Reviewed by Alex Binkley
The Last Neanderthal is an intriguing tale of two women living parallel lives separated by thousands of years and their strain of hominid.
In telling the story of Her, a young Neanderthal living with her family in what’s now France, author Claire Cameron describes life as Her's species could have experienced it by reading the signs in the landscape, wind and weather and depending on knowledge handed down by her mother, the family leader and from earlier generations. The result is both a plausible description of Her’s life as well as the factors that led to the eventual disappearance of the Neanderthals.
Her’s remains are discovered by archaeologist Rosamund Gale. Across from Her is a young Homo sapiens male. Gale, who’s about to give birth of her first child, keeps working out of fear that her discovery will be taken over by others, her contribution ignored, and its scientific importance lost in pitching the discovery to the public. Like Her, she tries to read the signs in the words and actions of the museum officials and others who are supporting and assessing her work.
While both Her and Gale end up in fear being left alone and pregnant, fate saves them in the most unexpected ways, and the parallels in the lives of the two characters take shape. After a long winter huddled in a cave, Her and members of her family head for the spring meeting with the other families in the region for the annual fish run—a time to replenish food stocks and partner off young females. But only Her and her adopted brother Runt survive the arduous trip. It gradually becomes clear that the adopted child is a Homo sapiens. What’s worse none of the other families arrive at the rendez-vous site.
Her’s pregnancy becomes a growing burden while Gale has to find ways to keep up with the pain-staking work of excavating the archaelogical site as her pregnancy enters its final weeks.
With most Caucasians possessing up to three per cent Neanderthal genes, there are plenty of theories about what caused the Neanderathals to disappear. Living short lives in isolated families and not learning new techniques, this species may have been fortunate to have lasted as long as they did. While they certainly bred with Homo sapiens, whether they were wiped out by the latter remains an archeological puzzle. In a way they live on in the genes we share with them.
The Last Neanderthal is published in Canada by Doubleday.