Pregnancy and childbirth are the ties that bind two female characters separated by 40,000 years in Claire Cameron’s new novel. The Last Neanderthal (Doubleday Canada), which alternates between the perspective of Girl, a Neanderthal cast out by her mother for incest, and Rose, the latter-day archaeologist who stumbles upon her remains.
Brad de Roo: What have we got wrong about Neanderthals?
Claire Cameron: Both in science and stories, we’ve tended to focus on what Neanderthals are not, what they lack, or why they died off—rather than who they were. For example, according to archeologists Neanderthals had fairly static tool culture for over 200,000 years. Rather than ask if this was a sign of cultural stability, it’s traditionally been interpreted as evidence that Neanderthals lacked the ability to innovate and, therefore, a sign that we are cognitively superior.
When you start from a stance of wanting to use other beings to define why humans are special, it’s difficult to get anything right. But our use of this approach is by no means limited to Neanderthals. The philosophical framework of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist and primatologist, was something I used to shape The Last Neanderthal. I love how she sums up the idea in her book Mothers and Others, “We drew up these lists of uniquely human attributes without realizing how much more they revealed about our ignorance of other animals than about the special attributes of our species.”
BdR: Why have these misunderstandings persisted?
CC: Recent Neanderthal research has started to overturn many of our older assumptions. Take the example of speech. For years it was assumed that Neanderthals didn’t talk, or only grunted. But in the 1980s, archeologists found hyoid bones that belonged to Neanderthals. We have this same U-shaped bone in our neck. It anchors the tongue, which allows us to have the control for speech.
Since the mapping of the Neanderthal genome, it’s been discovered that Neanderthals also had a FOXP2 gene. In us, it’s important for communication in speech. Though we don’t know how it functioned in Neanderthals, but it points in the direction. They may well have been able to talk, but it’s taken us years of digging and advances in microbiology for us to accept it.
Still both in science and in our stories, the misunderstandings persist. The idea of a male Neanderthal with a protruding brow and uncivilized notions is well engrained. The current state of the White House doesn’t help.
BdR: It seems that our flawed historical interpretation shares biases that humans are prone to apply to various examples of the Other – whether they are outsiders, minorities, or even other living creatures…
CC: We like to tell a story about our evolution, that we’ve moved from a primitive way of living and evolved into our current state of perfection. We are alive, and they are extinct, because we are the superior beings. This is rooted in a misinterpretation of Darwin’s ideas about natural selection. Many mistakenly take survival of the fittest to mean that the best or strongest survive.
The intended meaning is much more subtle—the traits best suited for the immediate conditions continue, whether they be an ability to wallow in the mud, run fast, eat dung, or vomit after eating something that disagrees with you. There isn’t necessarily a hierarchy to these traits, but our kind loves to impose hierarchies on things. And then we create all sorts of elaborate fictions to explain why this is the natural order.
One of the early Neanderthal skeletons was found at La Chapelle-aux-Saints. A scientist named Pierre Marcellin Boule analyzed, sketched, and studied the remains and published his findings in an elaborate monograph with detailed illustrations. This careful work became the most complete reference and the go-to for anyone interested in Neanderthals. You have probably seen renderings of Neanderthals based on this work, stooped, hairy, ape-like, and primitive.
It took almost 50 years and a thorough re-examination of the artifacts to establish that the Neanderthal remains actually belonged to an old man who was toothless and suffered from osteoarthritis, hence the stooped posture. The revision took so long to come because the primitive being in Boule’s work fit our larger story—that Neanderthals were an evolutionary halfway point between the apes and us. And that they died out because they had inferior traits. All this is well told in Lydia Pyne’s fascinating book, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils.
BdR: Was it difficult to extrapolate characters of living flesh and blood from the knowledge that we currently have about Neanderthals and early humans?
CC: Yes, it was difficult and that was a large part of the fun. We have a fairly good archeological record of Neanderthals considering they disappeared more than 40,000 years ago. Microbiologists are now adding new evidence, not only with DNA samples, but by bringing a new kind of analysis to old artifacts. One example, a recent study of examined the tooth plaque of Neanderthals. Plaque used to be something that researchers would clean off so that they could examine the teeth more closely. Now it’s became a valuable source of evidence that, as one study showed, tells us new things, like Neanderthals used an Aspirin-like medicine to treat a toothache.
But while I was writing, it was a huge leap to go from fossilized artifacts or DNA to how a person might feel or think. I loved what Ursula Le Guin said about writing science fiction in a recent profile in The New Yorker, she is “not just trying to get into other minds but other beings.” I can use the science as a basis for extrapolation, but the outcome is in the realm of writing science fiction.
BdR: What do we share with the Neanderthals and early humans? Have we really changed as much as we think we have?
CC: Many things have changed, but our bodies are much like they were when the Neanderthals were alive over 40,000 years ago. We had already evolved to our current state. For example, we walked upright, which means our pelvis had narrowed, and we had developed our large brains.
I had an epiphany while I was in labour with my second son. There was a moment of panic as the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around his neck. As I pushed, it was strangling him. I could have panicked, but instead I thought about how many women before me had been in this same position. Though death rates are far lower, the mechanics of delivering a baby vaginally have not changed. Our pelvis is narrow and brain large, it all makes for a tight squeeze. Birth is still raw and primal process. It gave me a way to link my modern experience to an ancient time.
BdR: Extinction is central to your novel. We’ve entered an age of unprecedented species extinction. Unique forms of being are disappearing all around us. What about extinction compelled you to write about it? Would you say your book is a precautionary tale?
CC: I would stop short of saying it’s a precautionary tale. If anything, it might make a case for living in the moment? But you’ve picked up on something I thought about a lot. Many theories about why the Neanderthals went extinct are easy for us to swallow in the modern day, they weren’t as technically proficient as us, they lacked the ability to innovate, or that they were victims of climate change.
The more I learned about Neanderthals during my research, the more I understood that recent research has overturned many of these explanations. As one example, they successfully lived through thousands of years of dramatic climate change. I started to wonder why, if these theories were so easily refuted, why do we buy into them? It didn’t take too much soul searching to find the answer. It is easier to diminish the Neanderthals. Their shortcomings then become responsible for their extinction, rather than anything we might have done, or anything that we might do to ourselves. It sounds terrifyingly modern, doesn’t it?
BdR: The modern portion of your book follows an archeologist named Rose. What drew you to archeology? Have your ever thought of writing practices as a sort of archeology?
CC: I hadn’t thought of my writing as a kind of archeology until recently. There is an article that I love by Jane Smiley, the American Pulitzer Prize-winning author, about writing historical fiction. In it, she unpacks an argument that she had with a historian about whether there is a hierarchy to the writing of history. As I wrote this novel, I kept pulling it out and re-reading it. I would highlight a different line each time and see that a different part of the article had become important. It was like my hard work allowed me to uncover the layers in what she said.
Writing the novel was also like that in that I had to dig through several layers to find what was buried. But it was a difficult novel to write and I never could have spoken in the clichés of a novelist at the time. The process felt much more inelegant, like thrashing. Or a more accurate description might be writing a bunch of crap and throwing it all out and starting again.
BdR: In your book the prehistoric often describe a familial closeness or safeness as being “warm.” Do any books give you a comparative kind of warmth? Does writing yourself bring you closer to your sense of warmth? Or is it more about confronting the cold, the unknown, the threatening?
CC: Warm in the novel, and for me, is the feeling that I am not alone. Given that I see and experience the world only from the perspective of my own tiny-skull-sized kingdom, reading a novel is the closest I’ve come to feeling the experience of someone else. That is an example of the Neanderthal idea of warm in my modern life.
One novel that gave me warm was Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster. It is set in Northern British Columbia, a place I’ve never been, and about a high school kid named Jared, who is different from me. But, Robinson’s story resonated in a way—there were several moments when I could have sworn she was writing about my family. Sometimes, I could imagine being Jared’s mother. And then Robinson spun me around so that I could see precisely how Jared saw his mother. Life rarely gives us such perspective.
BdR: Your novel focuses in depth on bodily experiences and functions. Eating, sleeping, violence, death, hunting, walking, lusting, birth, and so on, are described in visceral detail. Have we become more disembodied in our times? Do we have a tendency to shelter ourselves from the intensity of natural forces like birth and death?
CC: I often think about how we shield ourselves when I’m eating meat. I went through a stage where I was certain that I should learn to hunt and shoot something to see the consequences of my diet first hand. But I don’t think I can do it. I can’t imagine killing an animal.
Also, I’ve spent some time in the wilderness and, when with a group, I’ve found that all the coy attitudes about bodily functions are the first to drop away. People fart. It’s a good sign if you take a robust shit. A dehydrated body smells in a certain way. Few things in life are as important as food. These all quickly become facts that help a body live, rather than things to snicker about.
I haven’t given birth in the wilderness, but imagine? That alone was enough fuel for a novel.
BdR: Girl and Rose are both incredibly resilient and fiercely intelligent women. Characters like Big Mother and Caitlin are comparable presences. What parallels do you think there are between the lives of prehistoric women and contemporary women? Does the feminist movement have deeper roots than many would imagine?
CC: There are a few academics who write for lay audiences and who are putting forward the argument that the switch to agriculture during the agrarian revolution may have marked the emergence of our current gender divide, like historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, or anthropologist Agustin Fuentes in The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. To write this book, I had to take a philosophical stance to shape the internal logical. The spine of The Last Neanderthal novel is shaped by that take on history.
But in taking a line like that, I’m aware that I’m layering modern politics over ancient times. While writing, I struggled to try to shake my assumptions as much as possible. I really wanted to see the world in a fresh way, through the eyes of a Neanderthals. I was right to attempt that while writing, but I also need to be realistic about the results. I am, after all, the product of a historically self-centered and inward-looking people.
BdR: Are you currently digging into any new projects?
CC: When I am not working a novel, I study in the mornings. At the moment I’m trying to figure out the advances in quantum gravity with some middling degree of success. I’m also looking at different translations of Beowulf. I was familiar with Seamus Heaney’s and am diving in to J.R.R Tolkien’s, which was published relatively recently.
I don’t know that either of these subjects will become anything. I often have an interest that I follow for years before I see a reason why I should write about it. Neanderthals were that way, it took years before I could see a way in.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, April 2017