A visitor to the Dordogne could be forgiven for thinking that the Cro-Magnons, who arrived in the region some 40,000 years ago, were the area’s first inhabitants. But Neanderthals lived in the Dordogne for approximately 350 millennia before the Cro-Magnon interlopers appeared.
Author Beebe Bahrami worked in the field with archaeologists excavating Dordogne Neanderthal sites for several years, and in her new book, Café Neandertal, she seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of our ancient and enigmatic cousins. She uses the new spelling of the German valley in which the species was first identified in order to distinguish Neandertals, which, evidence shows, were quite intelligent and adaptable, from the stereotypically clumsy and barbaric Neanderthals.
Bahrami relates her own experience learning about Neanderthal culture, which keeps the book readable and lively, interweaving interviews with various experts she meets. Nor is the beauty of the Dordogne lost on Bahrami; she devotes ample prose to the pleasures of present-day southwestern France. I found the book to be an excellent introduction to what we have discovered about the Dordogne’s Neanderthal history. But, as Bahrami makes clear, we will likely always have far more questions than answers.