I picked this up in Waterstones recently, knowing that it would be my kind of thing. Ancestry; pre-history; our shared humanity: I love all that.
The more I learn the more I want to know. Roots, beginnings, of where we came from, and how.
I sometimes think of myself sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery. In the chair opposite is a man from Africa. Or a man from China. Or maybe a woman from the Philippines. They might not particularly look like me, in fact they’d look quite distinct from me. But whoever it is we would still be connected. They would still be one of us.
But just imagine if the person sat in the chair was a Neanderthal. Could you get your head around the fact that he’d be other? Not us at all?
Of all the hominid species that we know of (so far), it’s the Neanderthals that capture the imagination the most. Maybe perhaps because of how, in some ways, they were quite similar to us, or maybe more so because of how recently (in comparative terms) they fell away.
Though you could say (spoiler alert-even before picking up the book) they never fully did.
I’m only sixty-odd pages in and it’s great writing for a layman like me, not dry at all, with the start of each chapter instilling a sense of wonder in both our origins and shared beginnings.
Each chapter is headed by a drawing, and I love this image, from Chapter Two, of us reaching out to our maternal line, a line that snakes off into the distance, beyond memory, photograph and record. Taking unknown directions while holding maybe the odd recognisable trait, going that far back that even the stars above have shifted position.
Elsewhere Sykes writes:
We are the embodied heritage of all our mothers. The predecessors of your eyes focusing on these words first saw light over 500 million years ago. The five dextrous fingers moving these pages have clutched, grasped, scrabbled for 300 million years. Perhaps you can hear music, or a recording of this book right now; that ingenious triple-bone ear structure began listening for sounds of love and terror while we scuttled beneath saurian feet. The brain processing this sentence had ballooned almost to its current size by 500 thousand years ago, and was shared by Neanderthals.
I hope that’s whetted your appetite. Now I’m logging out of City Jackdaw to begin chapter four, reading newly written words while looking far, far over my shoulder into the distance behind me.