Monday, 3 November 2014

The Neanderthal's Necklace: In search of the first thinkers

The first in his 'Donating my night shelf' series. Stephen Town talks fossils and frostbite, as he donates The Neanderthal's Necklace to the University Library.

Arsuaga, J.L. The Neanderthal's Necklace, in the University Library at XY 9.9 ARS

Image courtesy of
Arsuaga, J.L. The Neanderthal's Necklace, 2003
ISBN 0470851570
It is ironic that in the week I decided to retire I also spent one of the most interesting and stimulating days I have experienced in the University. Amanda Rees’ British Academy interdisciplinary workshop on “Excavating Deep History: establishing and circulating knowledge of human origins” assembled an international cast, but also demonstrated a strength of York in bringing together researchers from different disciplines across the University in a fertile exchange. It was also a personal pleasure to be in the same room as Steve Fuller, but more of him in a later blog …

Photo: Bookshop window by
Garry Knight. Reproduced under
a Creative Commons license
Despite the Atapuerca excavations starting in the first year of my professional life as a librarian (1978), my copy of this book was purchased just last winter, when I was escaping a minus eighteen degree blizzard in London, Ontario on a visit to Western University. The most inviting place downtown for a librarian, and to recover from a frozen face, was of course a bookshop; run as I later discovered by one the University’s special collections advisors. As usual, I could not resist at least one purchase, and in the course of the journey home I had read the book.

The Neanderthal’s Necklace provides a mix of science, speculation and intuition, while endeavouring to describe and locate the origins of our common humanity. So, skip forward to the late summer glow of this University’s Lakehouse room, and I could feel like a well prepared student, rather than an interloper, as the workshop moved on to consider how the science and history of human origins has been appropriated at various points by particular vested interests, and how this remains the case today. Oliver Hochadel talked of the way in which Arsuaga and colleagues have gone well beyond the science, to project and communicate the extraordinary hominid finds at Atapuerca as the Spanish foundations of European society.

Photo: Neanderthal skulls by Leted
Reproduced under a Creative Commons license

The seminar itself concluded with a debate about when we became human, and of course this depends on one’s assumptions about what the definition or paradigm of humanity is, and whether this is congruent or not with consciousness. But anyone as fascinated as I am by this topic will find the Neanderthal’s Necklace a stimulating and moving introduction.

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