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The Last Neanderthal

Review

The Last Neanderthal

Claire Cameron’s previous novel, THE BEAR, which was longlisted for the Baileys Prize, was notable for its ability to articulate the perceptions and emotions of a five-year-old narrator. Similarly, in her new book, THE LAST NEANDERTHAL, readers are drawn into the consciousness of an unlikely protagonist --- a young female Neanderthal known only as Girl.

As the title of Cameron’s novel suggests, Girl’s narrative is set at a time when modern humans were beginning to gain ascendancy over their Neanderthal cousins. For a relatively brief moment, the two species coexisted, until modern humans ultimately succeeded and Neanderthals became extinct. But why and how did they gain superiority? Were the relationships between modern humans and Neanderthals violent and contentious? Or is the story of modern humans’ ultimate dominance more complicated than that?

"THE LAST NEANDERTHAL offers current science but places it in the context of emotional lives, particularly the intensity of pregnancy and childbirth --- and in so doing, Cameron urges readers to reflect on just what being 'human' really means."

These are questions that preoccupy the novel’s modern-day heroine, Rosamund Gale, a paleoarchaeologist who has just uncovered the find of her life: a pair of skeletons --- one human, one Neanderthal --- seemingly locked in an embrace on a cave floor. Rose has long argued that the relationships between humans and Neanderthals are more complicated than first thought, that Neanderthals themselves were capable of much more than previously thought --- and this new discovery might be her chance to prove just that.

But Rose’s timing is bad. She has just learned she is pregnant with her first baby, and she now feels like she is in a race against the clock, as she struggles to make her mark on the excavation before she is forced to take maternity leave and risks losing control of the dig site --- and the direction of her research.

In their staggered narratives, we encounter two women engaged in fights for survival; in Rose’s case, the fight is for her professional life, and in Girl’s, it’s a fight for life itself. Along the way, readers learn not only about the politics of archaeological research and museum curation but also about our ancestors’ ways of life: the tools they used to survive in harsh conditions, how they understood their world, and the emotional lives they developed despite their short and violent lifespans.

Thanks to the popularity of home genetic testing kits and the discovery that many, or even most, Caucasian and Asian people in the 21st century have some percentage of Neanderthal genes, modern-day curiosity about our Neanderthal forbearers is greater than ever. THE LAST NEANDERTHAL offers current science but places it in the context of emotional lives, particularly the intensity of pregnancy and childbirth --- and in so doing, Cameron urges readers to reflect on just what being “human” really means.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 28, 2017

The Last Neanderthal
by Claire Cameron

  • Publication Date: April 25, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 031631448X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316314480