extinct by the time we domesticated dogs. It is also possible that the alliance of humans and dogs was the final push that sent Neanderthals into extinction. Shipman makes it clear that determining dates for these events is a complex endeavor. Much of this timeline is still up for debate. But it is clear the partnership of humans and dogs gave us a competitive advantage that other predators lacked. Shipman argues that this unique partnership allowed for more effective hunting, provided protection, and was a source of labor that freed up time and energy for other concerns. Ultimately, it cemented our dominance over other predatory species.
If that’s caught your attention, “The Invaders” is a compelling read. Anyone casually interested in the topic will be glad to know it’s written in language accessible to the non-scientist. For those who want to dig more deeply into the source material, the notes at the end of the book point the way.
Whether the hypothesis will hold up in light of future discoveries remains to be seen, but Shipman presents a convincing argument about the final triumph of humans as a species. If the scientific work of the past ten years is any indication, even after nearly two centuries of studying human evolution, we are still only at the beginning of understanding our own past.
"The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction" by Pat Shipman is published by Belknap Press.
Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant at Schlow Regional Library.
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