Friday, May 27, 2016

Adventure classics – The Neanderthals still among us

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel/Dance of the Tiger, by Björn Kurtén
With commentary from The Neanderthals Rediscovered, by Dimitra Papagianni & Michael A. Morse
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Two seminal volumes of paleofiction, Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and Björn Kurtén’s Dance of the Tiger, end with the tragic assumption that Neanderthals and the modern humans who cohabited Europe and Asia with them for thousands of years are now forever parted. In Auel’s 1980 story, modern human heroine, Ayla, is torn from her young half-Neanderthal son as the clan expels her from its home cave. Kurtén’s book of 1978 posits a more peaceable relationship but theorizes that sexual relations between the two species (or possibly subspecies) of humankind, never produced fertile offspring.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and scientists now find that except for those of purely indigenous African origin, all living people owe part of their DNA to Neanderthals. There’s even evidence that modern-type human beings mingled genes with still other now-extinct human species. We have met the ancient ones and they are us.

It’s time we started treating them with the respect they deserve.

“Although we know a great deal of the Neanderthals’ specific history, for most people . . . (t)heir name is a synonym for primitiveness, brutality, backward thinking and generally being out of step with the times,” archaeologist Dimitra Papagianni and science historian Michael A. Morse write in The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science is Rewriting Their Story.

They trace the fictional versions of Neanderthals all the way back to J.H. Rosny-Aîné’s La Guerre du feu, source of the 1981 movie, Quest for Fire. (The film is a much livelier romp than the turgid 1986 film version of The Clan of the Cave Bear.)

Papagianni and Morse consider the most thought-provoking fictions about Neanderthal-human interactions to be Kurtén's Dance of the Tiger and Isaac Asaimov's 1958 science fiction story, "The Ugly Little Boy," which Robert Silverberg expanded in his 1991 novel, Child of Time, although noting that no fictional protrayal of Neanderthals "has widespread support in the non-fiction universe. Even the plausible stereotypes are not based on any archaeological evidence."

None of that, of course, has stopped storytellers from spinning yarns about the exploits and foibles of these early humans.

In researching this post, I was thrilled to discover, besides the fictions mentioned by Papagianni and Morse, voluminous lists of paleoanthropology fiction and paleofiction that sent me scurrying through the stacks at the Dallas Public Library.

Among the works of fiction I can personally recommend are Asimov’s “The Ugly Little Boy,” Kurtén’s Dance of the Tiger, and Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear. Auel has written five more books in her “Earth’s Children” series, but the first is the best, before she felt compelled to add a lumbering Cro-Magnon solely to serve as a love interest for the heroine.

I also fondly remember Michael Bishop’s 1985 Ancient of Days, in which pre-Neanderthal Homo habilis survive into modern times. And for prehistoric but modern-type humans, I like Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ The Animal Wife and the Native American novels of anthropologist/archaeologist writing team W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear.

Long live the ancient ancestors.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a June of stories by Southwestern authors with Novalyne Price Ellis’s memoir of Robert E. Howard, One Who Walked Alone, and a selection of Howard’s Western tales.)