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Claire Cameron

The Last Neanderthal

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Rose is a Canadian archaeologist working in France who finds two skeletons in the floor of a cave. One is of a female Neanderthal, the other of a male modern human. They are lying face to face, as if looking into each other's eyes. The temptation to interpret the find as a burial of two friends or lovers is strong, of course, and Rose has to struggle to maintain her scientific objectivity in the face of this. Like Cameron herself, she holds the view that the Neanderthals were in no way inferior to ourselves, and her discovery seems to support this.

The book has a dual narrative structure. Rose has just found she is pregnant and we follow the course of her pregnancy as it interacts with her work on the excavation. And we also follow the life of the Neanderthal whose burial site Rose has discovered. The two narratives are told in alternating chapters and do not interact directly, although there is a moment towards the end when Rose seems to glimpse the Neanderthal for an instant superimposed on the features of one of her colleagues. Like Rose, the Neanderthal becomes pregnant, although her outcome is different.

Every age has had its own view of the Neanderthals. When first discovered they were seen as nasty, brutish and short, but today, thanks to much more archaeological evidence and the revelation that modern humans outside Africa preserve some of their DNA, there is an increasing tendency to regard them as much like ourselves in their behaviour and perhaps in their thoughts and emotions too. This is certainly Cameron's perspective. Hers is a feminist reconstruction; the Neanderthals live in a matriarchal society, with widely separated family groups each headed by a Big Mother. They speak little, using single words, although these can carry complex meanings, and it seems that Big Mother recounts stories by firelight using a kind of shadow theatre cast on the walls with her hands.

Life is hard of course, and the Neanderthals have to be tough to survive. The heroine (definitely the right word for her here) is a Valkyrie, a beautiful strong woman with pale skin and a shock of red hair. She is known simply as Girl (the Neanderthals don't seem to use personal names although some do have nicknames). She is intelligent and resourceful with a profound knowledge of the natural world in which she lives. She is capable of compassion and tenderness but also hunts bison with a spear and fights two leopards which have killed or fatally injured most of the rest of her family.

Apart from Girl, the only survivor of the leopard attack is a small boy called Runt, whom the family had adopted when he was found wandering alone. He is so called because he is smaller and weaker than the others. In fact, we come to understand that he is a modern human, with dark skin and black hair. Thanks to his mediation, Girl finds a home with a group of modern humans after all those of her own kind have disappeared.

I enjoyed reading Cameron's reconstruction of Neanderthal life. I found Rose rather tiresome at times and I was tempted to skip her chapters, although it was a good idea to anchor Girl to the archaeological discovery, which is depicted in a plate at the end of the book.


%T The Last Neanderthal
%A Cameron, Claire
%I Back Bay Books
%C New York, Boston, London
%D 2018
%G ISBN 978-0-316-32446-6
%P 272pp
%K fiction
%O paperback edition

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