Sunday, March 1, 2015

Interview with Pat Shipman Author of The Invaders

The Invaders: How Humans and their Dogs drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Pat Shipman. Harvard University Press, ISBN 9780674736764, 288 pages. Cloth, $29.95. Release: March 2015.

From the Harvard University press release:

 “If you want to understand your own mind, read this remarkable and important book. Summoning new evidence, Pat Shipman shows how our coevolution with wolves contributed to the extinction of Neanderthals and further transformed us through the process of domesticating dogs. You will never look at Fido the same way again!”
— Nina G. Jablonski, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University

With their large brains, sturdy physique, sophisticated tools, and hunting skills, Neanderthals are the closest known relatives to humans. Approximately 200,000 years ago, as modern humans began to radiate out from their evolutionary birthplace in Africa, Neanderthals were already thriving in Europe—descendants of a much earlier migration of the African genus Homo. But when modern humans eventually made their way to Europe 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals suddenly vanished. Ever since the first Neanderthal bones were identified in 1856, scientists have been vexed by the question, why did modern humans survive while their evolutionary cousins went extinct?

The Invaders musters compelling evidence to show that the major factor in the Neanderthals’ demise was direct competition with newly arriving humans. Drawing on insights from the field of invasion biology, which predicts that the species ecologically closest to the invasive predator will face the greatest competition, Pat Shipman traces the devastating impact of a growing human population: reduction of Neanderthals’ geographic range, isolation into small groups, and loss of genetic diversity.

But modern humans were not the only invaders who competed with Neanderthals for big game. Shipman reveals fascinating confirmation of humans’ partnership with the first domesticated wolf-dogs soon after Neanderthals first began to disappear. This alliance between two predator species, she hypothesizes, made possible an unprecedented degree of success in hunting large Ice Age mammals—a distinct and ultimately decisive advantage for humans over Neanderthals at a time when climate change made both groups vulnerable.

Interview with Pat Shipman

1. Is it true to say that this new book The Invaders is an outgrowth of many years of research in the fields of anthropology and archeology? Give us some background. 

The original Neanderthal skull, from Germany, was found in 1858 and was the first skull EVER to be recognized as like a human but not human. Neanderthals were, in a sense, the original caveman. Since then, Neanderthals have fascinated professionals and amateurs alike. And one of the most hotly-contested questions is why they went extinct, while our ancestors (early modern humans) lived & thrived in the same place. 

2. When did it come to you that the domestication of wolves played a part in the conquest of the modern human beings over their cousins the Neanderthals? 

In 2009, a Belgian colleague of mine published a really interesting article on how to tell dogs from wolves using sophisticated statistics. Since dogs & wolves today are still so alike that they interbreed, it was a tough challenge. What was especially cool is that the earliest dog she was able to identify was about 32,000 years old, not 14,000 years old as everyone in the field expected. It was a startling result. That started me wondering what the impact would be of having dogs if you were an early modern human. What difference would it make to your life & your abilities? The whole book grew out of these musings. 

3. I believe your specialty has been writing on archeological and anthropological themes for the lay reader. How did that come about? Why is that important to you? What other titles do you have in print?

I have always had a gift for writing and a knack for figuring out how to explain complicated scientific topics for lay readers. I believe, deeply, that a reasonably intelligent person can understand ANYTHING if it is explained properly. Too often scientists and experts forget that everyone doesn’t speak the same specialized language they do – jargon or technical terms – and they simply confuse everyone. Explaining things is telling a story, that’s all. But it isn’t easy to do. As I have developed my own skills as a writer and as a scientist, I have realized how very very important it is to put important ideas before the public in ways they can understand, so that is what I strive to do.

I had to go to Amazon to see how many of my books were still in print. I think it is 14. And they are rather diverse in topic. Recent books include THE ANIMAL CONNECTION, FEMME FATALE, THE APE IN THE TREE, and TO THE HEART OF THE NILE (published in the UK as THE STOLEN WOMAN). 

4. Tell us a little about yourself, and what drew you to this field and keeps you working in it?

I probably live too much in my head, but I am in love with words and ideas. I am devoted to the scientific method of looking for truth. To me, the biggest scientific question ever is: How do you know that? It applies everywhere, all the time. The next one is: what evidence would make you change your mind? If NOTHING could make you change your mind, you are not doing science. 

5. How did you end up in Chatham County? 

When my husband & I retired, we decided we would never see my son & his family (wife, grandkids) if we didn’t move closer to them. (They live in Morrisville.) And much as we loved State College, PA, where we had been living, the winters here were much better – except this one! I am basically a country mouse, I do not like cities, so living in Chatham County suits me perfectly. To my delight, in the last year or year and a half I have finally tapped into the many writers’ groups in this area, so I have friends to talk with about writing. 

6. In your travels these days are you and your husband still working in your field? 

Yes and no. I find I learn something or gain a new appreciation of something almost everywhere I go, even if it takes years to come to the forefront of my mind. My husband has retired more completely than I have, but I love writing books and investigating things & can’t stop.

7. How much new research and writing are you doing in your retirement?

I am primarily writing and not doing much primary research – no excavation, rarely going to museums to see or measure things any more. But if I come across another fascinating subject for a biography (I have written three), or a scientific issue, I’ll go wherever that takes me. 

8. What especially pleases you about this book? 

I love the cover. It is by an artist, Dan Burr, who painted it without any consultation from me but who has created an image that is as I would ask him to draw it. I also like the satisfaction of coming up with a new hypothesis about an old question – why are Neanderthals extinct & we are not? – that made me rethink a lot of information that I and others have been gathering for decades.

9. Are you likely to have other people in your field arguing with your conclusions? 

Of course. I have two main themes in this book. 1) humans are an invasive predator and are best understood as such; and 2) the early domestication of dogs may have been the dramatic change that made us such very successful invaders. Lots of people will agree with the first idea, though it hasn’t been said enough, but lots of people are very resistant to the idea that dogs of some kind (I call them wolf dogs so people won’t think of them as, say, early poodles) have been around for so long. But domesticating dogs from wolves is not like domesticating stock animals like sheep or goats or even horses. Dogs are not food on the hoof; they are companions, collaborators, hunting aids, alarm systems, and much more. Early humans working with dogs is a powerful partnership.


Pat Shipman is a retired Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.

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