**Finalist for the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
**Winner of the 2018 Evergreen Award
**A National Post Best Book of 2017
From the bestselling author of The Bear, the enthralling story of two women separated by millennia, but linked by an epic journey that will transform them both
40,000 years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard winter, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate.
But the unforgiving landscape takes its toll, and Girl is left alone to care for Runt, a foundling of unknown origin. As Girl and Runt face the coming winter storms, Girl realizes she has one final chance to save her people, even if it means sacrificing part of herself.
In the modern day, archaeologist Rosamund Gale works well into her pregnancy, racing to excavate newly found Neanderthal artifacts before her baby comes. Linked across the ages by the shared experience of early motherhood, both stories examine the often taboo corners of women's lives.
Haunting, suspenseful, and profoundly moving, The Last Neanderthal asks us to reconsider all we think we know about what it means to be human.
About the author
CLAIRE CAMERON was born in 1973 and grew up in Toronto. She studied history at Queen’s Universityand then worked as an instructor for Outward Bound, teaching mountaineering, climbing and whitewaterrafting in Oregon. Moving to London in 1999, she founded Shift Media, a consultancy withclients including the BBC, McGraw-Hill and Oxford University Press. Claire now lives in Toronto withher husband and son. The Line Painter is her first novel.
- Winner, OLA Evergreen Award
- Short-listed, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
Excerpt: The Last Neanderthal (by (author) Claire Cameron)
It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.
When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle; the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm.
As the sun had turned its face away, they were all exhausted from the work that came with spring. For once, there had been no nighttime shadow stories, talk, or laughs—though when they had all settled, Him, the oldest brother, issued a tremendous fart. He could have split a log with the force. Runt replied with a messy blow of his lips to the back of his hand. Bent laughed, just once, and Girl let a smile curl her lips but was too tired for more. Big Mother said, “Hum.”
And then it was quiet in the hut; heavy breathing, slow.
Deep in the middle of the pile of bodies lay Girl and Wildcat. Girl usually slept soundly, but that night she woke too early and pulled her cramped arm out from under the large cat. Earlier Big Mother had shooed him away to the edge of the nest. The sneaky cat had waited and, once he heard a whistle of air running evenly through Big Mother’s large nose, crawled back in. Wildcat was gray with pointed black tips on his ears. He was thick-boned and robust and had a dense mat of fur. A set of black rings ran the length of his tail. He had made a single chirp, a sound he had trained Girl to know, and moved in to cuddle up to her. He rubbed his head and ears against hers. She made a faint chirp in reply. They were good friends and Wildcat was the softest thing she knew.
Girl scratched at a flea that was attempting an escape from her armpit. She ran her sleepy fingers across the skin to try to flick it off. A shift and a slight grunt and she couldn’t reach. A moment later a thick finger pressed on her back. It skimmed across the shoulder blade and pushed. It was her brother Him, she knew from the feel of the rough skin on the tip of his finger. A pinch and a pop and the bug body crushed between his teeth. Girl didn’t say thank you. There was no need. It was built into all the times that she would pick a flea or louse for Him. Words could be empty. It was the return of a gesture that held meaning.
And then it was quiet. Girl sighed and fell back and became part of the tangle of bodies again. The protective layer of bone and muscle blurred. The edges of their shapes melted into the warmth. Thick lashes hit cheeks, breaths came slower, and the weight of long limbs fell away. When one had a dream, the others saw the same pictures in their heads, whether they were remembered in the morning or not. It wasn’t just their bodies that connected in sleep; it was also their minds.
The family lay in a pile on top of two thick, stretched bison hides. Under those hides was a bed of fresh pine boughs, crisscrossed to lift the nest away from the cold dirt floor. Girl and Runt had just changed the boughs that day, so the air was heavy with the scent of pine. Over the bodies were hides that had been cured and chewed until they felt soft against the skin. A layer of furs was spread on top to keep the family cozy. This nest lay inside a hut that was tucked into the side of a granite cliff, a carefully chosen position, as it was perched on a ledge with steep rock above and a sharp slope below. They had to slink along a narrow trail to get to the hut. While not convenient, it limited the routes that a predator could use to approach.
When going to sleep, the family imagined that they were crawling into the belly of a bison. The hut was roughly the same shape as the bison they ate. It had a low, tight back end to hold the heat in close. The front was stronger and made with more support, horned and watching. A long tree limb formed the spine of the structure. It was propped up at one end with a forked branch and wrapped in place with twine made from strips of the inner bark of a cedar tree. Once these main supports were up, long sticks were laid across the center pole, like ribs. Thicker branches were secured with stones at the front and back to form legs for stability. A first skin, cured with brain oil, was pulled tight enough over the frame to quiver. Dead pine boughs were then placed on the skeleton, like a thick slab of fat. The outermost layer was rough hides made of the densest fur from the backs of two old male bison, thrown over and tied on with cured tendons.
With body heat, it was snug inside the hut. The strength of the animals remained in their parts and gave the family a special kind of protection. In a land full of peril, protection of any kind was precious. What comforted the body was also solace for the mind.
When Girl was inside the hut, she had a habit of murmuring a word: “Warm.” She craved the feeling of being connected to so many beating hearts, to ears that listened, and to all those pairs of eyes that would watch to ensure that something wasn’t sneaking up behind another body. It was how her blood spread heat to the bodies she loved. It was how she stayed alive.
And much later, when the family was all gone and Girl was alone, the warmth was what she would remember about that night. She would let her longing out in a lonely moan: “Warm.”
When Girl peeked her head out of the hut that morning, she could smell the struggle of spring. It was the first day of the hunt and the land had come alive. The sun worked hard to peel the winter ice away from the earth. As it did, it uncovered a deep hunger in the land. The same kind of craving lived in the bellies of all the beasts who roamed the valley of the mountain. Girl watched as the trees below swayed with worry. They could feel the vibrations from the growling bellies through the soil around their roots. Cold air clung to the pine needles and each sprouting cone at the end of each branch quivered in anticipation. The ground shifted in discomfort as the ice let it go. Spring brought life for some, but it brought death for others.
Down the slope at the hearth, Big Mother stirred the coals to rouse the morning fire. The old woman wore her bison horns, which were secured in a soft hide and tied onto her head. The two horns protruded straight out at the spot where her short forehead met a thick hairline. With only a glance, any beast could tell that Big Mother was in charge. She was old by then, which meant that there were more than thirty springs she could remember. She had lost count of them all, but her milky eyes could still pick out shape, light, and movement. Her nose could still catch the scent of a fresh green shoot from a hundred strides away.
As the head of the family, Big Mother would decide on the particular beast they would try to kill that day. Though her hunting days were over, she would still make the trip to the bison crossing with the rest of the family. Girl wouldn’t risk leaving Big Mother, or any of the other weaker-bodied ones, alone at that time in the spring. A young leopard had recently come slinking around near their hearth. He was new to their land and unsettled. In earlier times the family could have driven him away easily, but that spring their numbers were especially low. They didn’t dare allow the leopard a chance. Only some meat got to eat.
As Him, Girl’s brother, walked over to the fire, Big Mother started to laugh. It took Girl a moment to see why. Him often had an erection and, given the loose arrangement of his cloak, she could see that this morning was no different. Big Mother laughed with joy, as an erect penis signaled good health. It was happiness.
Many things had dropped away from Big Mother’s body by then, but not her smile. Her laugh came out as a sharp cackle and showed her missing teeth, all gone except for a few mid-teeth in her upper left jaw and two molars on the right. When she laughed, she put a hand to her cheek, and Girl knew the old woman wished those teeth would also fall to the dirt. The pain made her body feel like dry meat. A clutch of wiry gray hairs lifted from her chin, and large breasts lay proud and flat over her belly. The thick skin on her face showed the trail of a tear. Big Mother believed that the measure of a life could be reduced to such small things, a count of the wrinkles to see how many laughs versus how many frowns a body had produced. Because of this, Girl knew that the old woman made sure to laugh often.
The smells of spring and her aging mother mixed together in a way that caused Girl some unease. Realistically, she knew that Big Mother could drop dead at any moment. She often said her breath smelled like the hindquarters of a bison after so many years of eating just that. While the back end of a bison had a distinct smell, it wasn’t necessarily bad. Shit came out of it and stank of life in a sweet way. If mixed with sand, bison shit could be stuck around the pine poles of a hut to fill up the cracks and keep out the wind. There was nothing bad about stopping a damp wind from blowing down your neck, just as there was nothing bad about aging. If Girl was wise enough to live so long, she would also earn that breath.
Big Mother’s wisdom was needed. Only the best instincts could get a body to reach old age and she had taught Girl that living a life, riding the back of the churning seasons, meant that change was constant. Everything around them sprouted, grew, and, at some point, reached its peak. Its strength would start to recede when the thing was no longer able to renew itself. It would then die—be deadwood. A leaf that falls starts to decompose. It soon becomes nutrients for the soil. The rich soil will take in rain and become food for the tree. And in that way, in time, things didn’t really die. They only changed. But all changes came with discomfort and unease. And Big Mother did her best to give comfort to the family by keeping what she could the same. Over all her years, she made her tools with the same source of rock, ate the same kind of foods at close to the same time of year, and built huts in the same way again and again.
Girl looked at Him and admired the shiny brown hair on his head. Its glossiness was a sign of health. Raked back above his ears, the hair was pulled away from his sloped brow and tied with a lash. His back was broad and flared out wide from his waist. He had gone through a change of his own. It came later than it had for some, as the years before had been lean and his fat stores were low. The change included moods that alerted Girl to what might be happening. Given the close quarters, moods were endured in a fairly stoic way. Though she pretended not to notice, she knew he might catch the eye of a woman at the fish run that summer.
Just thinking of the bright colors of the fish run was enough to make Girl’s heart quicken. Saliva flooded her mouth. Her hunger deepened. She thought of the soft fish eggs in her fingers. The year before she had held one up close to her eye and it looked like the river was trapped inside. That small river held the next generation of fish and so she wanted their strength inside her body. She had put the eggs between her back teeth, crunched down, and listened to them pop. She imagined the slippery skin of the fish in her hands and eating the soft, orange flesh underneath, and her blood felt as though it boiled under her skin.
When the spring sun climbed high enough to kiss the cliff that stood behind their hut, the family would start moving toward the meeting place. Other families who lived on separate forks of the river would also make the journey. It was by a broad stretch of the water that flattened into a series of shallow rapids where the river’s branches came together.
At that time of year, it was also the meeting place for the fish. As they flung their bodies up rocky steps, some were smashed on the rocks, some found themselves in the waiting reed nets of the family, and some fell into the jaws of bears. And a few of the fish made it through. Each was as long as an arm and as thick and muscled as a thigh, with two fangs that protruded up from the lower jaw. They were as smart as crows and as quick as snakes. Their scales were speckled gray, but the tastiest ones wore a blaze of orange across their backs to show they were ripe. The family believed that those were the best fish. They were not necessarily the strongest, but their traits—cunning, strength, size, or eyesight—were best matched to the conditions of that particular year. They were the ones who continued on to lay their orange eggs in the shallows higher upriver. The new generation of fish would come from them.
Girl’s mind was full of inward thoughts of the meeting place, but she knew she shouldn’t be distracted. She quickly snapped back to the present as she looked at her family by the hearth—Big Mother, Him, Bent, and Runt. They were a small group and some of them looked weaker than other beasts. She knew from their previous visits to the meeting place that they might not be the most attractive of the bunch. But she didn’t let worry about their chances flood her then. Like the skills of hunting, repairing, and building, learning to hold some of her worries back was part of growing up. She had to focus on the hunt. She shouldn’t divert the attention of her body from the present moment; it could put them all at risk. The world was so easily lost.
Him had been the first to climb down the steep slope from the hut to their hearth that morning. The land of the family was still in the grip of the ice, but he didn’t mind the cold. He was driven by his urge to mate. He knew that he would mate only if he looked in good health at the meeting place, and health lay in the food he ate. In the spring, it was only bison meat that could fill the needs of his dense muscles and large frame.
Him didn’t stop working when Big Mother laughed. His erection stood for the desire to eat and mate and it only drove him harder. He smiled, kicked the embers of the fire to extinguish the flame, and scraped the ashes to the side with a stick. Using a hide to protect his hands from the heat, he lifted a slab of stone with a concave surface that was used for making sticky pitch from birch bark. Someone in the family long before had found the slab and it had since been passed down from one body to another. As they moved frequently to find or follow food, it wasn’t a practical thing to carry. They cached the slab each year near where the spring hut was likely to be. Him handled it like a treasure. It was one of the few objects that many generations of the family had used. That was how a thing was made precious, by how many hands of the family had touched it before. The work he did linked him to the family through time.
The day before, Him had put layers of bark from a birch tree into the concave slab of stone and let the heat of the fire coax black ooze from the bark. Once hot embers were added, he used this sticky pitch to seal a triangular flake of stone onto the end of a wooden thrusting spear. Him quickly worked the pitch before it set. He licked his fingers often. He pressed and molded the pitch to get it just right. Once happy with the shape, he dipped the new tip in cool water.
As Him waited for the tip to set, he watched his younger brother Bent, who had a forearm that was curved like the horn of a bison. The thumb pointed away from Bent’s body, and his wrist was fixed. He was attempting to tie a hardened hide onto his shin for protection in the hunt, and the guard was difficult to get in place with his crooked arm. He could turn his hand only by twisting his elbow. It looked like Bent’s arm was aching too, as it often did when the weather changed. Bent spat in frustration.
“Runt.” Him let out the word in a loud, piercing bark. His larynx was short, which gave his voice a high pitch. This shrill sound shot through his broad nose cavity with a nasal quality. At the same time, it resonated through his deep, muscled rib cage. When he spoke, his voice came out loud and it tired his throat.
But Him didn’t need to stress his throat with words very often. Big Mother had set the quiet tone of their social customs, and living in such a small group meant that many things didn’t need to be said. Big Mother’s throat was even more prone to strain and she discouraged too much chatter, though those who witnessed her occasional flashes of rage might question her commitment to quiet. She called a body that talked too much a crowthroat; with a hand out, she would flap her fingers against her thumb, a gesture that stood for the beak of the bird she despised the most. The crows squawked and shit with no regard for what lay around them.
Runt heard his name and followed Him’s eyes to see Bent’s struggle. Runt had lived through six or seven winters by then, though no one knew his true age. It was difficult to tell, given his frail appearance. Him was glad to see that the boy had started to look for ways to be useful. Runt scampered over and put a skinny finger on the middle of Bent’s knot and used the other hand to pull one strand through. Together they tied the hardened hide to Bent’s shin.
Him thought that Runt’s position in the family was still uncertain. The boy had been found along the river before the fish run began. Another family had brought him to the meeting place, but they had not treated him well and barely fed him. Soon they had kicked him out of their hut and he had been left to wander around like a stray wildcat begging for scraps. Big Mother had finally taken pity on Runt and given him a nice piece of fish. The boy had attached himself to her side and had managed to hold his position ever since.
But Runt wasn’t growing up and out like he should. Him often suspected that the boy was sick. The morning before, Him had made the boy stand in front of Big Mother so that she could sniff his breath. He was worried about sunbite. The family knew it started with a particular kind of stench on the breath. Soon after came a deep fatigue, pain in the joints and back, and vomiting. The next and often fatal signs were flat red spots that appeared on the face, hands, and forearms and filled with pus, then turned to blisters. The sunbite burned the body and consumed it—the body had got too close to the sun. But Big Mother didn’t think Runt showed any signs. There was nothing obviously wrong with him.
Still, Him wondered. Even this spring, the boy wasn’t taking on muscle. Bulbs of knees and elbows stuck out from thin limbs, his eyes bulged, and his skin was darker than it should be. Him did not know why Runt was so small or if more meat would help him grow. He knew that the boy was a risk to feed. Each piece of food they tossed his way might compound the loss. Life was a moving set of decisions. Even reaching to pinch a flea had to be worth the saved blood.
Him sensed that the balance of the family was off. Perhaps it was his strong urge to mate that made him feel it more acutely than the others, a constant pressure on his skin.
When Girl was ready, she made her way down the narrow path toward the hearth. She walked up just as Him was admiring their new spear. They all had a role in most of the things they made, and constructing this spear was no different. Bent had collected and shaped the shaft, Runt had prepared the tendon that was used to wrap around the spearhead before the pitch seal, Girl had made the pointed stone flake, and Him had assembled the parts into a tool. None of them could conceive of themselves as separate from the others.
Girl reached out her hand to touch Him’s shoulder. Him didn’t look back and didn’t need to, as Girl’s scent was so familiar. She felt his heart throb. All of them could feel the physical reaction of another body on the soft parts of their skin, the inside of the wrist, a cheek, the base of the neck. Girl noticed that Him’s penis stood up again. One whiff of her was all it took. She knew how she looked, dressed for the hunt with hardened hides strapped tight to her shins and forearms. The black ocher paint on her face showed the two streaks of the family on each cheek. A shock of red hair stood up from her head. She wore a single shell on a thin lash around her neck. Her skin smoothed over muscles and gleamed with hazel oil. She could feel the effect of her strength on him. He made her teeth want to sink in. But she kept her eyes down and pointing away. If Big Mother caught her looking, there would be trouble.
In the years before, after a hunt, they would spend time eating and digesting in the protection of the cave that was tucked into the side of the cliff near their spring hut. They would build up the fire so that the flames licked up into the dark. Big Mother would stand in front of it so that her shadow cast shapes on the stone wall and, with shadows and singsong yowls, she would tell them stories. She felt it was worth straining her voice.
The story she told most, the one they loved to see, was one that Big Mother meant as a warning. It was about a brother and sister who had developed a taste for each other. It was a time when there were many families at the meeting place. When the brother and sister wouldn’t leave each other alone and one man in the family was chosen to kill them. They managed to escape, but the only way they could get away was to follow the fish.
The brother and sister traveled out toward the sea, to a part of the land where the families did not go. There were no bison, and the water was not fresh. They drank only salted water and ate only creatures with pinching claws. All the salt poisoned their minds and they went crazy. They had babies that became the sum of their experience. The children grew with eyes that stayed open in their heads like the fish in the sea. Their lips became crusted with the salt water that they drank. They grew claws for their hands and started to look like the creatures they ate. Big Mother would crouch over and pinch her fingers to show their ghastly shapes in the shadow. It was a story they all loved, the horror and the delight twisted together tightly.
To reinforce the message, Big Mother had given Girl a shell from the sea the size of a walnut. Girl strung it on a lash and wore it around her neck. But passed down for generations, the story changed in texture through time. The telling of a story using shadows was not as precise as Big Mother might have wished.
Girl understood the tale in the context of when it was told. It had been after a hunt, when she had a full belly. And Girl also saw the story against the backdrop of the change that was happening to her body at that time. Big Mother’s narrative became a new thing in Girl’s mind. To her, it was a tale that reinforced their way of life. It reminded her of why they preferred to live the same pattern every year and why their ability to hunt bison made them the strongest beasts on the land. Staying close to her brother could get them through the hardest times. That was why she always wore the shell, which she called the Sea, around her neck.
“Girl,” Big Mother shrieked now when she turned to see that Girl had emerged from the hut. Big Mother had given each of them a name that was relative to her. It was a way of distinguishing one body from another but without separating them too much. She believed that anything elaborate in the way of naming put unnecessary strain on the throat. Rather than words, rituals formed the pattern that guided their lives, and it was time for the morning meal before the hunt. The shriek meant Big Mother wanted Girl to feed her. No more words were needed.
Calling Girl was also Big Mother’s way of showing preference. It was rare and special to have two generations alive at one time. Most of them knew they would probably not live to see three for long. In Girl’s time, she had rarely lived with more than eight bodies at once. And to Big Mother, she was the last girl. It was a position so precious that she felt especially protective of Girl. No more breeding females would come from Big Mother’s old womb. Her body had become like a smooth pan of sand. Nothing could grow there, but something could take root in Girl.
The time for a succession was coming. Ensuring the family would live was Big Mother’s most basic concern, and their survival strategy hinged on the fish run at the meeting place: The oldest male, Him, would try to entice a new woman into the family to become a new Big Mother for their group. The female, Girl, would try to win a place as Big Mother of a new family. If both these things happened, the family was strong, like the fish in a good year. Their kind would return to run with the river again.
Girl took a piece of dried meat into her own mouth and started to chew. The meat had to be worked just right to get it ready for the near-toothless woman to consume. Too much chewing would drain all the juice; it had to be just enough so that the meat could slip through gums and down a throat. Girl chewed until it felt soft and took out the pulpy mouthful. She knelt beside her mother and dangled the piece of meat, holding it up for inspection.
Big Mother glanced at the chewed strip, taking heavy breaths through her nose. The wiry hairs on her chin caught the sun. She nodded okay and opened her lips. The smell of her breath came out in plumes. Her lips pulled back, and she snatched the meat with her gums.
“Hum,” she said.
She sucked at it until she swallowed.
After the old woman had eaten, Bent gave each of the other family members a handful of roasted hazelnuts and a slab of dried meat from the cache. Girl hungrily gnawed her piece of meat. It was slightly bigger than usual, as she was important to the hunt, but to her eye, it was not big enough. No portion ever was. She was always hungry.
Girl had noticed a feeling under her skin too, like a chewing sensation. She tried to soothe her mind by picturing herself after the hunt, a warm hunk of meat in hand, sucking at it for juice, surrounded by the smell of a fresh kill; her feet with their light brush of hair on top would twitch with happiness as she licked and chewed, the blood dribbling down her chin. The memory of meat filled her with hope. Her memories weren’t necessarily of things that had happened to her; they might be the experiences of someone else in the family. They could be transferred through dreams or through a body she ate. They were for keeping the body safe in its present state, finding food, or making sense of something unfamiliar. So Girl closed her eyes and let the good feelings from the fresh meat flood into her body. She thought of all the times the hunt had been successful for both her and the members of her family who came before. This hunt might stop her hunger.
Behind her she could hear Big Mother sniffing. The woman’s old hand, strong like a claw, wrapped around Girl’s shoulder and held on. The sniffing was closer and the old woman scented something on her. “Hum.”
Girl quivered like a leaf too heavy for its branch. Big Mother was sniffing her like she was checking for the sunbite. Girl pressed her own hand to her forehead. She seemed slightly hotter than usual, but none of the other symptoms were present. She didn’t feel sick; quite the opposite. Her muscles were twitching with want. Maybe more hunger than usual, if that was possible. She didn’t yet sense what Big Mother had already discovered with a sniff.
Girl found out when she went to squat behind a bush, the final step in getting ready to go. She saw a line of mucus on her thigh. It made her giggle, as it looked more like egg white than something that came from her. She wiped at it with a leaf and found it surprisingly slippery. It wasn’t like the blood that had come in the year before. She didn’t feel pain, only a slight cramp inside her hip. A cold trickle crept down her spine as she realized that this was the heat. It was the first time she had got it. The heat gave out the scent that told others she wanted to mate.
Girl knew she had to wait until they were at the meeting place for that. Big Mother had given her extra meat over the winter and signaled that this year Girl might be fat enough for the heat to come in time for the fish run. With it, she would be old enough to win a family of her own. Big Mother wanted her daughter to make her proud. Just as Girl’s sister, Big Girl, had done before.
But even as Girl had eaten the extra meat that winter, she worried. She didn’t want to leave this family as her sister had. Big Girl was quick to laugh. They had played and whispered and picked bugs off each other’s backs. Many had thought the two were the same body, with their broad noses that flared and their shocks of red hair. There was one difference that distinguished them, though. When Big Mother was confused about who was who, she would tell them to smile. Big Girl had had a particularly hard collision with a rock, and she had not managed to keep her front teeth attached to her head. The gap made her smile all the brighter. When Big Girl wanted to make Girl laugh, she would stick her tongue through the gap and hiss like a snake. Girl was scared of snakes. They would duck and weave around the camp, shrieking and laughing until one of them fell. The body who was still standing would fall on the other and start tickling. Or sometimes it was Big Mother’s large foot that would end the game. The gap in the front of Big Girl’s mouth was a source of great fun.
From Girl’s perspective, Big Girl was the strongest kind of woman because she had won a family at the fish run. But now she was gone. Maybe she lived well with ample meat, but Girl had no way of knowing. With the exception of going to the meeting place, she had never lived away from the family’s land. She did not know what life elsewhere was like. When she tried to imagine Big Girl’s life, all Girl felt was the bite of bugs with no sister to pick them off. That’s also how the idea of leaving felt to Girl, like a flea that her fingers couldn’t reach. And now the heat had come and Girl would change too. What lay ahead was dark and shadowy, like the back of a cave.
Girl knew this feeling wasn’t useful to the family. Thinking forward was distracting. It left the body vulnerable in the present. All she wanted to do was push it away. But everyone in the family would know. With the heat, the eyes of beasts across the land would take in her snowy skin in a new way. If not immediately, then soon. The sheen of her hair would look deeper, to show the heat that came from between her legs.
Girl hoped to hide it for now. She quickly found moss to wipe with and lessen the smell. She kept her head low and flicked her eyes to the side, a new fear to stay alert for meat-eaters. She straightened and walked back out to join the others. She took her place at the front of the line, just like she always did. As many in the family had before, she tried to pretend that nothing had changed. She focused on what was the same.
Why does life exist? I’d been plagued by doubt about my purpose for much of my life. The day I found her, a Neanderthal long buried in the dirt, I was relieved of it. As an archaeologist, I knew that the essential difference between something living and something dead is heat. Only living things are able to capture energy from the land and use it, but somehow, more than forty thousand years after her death, that Neanderthal was able to capture me. I felt as though her big hand reached through time to grab me by my grubby T-shirt and pull my nose to the spot where she lay. When I found her, I finally knew why I was alive. I wanted to learn her secrets.
By that time, I had already discovered one male skeleton in the cave. The remains belonged to a modern human, one of the Homo sapiens (meaning “wise man” in Latin), who are the only surviving species of the genus Homo. One of us. Some kind of geological activity had resulted in his bones fossilizing. Based on his pristine condition, I felt it was worth draining my savings to extend my teaching leave and assess the potential of the site. Andy, my assistant, and I camped at the cave, carefully staked the area inside, and started the slow process of excavating one thin layer at time. Soon after we began, I brushed aside a coat of sediment and uncovered a rounded fragment of skull.
He pushed through the thick plastic that we had hung to protect the entrance from outside contaminants. “Rose?”
“I found her,” I said, my voice shaking.
The soft hiss of carbonation came from behind me. Andy carried a can of Dr Pepper most places he went. I had forbidden him to bring it into the cave, assuming that one splash had sufficient corrosive power to instantly dissolve the artifacts that had survived all other threats. But Andy had developed a survival strategy of his own over forty-odd years of marriage to his wife, recently deceased: his hearing was highly selective.
“It’s a second set of remains,” I said.
“Really?” Andy sighed and took a big slug. “I see a tiny piece of bone.”
We were in a small cavern that was attached to a cave network not far from the Gorges de l’Ardèche near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in France. It was part of a larger system that had become well known thanks to the Chauvet caves, where spectacular paintings made by modern humans had been discovered in 1994.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Andy said as he tapped his watch. “I’ll get your notebook, but remember, it’s quitting time. We’ll come back to work on it tomorrow.”
“Her,” I said instinctively.
“We’ll come back to her first thing in the morning,” he teased. “Does she have a name yet?”
“I need to keep working, Andy.”
“My vote is Patricia, but we’ll have to firm up the christening details tomorrow. You made me promise that I’d force you to stop working at five. Remember?”
“There is no way in hell I’m leaving the site right now.”
Andy let out a longer sigh. “Is Jane too plain?” He took another big swig from his can.
I leaned back to look at Andy and noticed that weariness had settled about his kind face. Perhaps I was driving him to his carbonated addiction? But he smiled his big, wide Oregonian smile to let me know he was fine. I did the same by giving the slight round of my belly a pat.
“Get yourself a fresh can,” I said. “And my notebook and the camera.”
“Does this mean we aren’t stopping?”
“I’m pregnant, not deranged.”
“Hum.” Andy shrugged and pushed back through the plastic.
“Andy?” I called after him.
“Jane is far too plain.”
I waited until Andy was gone to rub the sore spot in my lower back. I was well into the third month of my pregnancy. I wasn’t showing, but I hadn’t needed a test to know my condition. I’d had to tell Andy. You can’t hide the fact that you’re experiencing morning sickness when you’re sharing a tent with someone. My plan was to visit my doctor when I got back to London in two weeks. Then, after I had confirmation, I would break the news to Simon, my partner. He was holding down our fort in London, since the courses he was teaching went through the spring. Part of me wanted to grab the phone and shout the news to him, but another part of me felt it was premature. Simon had wanted a baby for a long time. I was thirty-nine and I knew that on some level, he had given up hope. Quietly, I’d watched him resign himself to a different kind of life than the one he’d imagined. If I was going to shift his life view again, I wanted to be completely sure.
At sixty-two, Andy had decided that life was short and had taken early retirement from a financial firm in order to pursue a PhD in archaeology—a late bloomer, he’d called himself. When I e-mailed around for help on a scouting expedition, he was the first to respond. He had been studying at Stony Brook University with a good friend of mine, Dr. Conn Bray, who specialized in Paleolithic technologies. I had been reluctant to take Andy on, as I’d assumed he was the sort of student who’d anticipate Indiana Jones–type adventures in snake pits and wouldn’t be happy with the usual slow-moving nonaction of archaeological dirt pits. Conn tended to make paleoarchaeology look like a great adventure and was prone to carving up goats with stone tools in class. But the more Andy and I had worked together, the more I realized that he was the best kind of student—one who listened and learned but had much to add. He quickly became my willing coconspirator in all things archaeology as well as a good friend. I didn’t know what I would do without him.
Andy pushed back in through the plastic. Holding my notebook, my camera, and a fresh can of soda, he twisted a wrist in an attempt to glance at his watch. “And Simon wants you to call when you’re back in camp. Your mother called too.”
I was listening, but not really. Andy knew. He tried again. “I’ll take a photo, plot it, do a sketch, and we’ll call it a wrap?”
“Who’s the boss of this site?” I lifted my chin teasingly.
“That’s a touchy subject.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Dr. Rosamund Gale, sir!” He tipped his Dr Pepper in a salute.
“And what time is it, Andrew?”
“Five thirteen p.m.”
“Take photos. Mark this find.”
“My boss will have me axed!”
“As your boss, I say put that damn Dr Pepper outside.” I burst out laughing.
I’d taken a leave of absence from teaching to follow up on a few interesting features I’d noticed while caving in this area with a surveying team in previous years. With Andy working as support and paid with the last of the money from my savings, I retraced the route that I’d taken. But this time, in the silence, with no pressure from the group, I found a vent. A cave vents air like a body. When the pressure changes, the less dense, cooler night air is drawn in, like an inhale. When the sun heats the air, the cave seeks equilibrium and exhales. I’d found the vent when I stopped to take a water break. I felt it first, like someone blowing gently on my cheek. It took two days to find a channel that led to this previously unmapped cavern.
Maybe I’d suspected then that I was pregnant, but I had managed to delay my internal discovery of it for a few weeks—a time-tested way of ensuring that plans are easier to hatch.
When I first accessed the cavern, it was through a narrow channel of rock. I had to wriggle like a snake to make it through. The cavern on the other end had remained undetected for years, possibly because the narrow channel prevented men of even average girth from entering.
After I’d wriggled through and dropped down, it was only an hour or two before I uncovered the edge of a stone hand ax. I later identified it as an example of the Châtelperronian industry, part of a toolmaking culture that I believed was shared by modern humans and Neanderthals. Andy and I were able to punch through a wall of the cavern to expose the outside wall and make the site more accessible. The cave soon became more like a proper dig site, though the money and glamour of Indiana Jones was missing. Andy said he provided the good looks.
Within a month, Andy and I had found the first set of bones; they belonged to an ancient male who was a modern human.
The moment I’d uncovered the fragment of a second skull, I had a hunch we had found something big. I couldn’t just put down tools because it was precisely five o’clock. We kept working, quietly and carefully brushing and plotting.
“Okay?” Andy asked.
“Yes, thank you.” I forced a smile to mask my exhaustion.
“Nice mustache.” He chuckled. I had an unfortunate habit of running my dusty arm along my face to wipe at the sweat. The result was that each day, I collected a thick line of dirt on my top lip. At least it kept Andy entertained.
Late afternoon stretched to evening. Before I knew it, it was dark outside the cave. Andy measured and charted while I slowly brushed away more layers of dirt. We had some nuts and granola bars on-site to keep us going. Somehow I found myself coaxed into taking a slug of Dr Pepper. I admit it gave me a little pep. As more of the skull appeared in the dirt, I saw that she seemed to be lying on her side with her head turned toward the modern human. They were clearly in the same stratum, or layer, of dirt.
I began to see that the skull was longer than expected. There was a distinct ridge of bone above the eye orbit. I looked up at Andy to see if he noticed too, but he continued to act like it was any other day.
“Should I switch?” he asked.
I realized that Andy had been talking while we worked, but about what? I was too absorbed by the visible bone to know. He easily decoded the confused look on my face.
“To diet,” he said.
“Dieting doesn’t work,” I answered. “Our bodies evolve much more slowly than our eating habits.”
“I mean to Diet Dr Pepper. I might switch to that.”
“Diet cola is for fat people, Andy.”
“I’m fat.” He patted his gut.
“Be thankful it’s not a baby,” I muttered and turned back to my brushing.
“You ever wonder if we could excavate—”
“Have you ever tried cherry Dr Pepper? Isn’t that a thing?”
“—your sense of humor.”
“Or go crazy and switch to Fanta—do you like that? Maybe you just need a change.”
“I was fishing, Rose.”
“What, you want to take up fishing for exercise?”
There was no need to bother trying to cover up my lack of attention since it was so readily apparent. I reached over and gave Andy’s belly a nice pat, which pleased him immensely. I was his favorite person to tease and vice versa, but he was no longer looking at me. He was staring at my breasts.
“Really, Andy.” I put a finger under his chin to lift it. “You are just like the rest of them.”
“Did you spill water?”
Andy had a confident enthusiasm that usually rippled all around him. It was part of what made me agree to take him on. This might have been the first time I had ever heard him sound unsure. “Ah, you’re leaking.”
I looked down. He was right. I had a wet stain on my T-shirt over my left breast. “Shit,” I muttered.
“Nope,” Andy said, regaining his swagger. “I’m pretty sure it’s milk.”
“Colostrum.” The word came out of my mouth as a wail. “It’s too early, isn’t it? How could I have already turned into a cow?”
“You’ll make a good cow.”
“I’m an angry cow.”
“Did I mention that you told me to make sure you stopped working at five p.m.?”
“Oh, wait.” I shone my headlamp on the spot on my shirt to take a closer look. “It’s only a drop of Dr Pepper. Phew.”
“Wow, you are jumpy, huh?”
“Well, quit spilling the good stuff or I’ll start panicking too.”
A few more sips of Dr Pepper kept me going. I would not have stopped for anything. This was the culmination of years and years of painstaking work; I’d sacrificed teaching money and time with Simon to explore this area. It was potentially the first big find that I could claim as my own. While I was considered old to be a first-time mother, I was too young to have made a significant mark on my field yet. Andy was right. I was jumpy.
As we worked, I let my mind run over the idea of having a baby. I had seen what happened to the women in my field who came before me. Most who had kids got sidelined, or sidelined themselves. Men who chose to be involved with their children tended to do the same. I had no reason to expect that my experience would be different. And if this was indeed an important find, timing was crucial. In archaeology, the discovery is important, but the person who interprets the find and publishes is the one who gets the credit. I knew that any absence from the dig could result in my name getting bumped to the end of the line of authors or, worse, dropped entirely. The list of female scientists whose contribution had been diminished or forgotten was depressingly long.
And then, with a few more strokes of my brush, in the dirt before my eyes, the story started to come together. It must have been about two in the morning when I uncovered enough of the skull to see the outline.
“Look.” The word came out in a choke. I pointed to show Andy the profile of a prominent brow, a larger nasal cavity, and a receding forehead. “What do you see?”
“One ugly dude.” He whistled.
Andy let his breath out of his lungs then. The length of the exhale spoke of just how unsure he had felt about my theories of where and how we might find artifacts. There were no jokes or fresh cans cracked. We were both too stunned. Andy grabbed my arm, mouth agape. Neither of us could talk. We sat in silence and stared.
As we looked, the implications of this find slowly registered. Maybe on some level, I had begun to doubt myself too. We knew well from the recent advent of DNA testing that many modern humans had inherited genes from Neanderthals and vice versa, but beyond the obvious method of transfer, we knew little about the relations between them. In my quieter moments, I doubted we ever would.
But in the cave, the remains of a Neanderthal lay with those of a modern human. It looked like they had died together, maybe in a volcanic event, as there were records of those in the area. Perhaps they had been placed in this position by someone who thought they would want to face each other in death. They might well have lived together. Whatever the case, their position was evidence of more complex communication between the two, something that I had always assumed would be lost to time. Now it was found. A relationship, a feeling, or a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.
“In Claire Cameron’s engrossing and inventive novel The Last Neanderthal, the narratives of two females—one human, one Neanderthal, both separated by 40,000 years of history—are masterfully linked by a mysterious archeological find. This novel posits new questions surrounding the commodification of science, the emotional road to parenthood and the evolutionary roots of our most basic drives. The struggles for survival in both storylines are rendered with empathy, and manage to prove that our worldly problems—whether modern or ancestral—have always been essentially the same. With great sophistication, The Last Neanderthal seeks out that which makes us human and the result is feminist literature of the highest order.” —2017 Rogers’ Writers Trust Prize jury
"To call this book a historical novel would be a great mistake—The Last Neanderthal goes a lot further and deeper than that. Claire Cameron reunites us with our past, with the beginning of humanity. In this book I lived next to people who populated the earth a very long time ago and have long since vanished completely. To make you feel for them and, what is more, feel with them, is a great achievement. It is one of those novels that opens the world to you in a different way, and after finishing it this world will never look the same to you again." —Herman Koch, international bestselling author of The Dinner and Dear Mr. M
"Claire Cameron's book is a necessary, brilliantly feminist and intuitive reading of our earliest history. She memorably paints a full world with her Neanderthals and binds it perfectly to our own." —Sheila Heti, author of Ticknor and How Should a Person Be?
"A powerful, warm and thought-provoking book, that artfully blends facts with fiction to put flesh on many abstract scientific debates." —Yuval Noah Harari, international bestselling author of Sapiens and Homo Deus
"Cameron has an exceptional ability to build tension and suspense through tuning us into the drama and plot lines inherent in the natural world. . . . The Last Neanderthal masterfully examines our connections to our evolutionary cousins . . . [which] speaks to the author's deep empathy, consummate skill as an artist and deep-hearted vision. The Last Neanderthal is a novel to cherish." —Toronto Star
"Cameron pulls out all the literary stops in giving Neanderthals as much free rein, agency and authenticity as possible. . . . This could easily be the best book that shakes up the classic Neanderthal tropes in science fiction and fantasy." “Los Angeles Review of Books
"Impressively executed. . . . The contrasting and similar reactions to motherhood are emblematic of the book’s greatest strength—its ability to collapse time and space to draw together seemingly dissimilar species: ancestors and successors, writer and reader." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A deeply sympathetic portrait of a Neanderthal girl struggling to survive some 40,000 years ago, battling leopards, bison, a brutal winter and starvation. Her vivid survival story is interwoven with the tale of a pregnant archaeologist named Rosamund, who makes a startling discovery when she finds the fossilized remains of a Neanderthal and a human buried next to each other." —The New York Times
"The women of Cameron's The Last Neanderthal are fierce, whatever their time period. This meditation on motherhood, passion and survival is lush and lovingly detailed, creating a world that's frighteningly accurate and reassuringly heartfelt. Couldn't put it down." —Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach and Son of a Trickster
"The Last Neanderthal is a book like no other. Claire Cameron effortlessly inhabits the worlds of two very different and very pregnant women—a female Neanderthal desperate to survive and an archeologist who fears losing control of her dig site—and shows us they are not that different after all. A powerful novel that will make you cry. And laugh, too." —Marcy Dermansky, author of The Red Car
"The Last Neanderthal is astonishing. With delicacy and tenderness, Claire Cameron imagines the struggles of a Neanderthal family to sustain itself physically and psychologically in the face of extinction. As we follow Girl, her mother and brothers, and a mysterious stray called Runt, we are put in touch with what is most ancient and noble in human nature. At the same time, the parallel contemporary narrative shows us how little, over the eons, the human heart has changed. I'm thrilled by Cameron's adventurous and deeply empathic tale, an example of what fiction at its best can do." ?Pamela Erens, author of Eleven Hours
"Claire Cameron's newest novel, The Last Neanderthal, is fascinating, insightful and poignant; a moving narrative of the last survivors of a harsh and unforgiving environment that is both exotic and achingly familiar. It is a story of our profound connectedness to our ancestors, exploring the ultimate question of what it means to be truly 'human.'" “Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic's Daughter
"This rich, literary, science-based imagining of Neanderthal life intrigued me from the start. The parallels between two women navigating complex lives from across time and space—and across a narrow species boundary—is captivating in itself. But more than this, while reading The Last Neanderthal, I felt myself standing with new feet within our human lineage. This book makes me want to pay attention to the senses that are in our blood—an alertness to vision, smell, touch, weather, the presence of other creatures—that can come naturally to us as a Homo sapiens, but have been lost from inattention and lack of use. I find myself walking into the world with a heightened awareness of what it means to be fully human." ?Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Crow Planet and Mozart's Starling
"Cameron challenges the reader to consider his or her own existence. This is an engaging tale that celebrates the search for life's meaning and its quotidian nature." —Bookpage
"Readers have been captivated by stories of prehistoric humans for eons—well, at least since Jean Auel's phenomenal 1980 best seller The Clan of the Cave Bear. Claire Cameron's arresting new novel The Last Neanderthal investigates the same time period with significantly more literary skill." —USA Today
"Devoured it like Girl devoured the meat strips. Could not put it down." —Shelagh Rogers, via Twitter
"Cameron has ultimately written a compassionate extinction narrative, a counter to a cold social Darwinism where only the fittest survive." ?Maisonneuve
"[The Last Neanderthal] ties together humans and Neanderthals in unprecedented ways, while Cameron's immense storytelling talents remain completely enthralling." ?Huffington Post
"It's perhaps a strange thing to say about a novel that's fundamentally about extinction, but The Last Neanderthal is a pleasure to read." “Jezebel
"A provocative look at our earliest history, this book will stick with you." —Canadian Living
"Cameron has succeeded at creating a gripping, cohesive story with two compelling women at its heart. Her novel taught me new things, made me reconsider what I already knew about humanity's beginnings and made me want to learn more." —The Winnipeg Review