Neanderthals in Books

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

So Neanderthals fascinate us, for reasons both silly and serious. We have had our share of schlocky, forgettable movies, often with hunky “cave men” and their scantily clad, big breasted mates battling not only wooly mammoths but dinosaurs (yeah, right!). There have been many depictions of Neanderthals or putative Neanderthals in books, too. Three come to mind, one that is mainstream entertainment and two that are more serious and—as far as possible—realistic depictions.

The first is Jean M. Auel’s six volume series, Earth’s Children, which debuted almost thirty years ago with The Clan of the Cave Bear. The protagonist/heroine of the series is Ayla, an orphaned Cro-Magnon girl who is found and taken in—not without misgivings—by the cave bear clan of Neanderthals. The series has been enormously popular, and it would be unfair to liken it to those schlocky movies. Auel tries to be (pre)historically, anthropologically, accurate—no dinosaurs here. She has conferred with experts and traveled the world visiting digs. But if the cover art really is meant to be illustrative, then these folks clean up real good, as the saying goes, and they get more and more articulate to the point that they may as well be talking prep schools instead of bear scat. (Can a Neanderthal Harlequin romance be far behind?) If you are wondering about the big question, yes, Ayla and a Neanderthal—who is brutish in more ways than one—do produce a child.

The two books that try to be more realistic—again, I realize that’s a dicey term here—are Jack London’s Before Adam, and William Golding’s The Inheritors. The London book is, well, quaint, more a curiosity nowadays. But The Inheritors, Golding’s personal favorite among his books, is worth a read. It is a very bleak story, told mostly from the point of view of Lok, the Neanderthal, in which the last little band of them is wiped out by the Cro-Magnons, who are terrified of these “forest devils.” It is a hard book to read, not just because the story is so redolent of doom but because we have to guess at a lot of what’s going on. Naked and with only the most primitive speech, these Neanderthals are barely human. Largely they get by on a kind of primitive intuition: “I have a picture!” marks an announcement of an idea or plan or memory. (I try to imagine the rudimentary thinking that Roadie, my cocker spaniel, might attempt.) The last chapter is written from the Cro-Magnons’ point of view, and they have escaped over some body of water and taken the Neanderthal baby with them. They both fear it and are enchanted by it. Will this baby grow up to mate with a Cro-Magnon, or will their fears get the better of them?

As luck would have it, last night our public TV channel ran a three hour special on this stuff, called “Becoming Human.” The producers started way back, but then fast-forwarded to homo erectus, which they called the first humans. The last hour had to do with Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, and it was implied, I think, that there was no breeding between them. Maybe I missed something of the latest speculations.

The jury will be forever out, I think, on what happened to the Neanderthals. That PBS special was very respectful of them, saying that they lasted for about six hundred thousand years and had an impressive culture until they died out, perhaps with a push from the Cro-Magnons. But it seems to me that no one really knows the whole story. And how could they? It’s anybody’s game, after all. I have great respect for these scientists, but to hold up a bone fragment that looks like a leftover from my KFC lunch and claim that it is, say, a hyoid bone, well…. Ok, that’s a bit harsh, but certainly there is, and will always be, speculative disagreement.

I think we are always toying with these thoughts, always worrying this long dead past, because the Neanderthals seem to have been like us but not quite like us. Off just a jot, just out of focus. “Almost” with a capital A. In any mystery there is possibility, and in deep mysteries, deep possibilities.

Look! That tremor in the bushes, that half-imagined image shifting behind the dappling leaves. And in a nano-flash, those eyes, that face looking back. And is that visage staring aghast? Or is it…grinning?

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