Every novel reimagines the world, and some novelists are gutsy enough to write about characters whose lives are unlike their own. Canadian author Claire Cameron‘s new novel The Last Neanderthal takes both of these challenges to the extreme. Cameron weaves together two different stories: one of a young woman trying to survive a hard season at the tail end of the Neanderthal era, and another of an archaeologist who has just made a groundbreaking discovery: a Neanderthal skeleton entwined with a modern human’s skeleton, proving that rather than dying out completely, the Neanderthals interacted with and interbred with modern humans.
The chapters about Girl, the Neanderthal, are especially remarkable to read; Cameron creates a prehistoric world that feels lived-in, muscular, visceral. It’s a page-turner, but it also made us wonder about how much research must have gone into it. And of course, Cameron found herself turning to JSTOR for help. We asked her all about it:
Amy Shearn: What was the finding about Neanderthals that sparked this story? How did you come across it? How did you decide you wanted to write fiction in response?
Claire Cameron: I am an avid reader of New Scientist magazine, which had an article about about Svante Pääbo, a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and his team who sequenced the first draft of the genome. He made a comment about how Neanderthals were much more like us than we had previously imagined. Coming from a scientist who works at the micro level, this really struck me. It was also evidence of interbreeding, which made me curious about how modern humans and Neanderthals made contact.
The more I read, the more I came to understand that scientists can only speculate so far. It might be up to a novelist to take the risk of imagining answers.
Tell us about the Lovers of Valdaro, and how that photograph changed your creative process.
The Lovers of Valdaro are two skeletons found near Montova, Italy. They were positioned in an embrace with their skulls facing each other, as if they were looking into each other’s eyes when they died. Many years ago, there was a photograph of them circulating on the internet. I had an emotional reaction to that photo. It makes you think of dramatic questions like, will I die alone? The skeletons were probably put in the position after death, but even thinking about that circumstance is evocative. I pinned the photo to my wall.
I did a lot of research while writing The Last Neanderthal. At some point, I became so steeped in the evidence that it became difficult to think of the artifacts as anything other than parts of bone, bits of tools, or fragments of stone. I was stuck. But something about The Lovers of Valdaro helped me breathe life into the story. I decided to imagine that the skeleton lying on the left was a Neanderthal. This is, of course, impossible. The Lovers date to around 6,000 years ago, whereas Neanderthals and modern humans might have co-existed in Europe over 40,000 years ago. But, I could relate to the Lovers and felt emotions while looking at their remains in the photo. I managed to transfer the feeling to imagined Neanderthal bones. The Lovers served as a kind of bridge through time.
How did you go about constructing your first draft? Did you research, then write? Write, then research? Do both simultaneously?
There is no clean answer to this. I did research initially and thought I had a good idea of how it might go. When I finished the first draft, it served to show me how much I still I didn’t know. I ended up doing this four times over, researching, writing a draft, getting it wrong, going back to my research, and starting again on page one. It was difficult at the time, but the layering proved important to getting it right.
You’ve mentioned that you worked with certain scholars while researching this book. Who were they, and how did you work together? What sources were most helpful to you?
When I first talked to Dr. Shea, he told me about reading an older novel about Neanderthals. As a scientist, the story frustrated him so much that he tossed the book over his shoulder, scoring an accidental perfect hit into the wastebasket. We agreed that he would look for “wastebasket moments” in my work.
In truth, he went much further. The reading list he assigned was extensive and everywhere he found a problem, he marked with a note and cited current research. I dug deep into JSTOR for sources. It proved invaluable when I wanted to read more widely in specific areas. ( I often read reviews like this one on JSTOR, as they tend to make the science more accessible and would help me establish if I needed to pursue the book as a result. Huge time/energy saver.)
What interested me most was where Shea found problems with the science were often areas where I was also struggling with the plot or characters. His sources helped bring new ideas for solving those issues.
Also, his notes gave me a framework. It was like taking a graduate course. You can read all the books you like, but having someone to guide and shape the direction of your reading is what makes it all click. After working with him, the research became much more of a natural part of the story.
Were there any findings in the course of your research that really blew your mind?
There were so many. I think the biggest one was that Neanderthals might have had higher pitched voices. I grew up with the idea that they grunted like cavemen. That was a hard image to shake.
Were there any amazing things that came up in your research that didn’t make their way into the book, but that you are storing in reserve for cocktail party banter/another book/this interview?
Ha, I love this question. Most of my research didn’t make it into the book. My job as a novelist is to breath life into the findings of others. I am not an expert, but I do hope that I can make the research come alive for readers. Humans go through life with a very selective view of what is going on around them. When writing a novel I dispense one word at a time, which means I have to be choosy about what to include. It is a small slice of a subject, but it must feel whole.
But to answer, I didn’t include a lot about the tool making culture of Neanderthals. I would have loved to include pages about how Neanderthals made tools, I was specifically inspired by the work that John Shea has done in this area. I also would have loved to include more about how they might have made pitch from birch bark. I found an article by Rebecca Wragg Sykes about tool making and what it can say about cognition particularly interesting.
I know many fiction writers who have admitted to going down over-research rabbit holes, and then ended up with starchy expositions showing off neat facts they learned. Novelists often note that research can be a form of procrastination. How did you avoid these common research pitfalls?
When I started writing this book, around 2012, there weren’t many comprehensive sources about the new science of Neanderthals written for the layperson. I really had to dive deep and put pieces of the puzzles together. While I can see that research is a great way to procrastinate, I don’t think this was the case for me.
But writing about all the interesting things I’ve learned is a constant danger. Time is the only thing that helps me decide what to cut. I do research, but then need to let it simmer. The most interesting details tend bubble up.
What gave you the bravery to write from the point of view of Girl, your “last Neanderthal,” even though her life and body and self are so removed from what you could possibly really know?
I quit many times because I thought, “Who do I think I am to write this?” It’s a question that every writer should ask. I came to a turning point one day when I was snowshoeing near a rocky, limestone outcrop. I live in Canada and the temperature was around freezing and I ducked into a small cave. Inside, it was cold and miserable. Earlier in the week I had been reading a debate about where Neanderthals lived—we often call them cavemen, but did they live in caves?
I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness, I used to be an instructor for Outward Bound, and once inside the cave I knew I had a possible answer. When made properly, snow huts can be warm and snug. I had no doubt that in a cold climate I would prefer to sleep in one. It was the first time I realized that my experience living and working in the wilderness gave me a way to imagine how living 40,000 years ago might have felt.
I also did a DNA test and found out that I was 2.5% Neanderthal. This means nothing really, but it helped bring home that they were more like me than I’d grown up thinking. It was a helpful trick of the mind to help give me authority to write.
I was curious about the language your Neanderthals speak. There is even a glossary of their words in the beginning of the book. Where did those words come from?
My father was a linguist who studied Old English, so I grew up with the assumption that understanding a language is the key to understanding someone’s point of view. When I was first trying to get to know the Neanderthals, I developed a glossary to help frame their world.
The Neanderthals in your book are almost mystically intuitive—they share dreams, they seem to read each other’s minds, they have extraordinary sensitivity that allows them to sense when another living creature is anywhere near by and what state of health that creature is in. What was behind this creative decision? Did something specific in your research inspire you to make them act this way?
I’d say that the Neanderthals in my story have a cultural belief that they share dreams as a way to feel closer to each other. It’s something they choose to believe and don’t demand evidence to know that it’s true.
Also, they are much more in tune to their senses. I went this way for a specific reason: I speculated that Neanderthals could speak. I based this on the finding of Neanderthal hyoid bones, which anchor the tongue in us. Also, they had the FOXP2 gene, which enables speech and communication in us. A vocal expert noted that Neanderthal voices may have been higher pitched and that they had to force their words out. Taking all this together, I had the idea that they might be able to talk, but their culture may have put less emphasis on words.
To add in a layer, I’ve noticed that when I travel by myself in the wilderness and talk less, my other sense wake up. Once I stop moving my lips incessantly, I see, hear, and smell a whole new range of things. I took all those things and exaggerated them to imagine how a Neanderthal might perceive the world.
There’s another strand of the story I haven’t mentioned, which is the contemporary archaeologist, Rosamund Gale, who discovers Girls’ remains in what might be a career-defining moment. Rosamund is pregnant, and very preoccupied about what is going to happen to her career and discovery once she has a baby. She is particularly concerned about getting proper credit for her work. What made you decide to include this?
I have a good friend who was nearly an archeologist, but didn’t go that route because she couldn’t imagine how she would reconcile a family life with life in the field. This is a reality that’s not limited to women, all parents and caregivers struggle for balance. And not just in science or academia either.
When I had children, I felt suddenly cut of from the world and very alone. I couldn’t understand why, given that I’m a capable, educated, and friendly person. Writing this book was about asking questions. Was it some deficiency in me, or is it part of something larger? Is the way we’ve structured our society at odds with our bodies and how they have evolved?
Finally, there is a surprising through-line in this book about post-partum depression and what it takes for new mothers to survive–Girl and Gale take two very different paths. Did you always know this was going to be a part of this story?
This theme kept pushing itself into my writing and I for the longest time couldn’t understand why. During the delivery of my second son, the umbilical cord became wrapped, twice, around his neck. I had the strong feeling that one of us might die, but I understood this more as a fact—I didn’t really fear death. I managed to stay composed by thinking of how many women before me must have felt the same way. We are, after all, a species that has a relatively narrow pelvis and a big head. It makes for a difficult birth. So I found the realization that I am imperfect because my body has evolved this way over time became a sort of comfort. During labor, I found a kind of hallucinatory strength in that connection, like I could reach out and hold the hand of a woman before me. She did this. So can I.
Read The Last Neanderthal to find out more about these fascinating characters.