Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Last Neanderthal Reimagines A Shared Past

In her new novel, The Last Neanderthal, Claire Cameron draws on new scientific information to recreate the world when our human ancestors and Neanderthals coexisted. Of course, DNA sequencing of Neanderthals has proven that they are also part of our ancestral heritage. No longer can we imagine that human superiority overcame an animalistic, inferior group. So what then did cause the extinction of the Neanderthal population?

In this novel, Girl is part of a small family group that just survives, living in isolation on their territory. Big Mama is in her early thirties and her body is failing. An older sibling has already joined her mate's family. Girl has a younger brother, Him. They have allowed a hanger-on, Runt, to join the family. Runt is small, talks too much, and is without the Neanderthal musculature and bone structure. But if he is weaker than Girl he also is brave and resourceful.

During the time of the fish run the local Neanderthal population gathers at the river to feast on spawning salmon, intermingle, and mate with individuals outside of the family group. This year will be Girl's time to mate and leave.

In alternating chapters, the contemporary foil to Girl is the archaeologist Rose who is excavating Girl's skeleton. Rose is independent, strong, and a leader, like Girl. Rose is also pregnant, as was Girl.

The two stories lines offer a contrast and comparison. The one difference is that Rose has a support group around her, for human society evolved through a social contract beyond the family group. Girl, on the other hand, has lost her family and finds no one at the summer river. She is vulnerable and alone--and doomed.

Humans' larger social groups allow them to share innovations and new technology. The Neanderthals' isolation limits their advancement, but they seem to have an instinctual race memory as well as acquired knowledge that is passed through generations. Girl pushes away abstract thinking when it arises as it interferes with the alertness that guarantees her survival.

Readers will compare this novel to Jean Auel's 1980 blockbuster The Clan of the Cave Bear. I have not reread the Auel book since it's debut and will not comment on a comparison. I will be interested to hear how Auel fans will react to Cameron's novel based on new research, but also on how her characterization of Girl and her presentation of Neanderthal and human interaction compare to Auel's book.

I have read some reviews by Goodreads readers who did not like Rose. Another reader pointed out that being a female scientist in a male-dominated field is hard. Rose needs to be dedicated, single-minded, and protective of her work. I liked Rose as a foil to Girl. Both are dominant, capable women. They allow readers to connect the similarities and differences of women's experiences across the millennium.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this novel. I did have questions about Girl's concrete vs. abstract thinking and asked Ms. Cameron if she would clarify. I wrote,
Dear Ms. Cameron,
I have read your new book through NetGalley. I was hoping you would answer a question I have about Girl.  
At times she seems to draw on instinct, focused on the concrete and the 'now'. But at times she also shows an ability to imagine another's motives. For instance, she sees a calf and thinks "From his skitterish eyes, it was clear that he would have crawled back inside her belly if given the chance." This abstract thinking is what I am wondering about. 
Can you clarify your understanding of the Neanderthal mind and if this is an ability unique to Girl or if this is a new understanding of the species as a whole? 

I received a nice reply.
Hi Nancy,
I often get the same questions over and over. I don't mind at all, as I understand that they are fundamental to the experience of reading the book. Occasionally, though, I get a question that shows how thoroughly a reader has engaged with what I was trying to do. Your question feels like this to me. Thank you for asking. 
My idea was that Girl has a stronger connection between her mind and body than we do. For example, she would never get angry at herself for eating at extra cookie. If she could witness me scolding myself for eating a cookie, as many of us do, she would wonder who I was talking to-- there is only one me? I've often wondered why we have this split sense of ourselves, of the mind vs. the body. Girl would just simply eat a cookie.  
But, Girl is also a hunter. I read about animals and the new theories about how their minds work. One book that I particularly love is Frans De Wall, ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE? He talks about how we think of intelligence as a cognitive ladder, that the smarter are at the top. But when breaking down the different skills that animals have, this clearly isn't true. One of his frequently cited examples is that squirrels can remember where they cached hundreds of nuts a season, whereas a human could never do this. Does this mean a squirrel is smarter? No, but it does show the difference between their intelligence and ours. 
When you apply this kind of non-hierarchical thinking to hunters, the more they can get into the mind of their prey, the more successful they will be in making a catch. The hunter, be it either a leopard, Wildcat, or Girl, has to anticipate what their prey might do. What does the prey want? What might it do next? Girl was such a good hunter because she was also good at anticipating others needs. 
That is the long answer. The short one is that I was trying to think of Girl has having a different kind of intelligence that wasn't necessarily better or worse than ours. Just different. In reality, we know very little about how Neanderthals thought, so I extrapolated from what we know about the mind to imagine my own answers.
I hope that answers your question. Thank you, again, for it.
Cameron discovered she has 2.5% Neanderthal DNA and this novel is not an exploration of 'the other' as much as an imagining of our common ancestry.

I expect this book to interest many readers and be a big hit.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Last Neanderthal
Claire Cameron
Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 9780316314480
$26.00 hardcover

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