On the Neanderthals

Posted in books, sci-fi, science, science by jrahman on June 18, 2012

The Ekushey Book Fair, 1988.  I was in Class 8.  What I really wanted was a 4-volume set of old Masud Rana novels.  Of course I didn’t have the courage to ask my mother, who bought a book on paleoanthropology — I think it was Amal Dasgupta’s Manusher Thikana, but a quarter century later, I can’t really be sure.

I was disappointed at first, but it didn’t take long to get enthused about the story of human evolution.  I finished that book in days.  I wanted to get English books on the subject from the British Council library.  This took a few weeks because the campus got violent around 21 February.

And then, as is usually the case with these things, my interest waned.

The Neandertal Enigma : Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins

Until mid-1990s, when National Geographic, Jared Diamond and David Graeber got me interested about anthropology and human evolution again.  On the specific subject of the Neanderthals, the major book of that time was James Shreeve’s  The Neanderthal Enigma.

In fact, that book gives a pretty good introduction to the state of knowledge about human evolution as of mid-1990s, with the two competitive hypotheses of ‘out of Africa’ and ‘multiregional evolution’ theories, and the academic feud between their proponents.  As for the Neanderthals, the book explores the enigma of how this human species, which apparently had bigger brains than modern humans, disappeared 25-30,000 years ago.  Was it because of ‘natural’ causes like climate change?  Did they interbreed with modern humans?  Or did our ancestors kill them?

According to Shreeve, the major difference between the Neanderthals and our ancestors is that the latter had a more complex social system based on exclusive sex contracts (aka marriage) and complex language that allowed for social innovation like myths and politics.  With married couples and complex societies, modern humans reaped the benefit of division of labour and their population grew.  Add with that climate change, and Neanderthals probably died with a whimper, not a bang.

First edition cover

The idea of a relatively simple society with “mateless sex” is the basis of John Darton’s 1996 novel where two tribes of Neanderthals survive to the present day in remote mountains of Central Asia.  Of course, this being a science fiction novel, the Neanderthals have some features — telepathy, to be precise — that are purely speculative.  But hey, they had bigger brains than us, remember.

I liked the book when it first came out.  But it’s no Dune or The Man in the High Castle.  In fact, there isn’t any book that does for human evolution what those books did for space opera or alternative history sub-genres.

The Clan of the Cave Bear cover.jpg

And yes, that includes Jean M Auel’s Earth’s children series.  I think the first book was great, exploring ‘the other’ in a novel way.  But the sequels became less and less about the Neanderthals, or even human pre-history, and more a coming-of-age romance.


The other Neanderthals-related book that could be considered a classic is Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead.  The thing is, it’s about not just the Neanderthals, but also a lot of other things too, not the least of which is the heterodox treatment of ‘the other’.  And ‘the other’ here isn’t quite pre-historic.  Rather, it has very contemporary resonance for it’s narrated by a ‘civilised’ Muslim noble man visiting the pagan-barbaric-primitive lands of northern Europe.  While Richard Matheson turned of the vampire genre on its head in I am Legend, Crichton turned orientalism on its head in this book, and that too two years before Said published his book.

But where do the Neanderthals come in, you ask?  Well, in Crichton’s telling, they are the basis of the baddies in the old English epic Beowulf.

Right.  An Arab among the Vikings fighting Neanderthals — this is the stuff of epic blockbusters.  Sadly, the Hollywood adaptation was a turkey.

In the past decade, we’ve come to know that 30,000 BCE Eurasia was home to not just two but four, perhaps more, human species.  And some of them may have even intermingled.  Surely there is a great novel waiting to be written on this!

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  1. Touhidul said, on June 18, 2012 at 10:03 pm


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  2. Planet of humans | Mukti said, on August 3, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    […] perhaps all the way back 30,000 years or earlier when the last time this planet was home to two intelligent species of primates — is clear us-vs-them distinction.  Identity politics, tribalism, is likely to be older […]

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