Friday, May 6, 2016

Adventure classics – The softer side of the Neandertals?

Dance of the Tiger
by Björn Kurtén
I could almost call them the father and mother of Neandertal fiction – Finnish scientist Björn Kurtén's 1978 Dance of the Tiger mating with Jean Auel’s 1980 Clan of the Cave Bear to produce a progeny of stories set in deep prehistory.

Both Kurtén and Auel tell the story of a human child adopted during the great ice ages into a clan of Neandertals, those distant cousins of the rest of us modern humans. Unfortunately, there’s no indication that Kurten and Auel ever met. His book, originally published in Swedish, was only translated into English in the same year Auel’s appeared. You might call it a case of the convergent evolution of literature, except that each writer turns the other’s version on its head.

Auel’s heroine, Ayla, is the light-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed modern human both rescued and in a sense enslaved by darker-skinned Neandertals with a rigidly-defined separation of gender roles. In Kurten’s version, the Neandertals are the Whites, who have evolved elaborate nonviolent rituals to defuse aggression in their society and modern humans, the Blacks, who show the signs of their more recent migration out of the African heartland in their dark skin and black hair. And it’s these modern humans whose sexes follow culturally-determined gender roles.

It’s a bit scary to think that the popularity of Auel’s version of prehistory may hinge on a more conventionally photogenic protagonist.

And although writing before the decoding of either human or Neandertal genomes could confirm its truth, both authors agree on one aspect of the meeting between modern humans and Neandertals: they definitely practiced interspecies sex. (Which is, come to think of it, one of our modern criteria for determining whether somebody else is, well, human.)

In Dance of the Tiger's version, the meeting between the two versions of humanity takes place in his native Scandinavia during an interglacial warm period between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago. As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his introduction to the English edition of Dance of the Tiger, this epoch included “one of the most momentous and mysterious events of human prehistory. . . the rapid replacement of Neandertal man in Western Europe by humans of modern aspect.”

During a mammoth hunt, young Tiger becomes separated from his band of hunters as invading warriors ambush them. In the melee, Tiger’s father is killed and the boy himself is left for dead, only to be discovered and nursed back to life by a passing band of Neandertals, the beings his people call Trolls.

“Short and white and beardless,” as Tiger’s father describes them, “in broad daylight the Trolls seemed to be inferior beings, comical sometimes, or faintly sinister, making odd gestures with their hands about their faces and jabbering in a weird tongue utterly unlike human speech. Yet at night, the sight of these stumpy figures with their large pale faces and hooded eyes seemed . . . to bear a menace of secret witchcraft, of deep cunning, perhaps even wisdom, of a kind denied to Men.”

These creatures, these Trolls, become the beings among whom Tiger grows to manhood, learning their language and at last falling in love with Veyde, the daughter of their matriarchal leader.
Still, he longs to avenge his father, killed by bandits headed by a powerful shaman called Shelk. When Veyde’s tribe is attacked and captured by Shelk’s fighters while Tiger is away on a seal hunt, he tracks the bandits to their camp, determined to free the people he now considers his own and kill the bandits’ murderous leader.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a May of historical fiction with Björn Kurtén’s prehistoric clash of civilizations, Dance of the Tiger. And by the way, which is the correct name, Neandertal or Neanderthal?)

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