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Neanderthals: the history and science of our closest hominin relations – four online talks by Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes

posted on 18/07/22


Over the past three or four decades, advances in science and archaeology have revolutionised thinking about Neanderthals; this series will explore what we know about our ancient relations. We will consider what it meant to be Neanderthal: their vast range through time and space, the many climates and environments they knew, the sorts of foods they ate and the sophisticated technologies they invented and mastered. The discoveries of Neanderthals in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries played a key role within the context of the study of human origins, and little known but fascinating stories of particular fossil skeletons and skulls will illustrate this.

There is growing evidence for Neanderthals having complex cognition and an aesthetic sense, including how they dealt with the dead. We will consider how ancient genetics reveals new understanding and burgeoning proof of interbreeding. The series will conclude with a reflection on what might explain the eventual disappearance of Neanderthals, and what their continuing legacy means for us today.

They take place every Tuesday from 8th to 29th November at 4.30pm (GMT) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (24th January 2023).

Register for the webinar series for £55


The talks 

1. Discovering the Neanderthals: a history and introduction (8th November 2022)

This talk locates the Neanderthals place on the evolutionary hominin ‘family tree’ and their physical similarities and differences to Homo sapiens. It will explore the Pleistocene world, and how Neanderthals fitted into over 300,000 years of dramatic shifts in climate. Long believed to be specifically adapted to extreme cold, today we know their range was far broader. Taking into account the immense geographic area they inhabited – stretching from Wales to Palestine, up into Central Asia and Siberia, it is clear that they were highly adaptable in environmental terms. We will also learn about the history of research, including ‘hidden’ Neanderthals found before 1856, and how changing archaeological methods and discoveries influenced early prehistorians’ understanding of the strange bones that were emerging across Europe.

2. Worlds of possibility: exploring Neanderthal technology and subsistence (15th November 2022)

This lecture delves into the rich archaeological record and reveals Neanderthal minds to have been curious, creative and experimental. It shows how the environments in which they lived produced significant diversity in Neanderthals’ experience as hunter-gatherers. Top hunters of mega-fauna like mammoth, woolly rhino or the extinct horse species Equus mosbachensis, recent research reveals that they also exploited smaller species and plants, depending on the environment. Obvious interest in the quality of their food is echoed in their engagement with the materials around them. Findings from hundreds of sites show that Neanderthals understood material properties, such as how different rock types required varying approaches to produce the tools they needed. The complex question of how Neanderthal lives were organised at the landscape scale will be examined, through patterns in transfers of objects and associations between mobility strategies and different technologies.

3. Minds inside: Neanderthal cognition, aesthetics and mortuary practices (22nd November 2022)

Far from lives centred only on survival, one of the most intriguing aspects of our modern view of Neanderthals comes from growing hints that their behaviour went beyond the functional. This talk discusses the question of language and social life, revealing the potential for an emerging aesthetic engagement with materials, and mortuary practices involving the dead. While standards of proof are justifiably high, a growing corpus of evidence exists for an interest in altering the surfaces of objects, including through colour or engravings. Some Neanderthal remains even show evidence of manipulation, one aspect of what may reflect a social interest in the dead. This includes body processing (butchery), cannibalism and intentional deposition (burial) and marking. This complicated topic will be examined from a comparative perspective, revealing how understanding of Neanderthals has shifted over the entire period of their study.

4. New Frontiers: Neanderthal and Homo sapiens interactions, and the question of extinction

Until only just over a decade ago, one of the few apparent certainties about Neanderthals was the fact of their total extinction, with no contact or interbreeding with Homo sapiens. That picture changed forever in 2010, when the first draft Neanderthal nuclear genome was published, confirming that interbreeding happened and left a genetic legacy in living people. Since then, things have become vastly more complicated, and ever more fascinating, as more genetic samples have become available from Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens, as well as the East Eurasian Denisovans, who are tantalisingly little-known in anatomical or cultural terms. This lecture will bring us right up to date with the latest information drawn from DNA analysis. It will also tackle the ‘denouement’ of the Neanderthals, exploring which factors which potentially played a role in their disappearance as a distinct species, and why.

The speaker

Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Archaeologist, author and broadcaster specialising in human origins. Her PhD, awarded in 2010, was the first full appraisal of the late Neanderthals of Britain for two decades. Her book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, published by Bloomsbury Sigma in 2020, won the 2021 PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize for history and was Current Archaeology magazine's Book Of The Year. Her articles have appeared in The New York TimesThe TimesThe Guardian and she has featured on podcasts, including Science Rules! with Bill Nye in the US, and radio, including BBC Radio 4's Start The Week, Front Row, Infinite Monkey Cage and You're Dead To Me and Radio 3’s Freethinking.

Frequently asked questions

What methods of payment do you accept?

An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

How do I purchase the webinar series as a gift?

Please contact us specifying how many subscriptions you would like and who they are for (we require their full name and e-mail address). We will invoice you directly, and after we have received your payment we will release the webinar joining instructions to your friend(s) or family member(s).

Can I purchase a single episode?

No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

How do I join the webinar?

An e-mail confirmation will be sent to you after you have paid for your subscription, which includes your unique link for joining the webinar. Reminder e-mails will be sent to you one day and one hour before each event. We recommend that you download the Zoom software in advance of the first webinar.

Can I watch the live broadcast(s) on more than one device?

Only one device can be connected to the live broadcast(s) at any one time. If you wish to purchase a second subscription, please contact us.

What happens if I am unable to attend the live broadcast(s)? 

A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series

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