“The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The Last Neanderthal

Publisher:   Little, Brown and Company

This is a novel about the makings of the female species. There are two female protagonists. One lives in the present and the other lives forty thousand years ago. The author, Claire Cameron, weaves the two females’ very different lives together in flashbacks and flash-forwards. Cameron writes her novel as if it is a thesis, with a theory that needs to be proved. Her hypothesis is that our ancestors were strikingly similar to the humans of today. Her end notes have an impressive list of references on the subject, showing that she did her homework. In the hands of a lesser author, this dissertation-like focus could be the book’s weakness. Instead, her storytelling skills are so good that it is the book’s strength. It reads as a historical fiction, a mystery, a fast-paced suspense tale with taboo sex, and a love letter to the human race, with an emphasis on the female ability to create life.

The modern day woman is a pregnant archaeologist who is racing to get grant funding to continue her work on Neanderthal artifacts before her baby is born. The bones she finds in her dig are of two bodies and they are a shocking discovery because they are of a female Neanderthal and a human male buried together, positioned as if embracing. In the distant past, the Neanderthal teenage girl is also pregnant. She is racing to find shelter before her baby is born. It is crucial that this baby lives since she knows that her species’ numbers are low. Her mother taught her that her reason for being born is to reproduce so the “family” can continue. (Family here can mean their immediate family but is also used as their word for all Neanderthals). It is clear to the reader that the female bones found by the archaeologist are the bones of the female Neanderthal protagonist. Both the Neanderthal girl and the modern day woman have very difficult births, one without her partner, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, and the other alone in a hole in the earth during a snowstorm. Both almost lose their life giving birth and have to decide whether to save their own life or the life of their unborn baby. This type of choice always makes for a thought provoking and heart-tugging read.

By itself, the story of the modern day heroine would have been a good feminist tale, asking if working women can have it all—a fulfilling career and family life? The author adds in a postpartum psychosis episode, and the Archaeologist begins to think about killing her baby. This temporary madness makes for an interesting story but it has been written before in “All She Ever Wanted” by Rosalind Noonan and other stories on this subject. But the story of the Neanderthal girl is so intriguing that I sometimes became annoyed when the next chapter focused on the Archaeologist. In the girl’s story, I became lost in the world of 40 thousand years ago, when the last families of Neanderthals roamed the earth. They were incredible people, and I choose to call them people because of what I learned in this book. Yet, they had an animal-like fairness to them that modern humans do not have. Unless desperate, they never killed a baby animal. They understood that this would disrupt the balance of the order of life because then the baby bison would not grow and continue the circle of life.

I became fascinated with other side stories in the novel too, such as the girl’s friendship with a tiger too old to hunt. He would come to visit her like a pet and she would give him strips of meat, usually cooked. (The Neanderthals would eat raw meat immediately after a successful hunt but once brought home the carcass is cooked). The Neanderthal girl and the tiger jointly knew that if it came down to it, one would kill the other even though they were friends. It is survival of the fittest with a certain kindness and respect. Another character that intrigued me is a boy child that the mother Neanderthal takes in when she finds him lost and orphaned. He became a much loved family member even though they see him as an odd looking child as well as rather strange. He had impressive qualities that they did not have. Something about his arms allowed him to throw and hit a target as only an adult could. Unlike the others, who rarely use their voice to communicate in words, he chattered all day long, driving the others crazy. And a difference that made this reader laugh out loud is that the family worried that when his time came he will never find a mate, because he is such an ugly looking male, no female would find him attractive enough to want him. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guess Neanderthals were not physically attracted to humans’ facial features).

I will not share what happens to each of the female heroines or their babies. It would be a spoiler. I will share that one of my favorite parts in the Archaeologist’s story is when she is in labor and couldn’t talk with the doctor so they locked eyes and somehow managed to communicate without words, just as the Neanderthals did. This book makes me want to pay attention to my own forgotten senses lost from lack of use. I often joke that my sinus and spine pains can tell me when the weather is about to change. Could this be how modern Homo sapiens modified our alertness to nature? And can we once again regain instincts that we have lost? The author made me truly feel for our ancient ancestors as if they were my relatives and not just extinct creatures that I once read about in a history book. This is a powerful novel that made me often tear and sometimes laugh, all while exploring the concept of what makes us human?

 

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