The general understanding on the Neanderthals, in non-scientific circles, is that they preceded the modern human being and were the uncivilised and distant cousin of man. They were loud, raucous and stocky. And while savagery is a capability in modern humans, it was the way of being for the Neanderthals. It’s also widely assumed that the modern human beings are higher in intellect, as per the laws of evolution stated by Darwin.
If you believe in any of the above then reading “The Last Neanderthal” by Canadian author Claire Cameron is a must for you. Due to my personal interest in archaeology and the early humans, I had some inkling that the Neanderthals were smarter than we initially gave them credit for. Cameron’s novel seems to take an approach that counters that particular narrative, and more. While Cameron’s novel is the product of a lot of research, it also takes liberties to drive forward its message. For this reason, I’m not saying that THE LAST NEANDERTHAL does a 100% justice to our Neanderthal cousins (because that’s impossible to know), but it is probably the first novel to give them a chance and to give their narrative colour and life.
Interesting fact: Claire Cameron was disappointed when she discovered her DNA was only 2.5% Neanderthal. You can know more about how humans share Neanderthal DNA by checking out this extensive article by the Smithsonian.
In THE LAST NEANDERTHAL, we follow the bifurcated narrative of Girl, the oldest daughter in a Neanderthal family, and Rosamund Gale (aka Rose), an archaeologist in present day who discovers the exciting remains of a Neanderthal. The two are 40,000 years apart but they’re linked by the shared experience of pregnancy and motherhood. From my reading I can say that this is one of the stronger aspects of the book. Through their prehistoric and modern narratives we get a glimpse of how differently the two handle pregnancy and motherhood. Specifically, Rose’s discovery of her pregnancy and the remains puts her on a backbreaking timeline that she rigorously fights to overcome. In order to have her baby she’ll have to abandon the site to others and inevitably risk being sidelined in her own major discovery. There’s a lack of support that Rose has to endure because pregnancy is treated as a “condition” that takes away career and pursuits from a woman. As a reader I found my eyes opening to the modern way of dealing with pregnancy that stunts a woman’s professional growth and treats her like she’s fragile and incapable of doing anything else. 40,000 prior, Girl is fighting her way in the wild, defending herself and Runt (an adopted brother) against other predators and foraging for food, all while being pregnant. I felt this contrast was a subtle yet effective jab at people who treat pregnant women as being incapable, when they’re anything but. It also testifies to the strength of the Neanderthals, while bringing out their very human instinct to give life and protect life. The idea of what the pregnancy means to Girl, how it affects her and her family, is also very intriguing and layered. Comparatively, the Rose’s response to her own pregnancy gives a bit of a different perspective. At the end however, both women’s pregnancies change their lives in subtle ways.
The best aspect of the book was getting acquainted with Girl, her family and their Neanderthal customs. The novel begins with a glossary of terms used by Cameron’s Neanderthals to communicate and make sense of the world they lived in. Simplistic words like “Warm” take on a deeper meaning when they refer to both physical warmth and family. “Deadwood” refers to the dead body that’s buried on the other side of dirt and also the idea of death; thus indicating that the Neanderthals had the intellect to bury their dead and were capable of higher thought and intelligence than most people give them credit for. In her own storyline, Rose discusses a lot of the archaeological facts about the Neanderthals as we understand them today, and this answers most questions the reader might have about them.
As we see Girl struggle to survive after she’s stranded without her family and with only Runt for company, the “brute” Neanderthal is portrayed as someone who can be vulnerable – there are always predators lurking around. She’s also shown as being empathetic, calculating and aware of her own strength and capabilities. In this way, Cameron has written a world in which the Neanderthals are humanized.
In Rose’s narrative, as she makes progress in uncovering the secrets of her Neanderthal, her personal struggle with the delivery that’s looming close and the rifts in her relationship with partner Tim uncover the social expectations faced by pregnant women. Her narrative is more relate-able and a nice contrast with Girl’s. It actually manages to balance the nature writing with a contemporary scene.
There was an interesting contrast in the two pregnant characters; Girl had a strong instinct and connection with her body whereas Rose felt disharmony with her own.
Overall, I think THE LAST NEANDERTHAL was a pretty interesting speculative and adventure fiction. It will be especially agreeable for readers who enjoy books set in the wild. The ending was well-written but failed to answer a major question that Rose, and hence the reader, had been trying to answer throughout the novel. It was something I was really curious about, so I felt really disappointed when that particular aspect of the story was neglected, and it felt as though the book ended too early. But despite that I still loved THE LAST NEANDERTHAL and found it to be a very refreshing concept and read.
Disclaimer: The publisher Little, Brown sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review.