Archaeologist and award-winning author Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes delivered the prestigious Humanists UK Darwin Day Lecture 2024 on Tuesday night, on ‘Humanity’s Superpower: Lessons in Community and Empathy from 4 Million to 40,000 Years Ago,’ exploring Neanderthal existence, our shared evolutionary pathways, and what distinguishing aspects of Homo sapiens that make us human.
Chaired by anatomist, anthropologist, and Humanist UK Vice President, Professor Alice Roberts, the lecture was attended by over 1,000 people in-person and online.
What makes us human?
Rebecca’s lecture delved into the world of Neanderthals, shedding light on the intricate connections that bind us to our closest extinct relatives. She urged the audience to rethink the traditional narrative surrounding Neanderthals. Far from being the brutish, simplistic creatures of common misconceptions, Neanderthals were shown to be sophisticated beings with behaviours and capabilities that resonate strikingly with those attributed exclusively to humans.
She highlighted the practice of burying their dead – a compassionate ritual that suggests a level of existential awareness and respect for the deceased that parallels human funerary customs – and showcased the complexity of Neanderthal tool-making techniques, and the use of pigments and the creation of simple jewellery, indicating a capacity for self-expression and perhaps even ‘art’.
The distinguishing factor of early Homo sapiens, Rebecca said, was that their art tended to be much more complex, representational, and abundant. This, along with the migratory behaviours of Homo sapiens, differs from Neanderthals, who were much more isolated. The human story is one of migration and interconnection. The context in which Darwin and his contemporaries would have understood Neanderthal fossils, and how activists such as Samuel Jules Célestine Édouard argued, emphasises how related humanity is today – rather than divided into separate ‘races’.
A story of connection
Rebecca also explored the concept of ‘humanity’s superpowers’ – community and empathy. She argued that humans possess an extraordinary ability for large-scale cooperation and empathy. This capacity for collective action and caring for others outside our immediate circles is part of what sets us apart from other species. This story of interconnectedness, migration, and the human ability for living and creating community spanning millennia, is humanity’s ‘superpower’. However, said Rebecca, we must be careful to not impose a modern narrative of ‘success’ of Homo sapiens over Neanderthals. Some of the earliest genomic evidence from Germany suggests that while huge populations of early Homo sapiens did not leave much of a legacy at all, Neanderthal DNA lives on within us all.
Act for everyone
Following the lecture was an expansive question and answer session, including a question on what we can learn from looking at our ancestry and in the face of new threats of extinction to our species, including from anthropogenic climate collapse. In a fitting end to Humanist UK’s Darwin Day Lecture 2024, Rebecca responded: ‘Humanity, as a global entity, and we, as ancestors, must collaborate as a species for the sake of all.’
Alice Roberts presented Rebecca Wragg Sykes with the prestigious Darwin Day Medal for her trailblazing work, especially in regards to her work, with Trowelblazers, to highlight the contributions of women in archaeology, geology, and palaeontology, alongside outreach activities aimed at encouraging participation, especially from under-represented minorities, and for her work and efforts in science communication, properly rooting modern humans in the context of our earlier Neanderthal relations, and highlighting that while nature and the evolutionary process may well be ‘red in tooth and claw’, it is to nature that we can look for the source of some of our ‘better angels’ – community, compassion, and empathy – too.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:
‘Rebecca has profoundly enriched our understanding of life’s history on Earth. Although evolution is often depicted as a fierce competition, the long story of our species also reveals the roots of human community, compassion, and empathy. In telling this story, Rebecca embodies the essence of our shared, and timeless, humanist values. Congratulations to Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes on being awarded Humanists UK’s Darwin Day Medal.’
About Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes is an archaeologist, author, and public scholar. Now an Honorary Research Associate at the McDonald Institute of Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, and an Honorary Fellow in the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, after her academic research which focused on Neanderthals, ancient technology, landscape and cognition, Rebecca refocused her career towards science communication. Her critically acclaimed first book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art (2020) is published in 20 languages, won the 2021 PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize for history and Current Archaeology’s Book of the Year; was a finalist in Italy’s 2022 Premio Galileo awards, Poland’s Mądra Książka Roku prize, and longlisted in Germany’s Wissenschaftsbuch des Jahres, and was selected as one of the 2021 New York Times’ 100 Notable Books, plus featured in many other listings from the Sunday Times to New Scientist and Bloomberg.
Rebecca’s other non-academic writing features widely, including in newspapers, popular science magazines, and online, and she also appears regularly on a variety of radio programmes, podcasts and live events, ranging from BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week to Glastonbury Festival. In addition, she works as a science consultant with numerous stakeholders from heritage organisations and museums to film and television companies.
In recognition of her achievements in public scholarship and communication, in 2022 Rebecca received the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Public Anthropology Award, and the President’s Award from the Prehistoric Society. Her next popular book, Matriarcha: Prehistory Re-imagined is forthcoming in 2025, and merges her interests in prehistory more broadly with telling the stories of women, the latter reaching back to her role as co-founder in 2013 of the influential organisation TrowelBlazers, highlighting women past and present within archaeology and the Earth Sciences.
About Professor Alice Roberts
Professor Alice Roberts is Vice President of Humanists UK. She is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. She has appeared as a human bone specialist on Channel 4’s Time Team and in various projects on BBC2, including Coast, Don’t Die Young, The Incredible Human Journey, Wild Swimming, Digging for Britain, Horizon, and Origins of Us.
With Andrew Copson, she is author of The Little Book of Humanism, The Little Book of Humanist Weddings, and The Little Book of Humanist Funerals.
About the Darwin Day Lecture series
The Darwin Day Lecture explores humanism and humanist thought as related to science and evolution, Charles Darwin, or his works. The Darwin medallist has made a significant contribution in one of these fields.
The lecture and medal are named to mark the annual global celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin, celebrated each year on 12 February.
About Humanists UK
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 120,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.