The prose is a combination of the scholarly and the writerly, combining dizzying amounts of information about different types of stones, tools, bladelets and flakes with sentences such as “Squabbling crossbills and crested tits yielded to crass jays and mellifluous nightingales, until cold mornings saw clattering capercaillies sending breathy vapour into biting air.” The knowledge condensed here is certainly impressive. “The sheer amount of information is hard to process,” Wragg Sykes writes.
Deeply involved in these studies herself, Rebecca Wragg Sykes has performed something extraordinary in distilling them into a commanding and wonderfully readable account. Her success is in leaving us with glimpses of real scenes, of imagined individuals and groups going about their daily lives. We are in the realm of archaeo-ethnography rather than speculative fiction (this is not Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear or William Golding’s The Inheritors); her evocations emerge from behind extensive passages of science. But the effect is surprisingly moving. The only regret is that if progress in Neanderthal studies continues at the same pace, Kindred will, at least in detail, soon become outdated.
Yet it seems we got Neanderthals all wrong. Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s fact-packed but highly readable book puts us right with a superbly authoritative guided tour of much new evidence. It’s tempting to say, “If you read only one book about the Neanderthals, read this one” — except that if the next 20 years provide as many revelations about our ancestors as the past 20 have done, she will need to produce just as weighty a second volume.