Reviews — From the September 2014 issue

The Replacements

New evidence on the old mystery of the Neanderthals

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Discussed in this essay:

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, by Svante Pääbo. Basic Books. 275 pages. $27.99. basicbooks.com.

The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story, by Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse. Thames & Hudson. 208 pages. $29.95. thamesandhudsonusa.com.

Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, by Chris Stringer. Times Books. 320 pages. $28.00. us.macmillan.com.

Human identity turns out to be more complicated than you think, though no doubt you think it’s pretty damn complicated. We carry our evolutionary history in our genomes, and our history is a very mixed record. In recent years, a cluster of scientific studies of ancient DNA — specifically, DNA retrieved from Neanderthal bones — has cast some startling new light on several old questions, such as: What happened to the Neanderthals, who seem to have disappeared from their last European enclaves around 30,000 years ago? What happened to us, about the same time, such that we began painting wonderful art on the walls of caves, developed new methods of tool-making and means of communication, and emerged as the last, most successful form of hominin on Earth? Did we kill the Neanderthals off, did we drive them extinct by inexorable competition, or did we merely arrive by coincidence as they failed? Or, still another possibility, did we subsume them (despite the species “barrier”) by interbreeding?

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’s most recent book, Spillover, was published in 2012 by W. W. Norton. His article “Contagious Cancer” appeared in the April 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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