They didn’t think as much about what was different.
Homo Neanderthalis. A race of archaic humans who roamed the earth for 200,000 years and whose extinction roughly 40,000 years ago happens to coincide with the rise of homo sapiens. Their skeletal remains and Stone Age tools have been constantly studied and scrutinized by academics all over the world. They’ve long held a fascination in popular culture as well. And modern genome studies demonstrate that Neanderthals interbred with homo sapiens and contributed to the DNA of modern humans.Yet we know so little about them.
In The Last Neanderthal, Claire Cameron (author of best-selling The Bear) seeks to educate us about our much misunderstood ancestors by giving us a poignant glimpse into their final days through the eyes of Girl. The oldest daughter still living with the Family firmly ruled by Big Mother, Girl wants nothing more than for things to stay the same even as she understands change is coming. Indeed, there are changes far more traumatic than she could ever imagine on the horizon. She soon ends up the sole caretaker of Runt; a strange orphaned child who the Family had taken in out of kindness despite his puniness, ugly misshapen skull, and odd behavior.
Intertwined with Girl’s riveting narrative of survival and grief is the tale of modern day archaeologist Rosamund Gale who makes a possibly revolutionary discovery of Neanderthal remains and artifacts while pregnant. She races to secure the excavation and research before the birth and it becomes apparent that Gale has more than a few issues with her impending motherhood. Cameron paints not so subtle parallels with the struggles Rosamund faces and those of Girl outlining the universality of human experience. But wisely, she spends far more time with Girl than Rosalind, who after all possesses the more compelling story.
The Family have their own fascinating traditions and dynamics to fall back on and, far from being savages, the Neanderthals here come across as compassionate, sensitive, and capable species. Cameron has achieved an inspired triumph of empathy in story-telling by painting a picture of a people and society in the Family who are clearly different from us but, in another deeper sense, are much the same. In doing so, The Last Neanderthal helps us redefine our perspective on what it even means to be human.
The Last Neanderthal