IT’S NOT EASY to write about Neanderthals. It’s even less easy to write about them well.
For all the scientific research and cultural cachet that surrounds Homo neanderthalensis, our extinct evolutionary cousins live their literary lives through rather predictable tropes. (Cult classics The Clan of the Cave Bear and Quest for Fire have practically become their own caricatures.) Typically, Neanderthals are written as the losing characters in a modern-day Aesop’s phylogenetic fable. We, as Homo sapiens, use the extinction of their species to serve as an evolutionary moral — we won, they lost — as if the evolutionary “success” of Homo sapiens was somehow predestined in the Pleistocene. In this simple sort of story, Neanderthals are a punch line and a prop, but little more. They’re the characters we use as an excuse to talk about ourselves and our own humanity. Writing them any other way presents an incredible literary challenge.
Although we’ve pieced together quite a bit about Neanderthals from the archaeological record — their lives, their environments, their social structure, even their extinction — we’re still working out how to put Neanderthals in fiction in the 21st century and, more important, how to write them as characters with their own agency. We can certainly give Neanderthals authentic, scientific details — we can talk about their red hair, their FOXP2 genes, their hunting strategies, even their abstract thoughts. But to take all of those archaeological and genetic details and then write Neanderthals as the protagonists of their own absorbing tales is no small feat.
Claire Cameron’s latest novel, The Last Neanderthal, does just that, combining extensive, thoughtful research with a compelling Neanderthal-driven narrative. The Last Neanderthal is the story of Girl, a pregnant Neanderthal cast out of her family, framed through the story of Dr. Rosamund Gale, the archaeologist who excavates Girl’s grave 40 millennia later. The two narratives — excavator and the excavatee; human and Neanderthal; present and past — are inexorably intertwined and neatly juxtaposed with authentic details and captivating characters. The Last Neanderthal could easily be the first of a new, compelling genre of prehistoric fiction.
Neanderthals have sparked the curiosity of Homo sapiens for over 150 years. Since their discovery in west-central Germany’s Neander Valley in 1856, Neanderthals have been cast in scientific research, as well as in literature, as the evolutionary Other — the species that simply couldn’t make an evolutionary go of it due to its own technological or cognitive shortcomings.
Other Pleistocene hominin species don’t invoke the same curiosity or obligation of narrative that Neanderthals do. We don’t seem to have the same popular, scientific, or cultural fixation with the Denisovans, Homo georgicus, or Java Man that we do with the Neanderthals, like Old Man of La Chapelle. The non-Neanderthal Pleistocene species simply don’t command the same narrative prestige that Neanderthals do; consequently, these other Pleistocene hominins don’t serve as the evolutionary mirrors we’ve made Neanderthals out to be.
However, over the last century and a half, the perception of Neanderthals has undergone a massive image makeover. Thanks to decades of careful scientific research, our understanding of Neanderthals has transformed from brutish, cave-dwelling troglodytes to a species that shares more and more “human” traits with us Homo sapiens. (The flip side is also true — scientific research has shown modern humans to exhibit more and more “Neanderthal” traits.) The transformation of Neanderthals under scientific auspices has left an open challenge in literary circles: what would Neanderthals look like as active agents in Neanderthal-centric stories?
In The Last Neanderthal, Cameron pulls out all the literary stops in giving Neanderthals as much free rein, agency, and authenticity as possible. She opens with a prologue — ruminations on the complex nature of characterizing Neanderthals and the difficulties of writing them into fiction. She writes:
But they aren’t alive. They are extinct. The knowledge that something is extinct often leads to worry. You are probably already feeling guilty because you assume that I’m about to place the responsibility for their obliteration on modern humans. We compare ourselves to them through one stark reality: we survived and they did not.
But then the story of Girl and Dr. Rosamund Gale — but mostly the story of Girl — begins to unfold. We meet Girl and her family: her brothers Bent and Him; Big Mother; and the foundling Runt, who has been adopted into her family unit under the protection of Big Mother. We watch Girl make tools to hunt bison and worry about the “sun sickness” that kills members of her family. Bent altruistically sacrifices himself during a hunt-gone-bad to save Girl. A seashell worn as a necklace invokes Big Mother’s stories of places that Girl has never been. When Girl becomes pregnant by Him — breaking cultural taboos against incest — Big Mother banishes her from the family circle. Ultimately, her family, and other Neanderthal families, are decimated by disease and accidents; the book is full of examples of just how precarious life on the edge of the glaciated Pleistocene really is. Cameron writes: “At its peak, the Neanderthal population only numbered in the hundreds of thousands […] However, when [Girl’s family] lived the sum total population could be counted on a pair of human hands.” Cast out of her family, Girl takes Runt under her care and the two begin a trek across the taiga, moving southward, eventually returning Runt to his own family of humans that, in turn, adopts Girl, and she lives out her life — the last Neanderthal — with Runt’s family.
Girl’s story is picked up 40,000 years after her death when Dr. Rosamund Gale, Cameron’s fictional paleoarchaeologist working in France, uncovers Girl’s grave. The grave is unlike anything that has been found in the archaeological record before. Most Paleolithic burials are neatly categorized as either “Neanderthal” or “modern human.” But this grave is different — it’s less clear cut. Girl’s grave has Girl, of course, but there is also a modern human buried with her. Like Quasimodo and Esmeralda, eternally entwined, the skeletons of Girl and the modern human becomes Rosamund Gale’s experimentum crucis for her theory of Neanderthal and modern human co-existence:
But in the cave, the remains of a Neanderthal lay with those of a modern human. It looked like they had died together, maybe in a volcanic event, as there were records of those in the area. Perhaps they had been placed in this position by someone who thought they would want to face each other in death. They might well have lived together. Whatever the case, their position was evidence of more complex communication between the two, something that I had always assumed would be lost to time. Now it was found. A relationship, a feeling, or a glance — it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.
Although the science of Neanderthals has evolved over the last 100 years, the demand for authenticity in fictionalized Neanderthals hasn’t abated. We want the story to have enough details to be believable — there is certainly no magical realism associated with characters from the fossil record. Sure, we’ve traded Quest for Fire’s fire-deprived scavengers for Robert Sawyer’s top-predators of the Hominid trilogy, but in order for audiences to accept these Neanderthals, we demand that they be written with an unassailable degree of realism. To that end, how Neanderthals are written into Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, Robert Sawyer’s Hominids trilogy, and even J. H. Rosny’s Quest for Fire reflects the “best” scientific understanding of the species at that given point in time. (Dave Wolverton’s surreal world of Craal that was a warehouse for extinct species in Serpent Catch is the exception to expectations of Neanderthal authenticity in science fiction and fantasy.) The Last Neanderthal continues the tradition of authentically fictionalized Neanderthals.
It’s clear that Cameron has done her hominin homework. Her Neanderthals — Girl, Bent, Him, and Big Mother — are tantalizingly authentic; for the fossil-savvy, it’s almost like a bit of Pleistocene trivia to try and guess which fossils were the models for which characters. The book is chock-full of small details that, to discerning readers, demonstrate the thoroughness of Cameron’s research, which become the crucial connections in the Neanderthal-driven story arc. (Sea-shell necklaces, restive poses, red hair, and tools, to name a few.) These details are like the details in other Neanderthal fictions — they are used to build authenticity about the Neanderthal experience. However, in Cameron’s capable hands, these details are used to sculpt The Last Neanderthal through its dual narratives.
Even though the book is built around these two parallel lives (Gale’s own pregnancy offers even more parallel to Girl’s story), they do not match each other page by page. This is a story about Girl and the extinction of her species. We have just enough modern context to appreciate that the oddities of Runt’s appearance and his foundling status mean that he’s not a Neanderthal, he’s a Homo sapien. It’s a clever use of archaeology — present as key to past. Cameron gives the reader just enough clues through Rosamund Gale’s excavation of the site to piece together the big picture of Girl’s story. Her tale stands on its own — but it deepens its evolutionary significance and scope with Rosamund’s championing. With this careful, brilliant structure, Cameron requires that we simply take Neanderthals as they are — or were.
In both science and literature, Neanderthals have long served as a phylogenetic foil to our own species, Homo sapiens — the Caliban figure, as humans cast themselves as Ariel. This is where the really tricky part of writing about Neanderthals comes in: we can dress them up and anthropomorphize them, we can make them as “real” as science says is possible, but we can’t know them as they knew themselves. For as much real detail as we include when we write Neanderthals into popular culture and consciousness, we generally do so to talk about ourselves. We only know Neanderthals as those foils — we demand that they teach us what it is to be human. Even when the story is nominally about them, we make it about us. It’s hard for them to tell their own stories on their own terms. We talk about them as a circuitous way of talking about ourselves.
The Last Neanderthal is a little less about us and a lot more about Neanderthals than the typical Neanderthal narrative. Moreover, and most importantly, Cameron’s approach is to give Neanderthals their own agent-driven literary space — consequently, this could easily be the best book that shakes up the classic Neanderthal tropes in science fiction and fantasy. Girl’s story and how it is told matches the evolving perception on Neanderthals and the nuances of the Pleistocene lives. The real strength of The Last Neanderthal is Cameron’s unwillingness to relegate Neanderthals to the Other — she lets them simply be themselves.
Lydia Pyne is a writer, historian, and author of Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Fossil Humans and Bookshelf. She will be participating in several events with Claire Cameron around the releases of their books.