The orthodox version was that Homo sapiens were superior to Neanderthals, and wiped them out as a result. But this interpretation is now being challenged, not least because modern humans have DNA that can be traced back to Neanderthals. The presence of this DNA can only have happened through sexual encounters, consensual or forced. The view of aggressive encounters between Homo sapiens and other human subspecies must be reviewed. Claire Cameron takes up this issue, imagines the lived experiences of Neanderthal people and suggests a way in which the DNA became mixed.
I declare a connection here: I knew Claire’s husband when he was a PhD student in London. I believe their older child heard him read his thesis aloud as a newborn baby. And later I was fortunate to meet Claire in Toronto.
There are two strands to this novel. In the present day Rose, an archaeologist, is working in some caves in the South of France where she has discovered in the same strata a skeleton of Homo sapiens alongside, even in an embrace with, a Neanderthal skeleton. Rose is developing a new theory about the relations between the last of the Neanderthals and the prehistory of modern humans. Her discovery will help shape her theory. But there is a problem, Rose is pregnant and fiercely protective of the dig. Time is running out.
The other thread of this novel follows Girl, the last Neanderthal of the title. Time is running out for Girl too. Her family are wiped out by circumstances, despite their intimate knowledge of their world and their skills, tools and craft that have helped them survive in the past.
Above all they have had their family relationship to sustain them. This is what Girl thinks of as ‘warm’ and she will miss it later.
It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.
When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle, the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm. (9)
Girl’s family is already small, when her brother Bent is killed in a hunting accident and then she is banished by Big Mother for her sexual relationship with Him, who is at least her half brother. The weakened family, Him, Runt and Big Mother are attacked by a wild animal and the two adults are killed. Girl rescues Runt, and takes over as Big Mother of this much reduced family, keeping the two of them alive during the winter, travelling to the annual meet of the tribes – the Big Fish. Attendance has been reducing over the years and this year they find that they are alone. Runt discovers some signs on a tree and becomes excited and runs off. On her own, Girl gives birth but the baby does not survive. She emerges in spring, very weakened, as likely to be preyed upon as to catch any meat.
There were only two kinds of meat: The meat that gets to eat. And the meat that gets eaten. (38)
She finds Runt again and their reunion is the start of a new life for Girl.
Rose meanwhile gives birth, despite assuming it will hardly put her off her professional stride, and faces the difficulties of being a new mother. She must learn some of the visceral lessons of the Neanderthal’s lives and learn how to depend upon others.
The traditional view of Neanderthals as primitive and violent and of modern humans as sophisticated and able to overcome all physical limitations is challenged by this novel.
Reading this book
I already knew that Claire writes tense and frightening stories. The Last Neanderthal is Claire’s third published novel. Both her previous books are almost unbearable to read. Her second, The Bear, was long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in 2014. The reader follows two small children whose parents have been killed by a bear in the wild areas of Canada. I found it almost impossible to read and thought it was great. You can read my review here.
In The Last Neanderthal, Claire has imagined the world according to Girl: her relationships, how she learns from her family, and especially from Big Mother; how she and her family communicate with limited language and other forms of communication; how she and her family make and use tools and every bit they can of the animals they kill. How she can read her environment, through smell, through feeling the air and through noticing other signs in her area.
One function of literature is to take us to worlds we would not otherwise experience. The reader is immersed in this brilliant and imaginative recreation of the lives of the last Neanderthal peoples.
And especially …
I particularly like the revision of the history of ‘man’ which traditionally suggests that the males of the species fought each other and the superior brains of the modern human succeeded in obliterating the brawn of the more primitive Neanderthal. Here is an alternative, with as much going for it as Elaine Morgan had in The Descent of Woman (1972).
Perhaps the extinction of Neanderthals was not due to aggression, but circumstances that did not favour the small family groups. Perhaps there were friendly relations between the different groups, even intimate relations, partnerships. Perhaps the skills and knowledge of the Neanderthals proved essential to the less hairy hominids. Perhaps we should honour the Big Mothers of our shared past.
The Last Neanderthal is an exhilarating read and an imaginative tour de force.
The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron (2017) Little, Brown & Co 277pp
Footnote: when I searched for illustrations for this review apart from the many skulls, the pictures of reconstructed Neanderthal people were overwhelmingly of men.
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