Oxford £9.99 (273pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Humans Who Went Extinct, By Clive Finlayson

This is one of those books where the cover tells all. It bears a picture of a woman who scrutinises us keenly. She is rough-hewn, dirty and unkempt but obviously intelligent. With a scrub, a hair-do and some clothes, she would not look out of place in a street market, a factory or, indeed, a newspaper office. She is a Neanderthal.

Finlayson's lively, revelatory and salutary book explains that Neanderthals were humans (Homo neanderthalenis), who until 50,000 years ago pursued a long parallel evolution with our ancestors (Homo sapiens). They were "a highly successful people who managed to live in the increasingly inhospitable world of Europe and Asia for over 300,000 years, a lot longer than the period that covers our own time on the planet."

Neanderthals had bigger brains than proto humans and were fierce hunters (injuries found on their bones are similar to those of present-day rodeo stars). They made stone tools sometimes hafted on to poles to make thrusting spears. A "large, tough and intelligent people", they had Europe to themselves for many millennia. When Neanderthals and our proto-ancestors finally met in the Middle East around 130,000 years ago, they had been genetically separated for half a million years. Whether they mated "remains a mystery" but there is no proof of hybridisation.

One difference between Neanderthals and our ancestors is that the latter developed a throwing spear. Finlayson stresses that this does not prove superior intelligence. "Homo neanderthalensis was the product of several hundred thousand years of investment in the ambush hunting tradition within the temperate woodland of Eurasia." For this great gulf of time, their methods worked well. In at least one environment, our ancestors died out while the Neanderthals survived. So why is a Homo sapiens typing these words and not a Neanderthal?

The answer is climate. Finlayson describes it as "the architect that moulded our intelligence, our biological makeup, in fact everything that made us human". When the Ice Age pushed the tundra south, Neanderthals had to cope with new species like woolly mammoth and reindeer. They were tough enough to do this but the lack of tree cover made their hunting techniques redundant. "Serendipity is central to the account" of Homo sapiens, argues Finlayson. We are "a marginal people" who "got lucky."

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