Book Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct

Occasional contributor Nasa, of Old English translation fame, returns to us with a book review. Like all of Nasa’s work, it is scholarly in both topic and length, and comes with a list of citations for your perusal. Given the size of it, and my desire to keep to a proper odd-Tuesday even-Friday schedule as far as Nathaniel Cannon numbering goes, I think I’ll let it stand for this week’s content. Enjoy! -Fishbreath

Imagine a campfire under a starry sky, and across the little, flickering fire from you, a storyteller. The light of the fire extends only a few feet, and only the closest patch of ground is really distinct; beyond, shadows that flicker with the shifting light of the fire quickly dim off into the vast, unbroken blackness of night in the great outdoors—the great unknown. Whatever may be out there in the vastness, submerged in the impenetrable dark, you can’t see it for yourself, but the storyteller weaves imagination and inference, dotted here and there with references to the few landmarks that you can recognize, perhaps, in the faint starlight, into a compelling narrative about the shape of the land around you, and the reasons why it has come to be so.

Appropriately enough, this analogy of a tiny campfire in the vast darkness of the landscape, and the contents of that darkness filled in by a canny storyteller, is a good fit to the narrative journey which we take under the guidance of Clive Finlayson as he traces the emergence from early hominins of modern humans and modern human society in his recent The Humans Who Went Extinct. The narrative is interesting, compelling, and plausible, carried by the author’s considerable knowledge, inference, and above all, his powerful imagination, but if we ask whether the story Finlayson tells is an accurate description of what lies covered by the vast, thick darkness of deep time, we are forced to admit firstly that it is probably inaccurate in many details and even some of its core points, but moreover and with much greater certainty, that we still do not know. The darkness of time still blinds us almost completely to the enormous majority of our past.

The scale of Finlayson’s book is nothing if not ambitious. He seeks, in a handy and trim 220 pages of prose (in the mass-market paperback, ISBN 978-0-19-923919-1) to trace an arc of cause and effect all the way from the climate-driven expansion of the earliest primates at the dawn of the Eocene, 55 million years ago, to the rise of agriculture within the last ten to twelve thousand. If, as the saying goes, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” then Finlayson takes a step further, rendering a portrait of history as no mere casual rhymester, but as an intensely persistent poet, as a few key notions are brought to bear on situations again and again, all the way from the squirrely eocene ancestors we share with lemurs and capuchin monkeys up to the development of anthropogenic global warming: climate and geography determine history; stressed, marginal populations are better positioned to adapt and expand under changing conditions than their conservative and less stressed counterparts; luck often conquers all. Though I fully believe that Finlayson’s own conception of human history across this enormous swath of time is much subtler and more acute than this, pop-sci books that fly off the shelves because they’re tractable and interesting don’t lend themselves to nuance, and what we find ourselves being told in Finlayson’s volume is not that history has a certain rhyme to it, but that, essentially, the cause for the success of miocene apes is the same as the cause for the success of hominins, or anatomically modern humans, or Siberian big game hunters, and you don’t need to be a career paleoanthropologist to raise your eyebrow at that.

There are two unfortunate results of this: the smaller and lesser of the two is that occasionally Finlayson must allow facts a little more slack than some will be comfortable with (or, more precisely, a little more slack with the question of what is settled fact and what is still debated or speculative), but by far the larger and—to my mind—by far the more unfortunate is that he profoundly neglects honest reflection of the scale of what we don’t know. A single example of the latter may suffice to clarify what I mean.

A large part of the book (though not nearly as large as the subtitle might lead one to believe) is devoted to explaining why Neanderthals went extinct without a trace, while modern humans survived. First of all, though the evidence at the time Finlayson was writing seemed to be leaning in the opposite direction, we now have a much greater certainty that in fact, Neanderthal people didn’t go extinct without a trace at all— they are the ancestors (albeit the minority ancestors) of most human beings on the globe today, contributing a few percent of the heritage of probably all modern people whose background is not exclusively rooted in sub-Saharan Africa (see Racimo et al., 2015; et alibi). In light of this increasing certainty, Finlayson’s explanations for why Neanderthals and modern humans did not interbreed are obviously somewhat embarrassed.

A greater embarrassment for Finlayson’s narrative, however, is the mounting evidence that what has yet to be explained or understood is not the interaction between Neanderthal people on the one hand and our majority ancestors on the other, but rather a history of interaction between an as-yet unknown but certainly larger variety of human and hominin populations: we can now say with some certainty that an otherwise extinct population known as the Denisovans, only slightly more closely related to the Neanderthals than they were to our majority ancestors, recently inhabited central and South or Southeast Asia, and contributed a few percent to the genomes of populations who nowadays live in Australia, Papua, and Melanesia (Reich at al., 2011; Mendez et al., 2012). Beyond the contributions of Neanderthal and Denisovan people to modern gene pools, there is also emerging but less certain evidence for possible contributions from a fourth archaic population in sub-Saharan Africa (Hammer et al., 2011) and a fifth perhaps also in South Asia (Mondal et al., 2016a), although debate continues regarding the latter especially (Skoglund et al., 2016; Mondal et al. 2016b). There is also better certainty now than there was when the book was published that Homo floresiensis is a real taxon, deeply separated from our own ancestry (Argue et al., 2017; Van Den Bergh et al., 2016), although conversely we are now less certain whether they actually ever encountered our recent ancestors face-to-face, although they certainly overlapped chronologically, at least briefly, in island Southeast Asia (Sutikna et al. 2016).

We can take from this that the specific narrative which Finlayson offers of the interaction between early modern humans and Neanderthal people isn’t fully accurate, but that misses the much bigger point: in the less than a decade since this book went to press, our understanding of where our ancestry lies, and how different groups of people or less fully human hominins eventually became our ancestors or became extinct, has been completely up-ended. We can now say that the story is much more complex than we appreciated nine years ago, but does that mean that we understand that complexity well now? Of course we don’t. If we ask how many different types of human existed within the last 50,000 years, or which or how many became the ancestors of at least some people alive today, the only honest answer that can be given is that we don’t know. Where did they live, what happened to them, how did we interact, and why? We have only the vaguest shadow of an idea for some, like Neanderthals, and not even that for others.

50,000 years ago, it seems quite probable or certain that our majority ancestors were wearing clothes, building their homes, and speaking languages that would not be notably unlike those spoken across the globe today; they were biologically indistinguishable from us in all but the finest nuances and details, like lactose tolerance and innate immunity; they made and understood art, they were curious and brave explorers and settlers, given the opportunity, and they were creative and flexible innovators who readily invented or adopted new technologies when faced with new problems, not on the scale of geologic time, but in the scale of lifetimes or generations. That is to say, they were us, in every way that matters and in every way that can be said universally of people alive today. So, can the same be said about the other types of human they encountered? We don’t yet know. We know that they encountered others, and that some of those encounters ended with descendants shared between some of those groups, but we don’t yet know how, or why, or where, or even what people we’re talking about— we now know, for instance, that the people we call Denisovans are among our ancestors, but all the Denisovan bones we have would literally fit not just in the palm of your hand, but in a thimble— two molars, part of a toe bone, and a little dust of what was once a finger bone. We know that all our ancestors, along with those who did not survive, saw their world devastated and changed almost beyond recognition in that time by brutal and repeated climate change, by the fickle tyranny of the seas which have abandoned and reclaimed continents’ worth of land, over and over again, on short notice, and by the end-Pleistocene extinctions, which some of them may themselves have caused, but beyond that we know terribly little. The huge majority of history—of the history of people who were indistinguishable from us except in those ways in which we are equally distinct from one another, and whose actions and choices have lead to the world we live in today —the history of people whose lives were shaped not by the “nasty brutish shortness” of animal existence, but by the forces of language and culture, spirituality and technology— our history— is unknown to us. Finlayson’s book is an informative and an interesting read, but that is the critical realization that you simply will not come away from it with.

Argue, D., Groves, C. P., Lee, M. S., & Jungers, W. L. (2017). The affinities of Homo floresiensis based on phylogenetic analyses of cranial, dental, and postcranial characters. Journal of Human Evolution (30), 107-133.

Hammer, M. F., Woerner, A. E., Mendez, F. L., Watkins, J. C., & Wall, J. D. (2011). Genetic evidence for archaic admixture in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(37), 15123-15128.

Mendez, F. L., Watkins, J. C., & Hammer, M. F. (2012). Global genetic variation at OAS1 provides evidence of archaic admixture in Melanesian populations. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 29(6), 1513-1520.

Mondal, M., Casals, F., Xu, T., Dall’Olio, G. M., Pybus, M., Netea, M. G., … & Bertranpetit, J. (2016a). Genomic analysis of Andamanese provides insights into ancient human migration into Asia and adaptation. Nature genetics, 48(9), 1066-1070.

Mondal, M., Casals, F., Majumder, P. P., & Bertranpetit, J. (2016b). Further confirmation for unknown archaic ancestry in Andaman and South Asia. bioRxiv, 071175.

Racimo, F., Sankararaman, S., Nielsen, R., & Huerta-Sánchez, E. (2015). Evidence for archaic adaptive introgression in humans. Nature Reviews Genetics, 16(6), 359-371.

Reich, D., Patterson, N., Kircher, M., Delfin, F., Nandineni, M. R., Pugach, I., … & Saitou, N. (2011). Denisova admixture and the first modern human dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 89(4), 516-528.

Skoglund, P., Mallick, S., Patterson, N., & Reich, D. (2016). No evidence for unknown archaic ancestry in South Asia. bioRxiv, 068155.

Sutikna, T., Tocheri, M. W., Morwood, M. J., Saptomo, E. W., Awe, R. D., Wasisto, S., … & Storey, M. (2016). Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature, 532, 366-369.

Van Den Bergh, G. D., Kaifu, Y., Kurniawan, I., Kono, R. T., Brumm, A., Setiyabudi, E., … & Morwood, M. J. (2016). Homo floresiensis-like fossils from the early Middle Pleistocene of Flores. Nature, 534(7606), 245-248.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 4

Emma nudged her control stick to the right, settling the Falcon’s nose on a point few hundred yards ahead of the zeppelin. Black puffs a dozen yards to the left, in between her plane and Takahashi’s, signaled bursting flak, but she barely noticed. She nudged the controls with her fingers alone. Almost in range, the Falcon’s gunsight slid onto the engine car. She fired.

Rockets shot forth from her Falcon’s wings, each a flash of fire trailing a pillar of puffy white smoke. She released the trigger after the second pair came free and watched them impact the engine gondola beneath her gunsight. Flung free by the blossoming explosions, the propeller whirled down to the azure ocean below.

Ordinarily, Emma went for the celebratory barrel roll beneath her target when she hit it. Given that the other half of Whiskey flight were, in all likelihood, lining up their shots at the very same moment, she settled for a more conservative hard break away. Looking over her shoulder, she saw flames darting out the windows of Swiftsure‘s other two starboard engine pods, trailing oily black smoke.

“Spot on, Whiskey flight,” she said. “Let’s see if they’ve left us any fighters.”

They hadn’t. The Kestrels, strange though they looked, were the best dogfighters in Inconstant‘s complement, and the skipper put only his best all-around pilots in their cockpits. Two parachutes floated down toward the water, and two life rafts bobbed amidst the waves. Still a few miles away, one of Inconstant‘s Albatross transports dropped from her belly. They, too, were odd aircraft: long, slender wings with two fuselages. The port fuselage was an ordinary tube, with an engine at its forward end and half a tail at its back. A cargo door allowed access to the hold. The starboard fuselage, a teardrop shape only half the length, held the cockpit in its glazed nose, a turreted pair of machine guns atop the wing, and a pusher motor and propeller at its aft end.

This example featured temporary floats bolted on beneath each fuselage, and gamely descended toward the sea to pick up the downed Devil’s Daggers. Captain Cannon had a policy: don’t make any enemies you don’t have to. Emma knew it to be a fairly recent development. It was the reason she was, for one, alive, and part of the Long Nines for another.

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Commentary, Hunt for the Majestic No. 4

A little hinting at Emma’s background here. I want to expand that into a fuller story sometime.

If you purchase (or have already purchased) the e-book edition of Nathaniel Cannon and the Lost City of Pitu, you get access to two origin story vignettes, recounting Cannon’s first meetings with Joe Copeland and Iseabail Crannach. I think they’re good reads.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 3

Emma put the other fighters out of her mind. The Long Nines in the Kestrels’ cockpits knew their machines and knew their game. The skipper spent more than enough fuel on drills and practice to be sure of that. If a Devil’s Dagger happened to slip through their fingers, Takahashi would take care of her.

She could, therefore, focus entirely on her shot. That was one of her specialties; no matter the weapon, she had a knack for hitting her mark. Her Falcon carried eight aerial rockets, which was six too many to knock out the engine car she was assigned to, and that only because they came off the racks in pairs.

The spares would come in handy if there were any fighters left after the Falcons finished their attack run. “Whiskey One here,” Emma said into her microphone. “Split and attack.”

Five clicks came back over the radio, and three Falcons banked away to the right. Emma adjusted her course slightly left. Swiftsure had three engine cars per side, a perfect fit for Inconstant‘s six Falcons.

The two flights advanced on Swiftsure‘s aft quarters, one port, one starboard. If she turned, she opened herself to an attack from one or the other. She went on dead ahead.

In doing so, the Devil’s Daggers stretched out the chase, but not by very much. The Falcon was easily three times faster than even the fastest zep, and only a few minutes went by before the Falcons were in position. By now, Swiftsure‘s fighters were tangling with the Kestrels some miles away off the airship’s stern.

“Whiskey One. Make your runs.” Emma grinned. She loved this part.

The two flights of Falcons turned inward, approaching Swiftsure at about forty-five degrees aft of the airship’s beam on each side. The zep’s captain had to turn now—if he didn’t, he risked all his engines instead of only half of them. Theoretically, at any rate. The Long Nines preferred this sort of attack, and drilled it to perfection.

Emma watched Swiftsure‘s tailfins. The pattern of shadows at the back edge changed, and the airship’s nose swung to starboard, showing her flank to Emma.

Without any specific instructions, the flight coming up on Swiftsure‘s other flank wheeled and reoriented itself for a second pass. Emma pushed her throttle to the forward stop. The engine behind her growled a higher note. “Whiskey One. I have the forward engine,” she said.

“Two, middle.”

“Three, aft.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 2

Emma Foster, in the cockpit in the lead ship in a pair of Falcons, grinned. Decorum be damned. She lived for these moments: careening toward danger, itching for a fight, tearing through the sky in search of the unbeatable rush.

She didn’t tell many others about that motive, though. For all the rest of the Long Nines knew, she was in it for the money. She could hardly deny that the payday was worthwhile on its own. It was a new golden age for piracy; Emma could retire to the Australias a wealthy woman, if she so desired.

Few among the Long Nines knew that, though, and today they all chased fortune. Past her gunsight, outside her windscreen, past the disc of her propeller, two zeppelins grew ever larger. The one in front, Majestic, was a merchantman, formerly British bound to Auckland, briefly a Long Nines prize headed for Darwin, and presently under the control of the Devil’s Daggers, a small-time pirate gang local to the East Indies. Their zeppelin, Swiftsure, was the second in line ahead.

The Devil’s Daggers had broken the rules by taking a Long Nines prize as a prize of their own. Nor were they merely unwritten rules. The Long Nines and Devil’s Daggers both were part of the Brotherhood of the South Seas, whose articles proscribed exactly the course the Devil’s Daggers had charted. The articles also described what the Long Nines could do in response: retake their prize, and disable the zep which stole it.

Emma glanced over her shoulder. Today, she flew a Falcon, her preference. In a fistfight, she had no choice but to use her speed and agility to win. She enjoyed the contrast in the air. The Falcon could take a punch and hit right back.

Rockets hung from their racks beneath her fighter’s wings. She had pulled out the safety pins herself. Further back was Takahashi, her wingman for the day; behind his Falcon were four more, then four Vultures. The ungainly little bombers each slung an aerial torpedo—a little more firepower than the situation called for, but useful in the event Emma and her mates missed with their rockets.

For her part, Emma rarely missed. The zeppelins grew larger before her, and a half-dozen silver specks surrounding them raced toward the Long Nines. Emma looked up to see the Kestrels fall into looser combat formation and tear off to meet the enemy.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 1

The tropical sun beat down on the silver hull of an airship, speeding through the scattered clouds at ninety miles per hour. No name was painted on her skin. Nor was insignia whatsoever, except for two eighteenth-century cannon on naval carriages in silhouette upon her vertical tailplanes.

On a platform set just above the very forwardmost point of her nose, six pirates clustered around a three-inch gun, braced against the wind and secured to the deck by lifeline. Under the direction of the gun captain, two spun wheels on the mount to train the barrel. The captain barked an order, and the rest of the gun crew ducked aside, covering their ears. The captain pulled hard on the lanyard.

The gun bellowed, sending a shell spiraling away. The crew scrambled to reload the gun: one man spun a handle a quarter-turn to unlock the breech and swing it open. Another swabbed the chamber. Two others slid a new shell and a new bag of powder into place.

The gun captain let them work, raising a pair of binoculars to his eyes. He fixed them on two slivers four miles ahead, shining in the sunlight: two zeppelins, running as fast as their propellers could push them. A black smudge appeared between them. He had the range.


One hundred yards aft and forty yards down, Nathaniel Cannon stood in the pirate airship Inconstant‘s control car. He lowered a pair of binoculars from his eyes, revealing a face which, ten years younger, might have graced a recruiting poster. Piercing flinty eyes shone beneath tousled brown hair, only just beginning to show signs of gray. A broad mouth pressed into a line and a strong chin with a determined set to it rounded out his face.

“Joe, how are the engines?” he said.

“Running fine, boss.” Joe Copeland, skin the color of coffee beans, hair cropped short, stood in front of a bank of gauges. “Could probably run them a little harder.”

Cannon shook his head. “No need. We’ll have them in an hour, if that.”


Airplanes dropped from Inconstant‘s belly. First came slender, graceful-looking Kestrels, British interceptors whose lines were only marred by the massive fairing behind the cockpit, where two Bentley radials drove the planes’ twin propellers. With canards forward and wings aft, they looked as though they were flying backward.

Next were the Falcons, heavier fighters of French design, all stubby fuselage and long wing. Sprouting from the latter, a third of the way out from the cockpit on either side, fragile-looking twin tail booms reached aft.

The fighters swirled in chaotic fashion, then organized themselves into pairs and quartets. They turned for the two zeppelins ahead.

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Commentary, Hunt for the Majestic No. 1

We return to the world of the Long Nines for a story set in the traditional home of that infamous gang of pirates: the East Indies. It occurs prior to the Cannon stories published to date, in late 1927. I’ve wanted to write it for some time now, since it focuses on the Long Nines at a time when piracy was a bigger element in their oeuvre, before their transition to more generalized adventurers and scoundrels in the later 1920s and 1930s.

I have a few thrilling new locations in mind, which I’m excited to share as the story progresses. Enjoy!

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Schedule update (again)

You’ll notice a lack of WIPjoy posts and a lack of book review posts. My apologies; one of them is my fault, and the other is my fault for not riding my contributor a little harder.

Regardless of what I get done this week, regular posts will resume August 1st.

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Upcoming schedule

Another month or two passes, and once more, I must leave Sif, Falthejn, and company by the wayside for a while. I’m looking forward to diving back into their ongoing adventures next time I feel like I need a break.

I have a few things planned to round out July. First: WIPjoy posts! Those will happen Friday, and then Tuesday and Friday next week. We’ll round out July with a book review from occasional contributor Nasa, and then charge into August with the Long Nines, featuring in Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic.

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The Continuing Adventures of Sif No. 20

They returned to the Akademi der Luftsmagiker without further incident, though they jumped at every shadow. Or, at any rate, Einar and Lilja did. Sif wasn’t about to try to jump given the battering she’d taken.

When they arrived, Einar rolled the page with the shining hand into a tube and slipped it into his sleeve. “We’ll talk soon,” he said, bidding them good night.

Sif didn’t strictly need the help, but Lilja nevertheless stayed by her side until she had managed the staircase and was safely in her room. Sif gingerly sat on the bed.

Lilja hovered in her doorway. “I don’t like this.”

Sif smiled. “We’re alive,” she replied. “Tomorrow, we’ll tell someone what we saw. That’ll be the end of it.”

“I hope you’re right. Good night, Sif. Feel better.” Lilja pulled the door closed and was gone.

Sif sat in bed for some minutes after she left. Eventually, she came to a decision. Rummaging in her trunk, she found a quill and a sheet of paper. She pulled her chair up to her desk and slowly, laboriously began to write:

Falthejn Arnarsson,

I hope you’re well. We hear next to nothing about the war. I’m settling in well at the Akademi. When you’re in den Holm, you’ll have to meet my friends. Hrothgar, Alfhilde, and Jakob have built a house, and I visit every Halfdanstag. They send their greetings, and told me to invite you to dinner the next time you’re here.

Sif paused, set her pen down, and flexed her fingers. The quality of her handwriting was improving, but it still hurt to do very much of it in one sitting. Unfortunately, she had a lot left to write. She took up the pen and put to paper a description of the night’s events, including every detail she could call to mind.

She set the pen down again, squeezed her hand, and added a coda.

I would appreciate your advice. I don’t know what these magiker were doing under the sign of the shining hand, but I don’t like it, and neither do my friends. We’ve told our master here, Herre Leifsson, but I trust you more than I trust him. Should we be worried? Are we in danger? I look forward to hearing from you, and I hope we see each other soon.

Sif signed the letter, let it dry for a few moments, then folded it and slipped it under her pillow. She would send it in the morning.

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