GREAT ARTISTS STEAL: The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

My novel, The Last Neanderthal, imagines a year in the life of a young, female Neanderthal who is among the last of her kind. A parallel modern story is about a pregnant archaeologist named Rose, who finds two skeletons buried in an embrace—one a Neanderthal and the other a modern human.

I wanted to write a story about Neanderthals that was rooted in the fairly recent finding that people of European and Asian descent have between 1-4% Neanderthal DNA. To make the story plausible, I did a lot of research. Here are some of my sources.

1. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog

I watched this a few times as I was writing. It is a lavish documentary that lets the viewer look inside the Chauvet Caves in southern France, which hold some of the most spectacular cave art ever found. The art was made around 32,000 years ago, probably after Neanderthals were extinct, but I was captivated by idea that I could look at a painting and see what an ancient person might have seen.

2. Sapiens: A Short History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book helped me form my view of the difference between Neanderthals and modern humans, specifically that we organize and collaborate around fictions, like companies, money, or countries. Taking this idea to the novel, I decided that while Neanderthals were not of lesser intelligence, they didn’t place importance on things that they couldn’t smell, taste, or eat (things like companies, money, or countries).

3. Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo

Svante Pääbo led the team of scientists who first mapped the Neanderthal genome. This memoir tells a story of the scientific discovery. Not only is it a good primer on genetics—he is good at explaining the science in simple terms—but it is also a gripping read.

4. The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy

I wrote many drafts of my Neanderthals, but couldn’t find the right voice for the book. It was after I re-read this novel, about the inner life of elephants, that I found the right way to approach writing about people who lived in a such different time and place than I do. This book gave me courage.

5. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

Hrdy is an anthropologist and primatologist who wrote this sentence about our study of primates: “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.” It changed everything for me. I realized that in science and popular culture, we’ve been looking at Neanderthals to try and see what makes us special or more human, rather than asking questions about them.

Claire Cameron‘s novel, The Bear, became a #1 national bestseller in Canada and was long-listed for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Cameron’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Globe & Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon. She is a staff writer at The Millions. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two sons.

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