Friday, July 13, 2018

Families ancient and modern: the ties that make us human

Review of: The Last Neanderthal
Author: Claire Cameron
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A
Move over, Ayla. Author Claire Cameron’s novel, The Last Neanderthal, turns stereotypes about the meeting of ancient and modern humans on their heads with a tough, smart and strangely charming heroine who’s – a Neanderthal. Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series was the definitive prehistoric fiction of the 1980’s, with its tall blonde modern-type human heroine Ayla striding across an Ice Age landscape. But with a new century and a wealth of new findings about human migration and culture (including verification of Auel’s supposition of human-Neanderthal sexual interactions) Cameron reinvents the prehistoric genre. 
This time around, there are a pair of heroines -- Girl, about to come of age in a Neanderthal family dominated by powerful matriarch Big Mother, and Rosamund Gale, the paleoarchaeologist enthralled by the discovery of a twin burial.  
“We knew well from the recent advent of DNA testing that many modern humans had inherited genes from Neanderthals and vice versa,” Cameron writes, speaking for Gale, “but beyond the obvious method of transfer, we knew little about the relations between them. . . (Now) the remains of a Neanderthal lay with those of a modern human. . . their position was evidence of more complex communication between the two, something that I had always assumed would be lost to time. Now it was found.”
But Gale’s chance to complete work on the skeletons is running out. A wished-for but unplanned pregnancy complicates her work physically (how can she assume her normal face-down excavation posture given her rapidly-expanding belly?) and emotionally as fellow workers marginalize her ability to deal with impending childbirth and the needs of her newborn.
And, although separated by tens of thousands of years, Girl’s time is running out as well. Big Mother’s last mate died in a hunting accident. Her oldest daughter, Girl’s sister, moved to a new family at the last spawning run of the fish that are their main source of summer food. But accidents, predators, and illness have taken their toll on the remainder of Big Mother’s children, leaving at last only Girl and a single older brother. And Runt, a strange, small boy found wandering alone the previous year and adopted by the Neanderthals.
As the two youngest children of Big Mother’s family, Girl and Runt have become companions. She is big-boned, pale-skilled and red-haired. He is short, skinny and dark, with hair like moss, and so ugly Girl fears he will never be able to find a woman when he comes of age. His own language is unintelligible to the family, and though he has learned enough of the language of Girl’s family to communicate, he can give them no idea of where he came from or what happened to separate him from his own people.
In their family’s isolation, Girl and her older brother find themselves drawn to each other in a way forbidden by Neanderthal tradition. Big Mother temporarily expels Girl from the family, believing her strong enough to survive on her own. But when both Big Mother and Girl’s brother are killed by a leopard attack, Girl is left pregnant with no help except Runt’s unlikely aid.
Cameron creates sympathetic, compellingly realized versions both of Neanderthal culture and the complexities of a modern archaeological excavation as The Last Neanderthal alternates between the stories of Girl and Rosamunde Gale, two women struggling each in her own way and in her own time with the issues of motherhood, family, independence, and trust. It’s a story less about differences between people than about the eternal similarities that make us human.

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