While the purpose of the authors is to present a history of archaeology as it relates to the Neandertals, they do so by telling a richly woven story. Their ultimate goal is to show how archeological interpretations are often influenced by the cultural milieu and biases of the scientists doing the interpreting.
The subject of the story is the Neandertals. This biologically distinct and controversial group of humans is sometimes classified as part of our own species, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, or as members of an extinct species, Homo neanderthalensis. They lived from approximately 100,000 years ago until between 50,000 and 35,000 years ago, and were anatomically similar to modern humans, but with an extraordinary physical robustness. Scientists disagree on whether modern humans evolved from them.
The story begins with the discovery of skeletal remains by quarry workers in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. But the authors spend considerable time filling in the background by giving accounts of early scientists such as Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Carl Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier, and Alfred Russel Wallace.
With this background explained, the story them shifts to the interpretation of the fossil bones and the controversy, confusion, and criticism surrounding them and their evidence for human antiquity. The chapters are divided into periods of ten to twenty-five years, and the action ranges from the elite scientific societies of Victorian England and nineteenth century universities in France and Germany to late twentieth century American laboratories. The book also chronicles the gradual discovery of new specimens in sites ranging from Belgium and South Africa to Java and the hills outside Beijing.
The heart of the story told by THE NEANDERTALS is the wild variation of opinions over time and the constant clashing of vested interests and accepted wisdom with empirical evidence and informal guesses.
Who were the Neandertals? Our views of them have ranged from their being non-human and closer to apes, to being depraved, pathological, cannibalistic humans, to being virtually indistinguishable from modern humans, and finally to their being an evolutionary dead end.
In an epilogue, Trinkaus and Shipman give the current view and summarize recent research and findings, discussing the identity, kinship, and nature of the Neandertals.