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The Last Neanderthal: A Novel by Claire…

The Last Neanderthal: A Novel

by Claire Cameron

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In her new novel, The Last Neanderthal, Claire Cameron draws on new scientific information to recreate the world when our human ancestors and Neanderthals coexisted. Of course, DNA sequencing of Neanderthals has proven that they are also part of our ancestral heritage. No longer can we imagine that human superiority overcame an animalistic, inferior group. So what then did cause the extinction of the Neanderthal population?

In this novel, Girl is part of a small family group that just survives, living in isolation on their territory. Big Mama is in her early thirties and her body is failing. An older sibling has already joined her mate's family. Girl has a younger brother, Him. They have allowed a hanger-on, Runt, to join the family. Runt is small, talks too much, and is without the Neanderthal musculature and bone structure. But if he is weaker than Girl he also is brave and resourceful.

During the time of the fish run the local Neanderthal population gathers at the river to feast on spawning salmon, intermingle, and mate with individuals outside of the family group. This year will be Girl's time to mate and leave.

In alternating chapters, the contemporary foil to Girl is the archaeologist Rose who is excavating Girl's skeleton. Rose is independent, strong, and a leader, like Girl. Rose is also pregnant, as was Girl.

The two stories lines offer a contrast and comparison. The one difference is that Rose has a support group around her, for human society evolved through a social contract beyond the family group. Girl, on the other hand, has lost her family and finds no one at the summer river. She is vulnerable and alone--and doomed.

Humans' larger social groups allow them to share innovations and new technology. The Neanderthals' isolation limits their advancement, but they seem to have an instinctual race memory as well as acquired knowledge that is passed through generations. Girl pushes away abstract thinking when it arises as it interferes with the alertness that guarantees her survival.

Readers will compare this novel to Jean Auel's 1980 blockbuster The Clan of the Cave Bear. I have not reread the Auel book since it's debut and will not comment on a comparison. I will be interested to hear how Auel fans will react to Cameron's novel based on new research, but also on how her characterization of Girl and her presentation of Neanderthal and human interaction compare to Auel's book.

I have read some reviews by Goodreads readers who did not like Rose. Another reader pointed out that being a female scientist in a male-dominated field is hard. Rose needs to be dedicated, single-minded, and protective of her work. I liked Rose as a foil to Girl. Both are dominant, capable women. They allow readers to connect the similarities and differences of women's experiences across the millennium.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this novel. I did have questions about Girl's concrete vs. abstract thinking and asked Ms. Cameron if she would clarify. I wrote,
Dear Ms. Cameron,
I have read your new book through NetGalley. I was hoping you would answer a question I have about Girl.
At times she seems to draw on instinct, focused on the concrete and the 'now'. But at times she also shows an ability to imagine another's motives. For instance, she sees a calf and thinks "From his skitterish eyes, it was clear that he would have crawled back inside her belly if given the chance." This abstract thinking is what I am wondering about.
Can you clarify your understanding of the Neanderthal mind and if this is an ability unique to Girl or if this is a new understanding of the species as a whole?

I received a nice reply.
Hi Nancy,
I often get the same questions over and over. I don't mind at all, as I understand that they are fundamental to the experience of reading the book. Occasionally, though, I get a question that shows how thoroughly a reader has engaged with what I was trying to do. Your question feels like this to me. Thank you for asking.
My idea was that Girl has a stronger connection between her mind and body than we do. For example, she would never get angry at herself for eating at extra cookie. If she could witness me scolding myself for eating a cookie, as many of us do, she would wonder who I was talking to-- there is only one me? I've often wondered why we have this split sense of ourselves, of the mind vs. the body. Girl would just simply eat a cookie.
But, Girl is also a hunter. I read about animals and the new theories about how their minds work. One book that I particularly love is Frans De Wall, ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE? He talks about how we think of intelligence as a cognitive ladder, that the smarter are at the top. But when breaking down the different skills that animals have, this clearly isn't true. One of his frequently cited examples is that squirrels can remember where they cached hundreds of nuts a season, whereas a human could never do this. Does this mean a squirrel is smarter? No, but it does show the difference between their intelligence and ours.
When you apply this kind of non-hierarchical thinking to hunters, the more they can get into the mind of their prey, the more successful they will be in making a catch. The hunter, be it either a leopard, Wildcat, or Girl, has to anticipate what their prey might do. What does the prey want? What might it do next? Girl was such a good hunter because she was also good at anticipating others needs.
That is the long answer. The short one is that I was trying to think of Girl has having a different kind of intelligence that wasn't necessarily better or worse than ours. Just different. In reality, we know very little about how Neanderthals thought, so I extrapolated from what we know about the mind to imagine my own answers.
I hope that answers your question. Thank you, again, for it.
Cameron discovered she has 2.5% Neanderthal DNA and this novel is not an exploration of 'the other' as much as an imagining of our common ancestry.

I expect this book to interest many readers and be a big hit.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. ( )
  nancyadair | May 31, 2017 |
The Last Neanderthal is the newly released third book from Claire Cameron. Each book from Cameron has been completely different from the last. This latest springs from Cameron's fascination with Neanderthals.

Research has shown that some modern humans have inherited 1- 4% of their DNA from Neanderthals, indicating that 'rather than a more evolved version of Neanderthals, we are close cousins."

The Last Neanderthal is Cameron's imagining of that time - the end of the Neanderthals and the beginning of humans.

Cameron's story is told through the eyes of Girl and her family far in the past. In the present it is Rose's voice. She is the archaeologist who has just uncovered the skeletons of a human and a Neanderthal buried together - facing each other.

Girl's voice was first and I was so drawn to her. Cameron imbues Girl and her family with, well - humanity. They care and respect each other. But the drive is to survive - to find enough to eat, to procreate and to see another season. I became so invested in this family, notably Girl, Runt and Big Mother. The reader knows what happens to the Neanderthals, but it is Cameron's imagining of Girl's thoughts, feeling and actions that brings the book to life. I enjoyed the description of their language, customs and culture. (And found myself reading more about Neanderthals on the web)

In present day, Rose's discovery of the skeletons is the pinnacle of her career and her research. But it coincides with major changes in her personal life and creates upheaval at home and at work. As Rose's life moves forward the similarities with the past become evident. Girl and Rose are not that different, despite the time separating them. "I know that if I had ever been fortunate enough to meet her, I would look into her eyes and know her. And maybe she could know me. We were so much the same."

The book ends on a great note, but I didn't want it to - I wanted more of Girl's story. The Last Neanderthal is another great read from Cameron - one that will make you feel, make you think and make you wonder....... ( )
  Twink | May 9, 2017 |
How could I pass up a book about a Neanderthal written by a fellow Neanderthal descendant?* The Last Neanderthal alternates between two timelines - the present day at an archeological dig where a pair of skeletons, a Neanderthal and a modern human, are found nestled together - and the other @40,000 years ago when the Neanderthal, called Girl, was alive but the last of her tribe. The artifacts found at the dig piqued my curiosity to find out how the two skeletons came to be buried together but the Neanderthal's story itself is what really held my interest.

*According to the 23 and Me DNA test I have 274 Neanderthal genetic variants.

I received this book for free through Goodreads Giveaways. ( )
  wandaly | May 7, 2017 |
A special thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada and Doubleday Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Being a Canadian, I always like to read and review Canadian authors. I read Cameron's The Bear for a book club selection, I didn't love it, but I was eager to give her another chance.

An interesting premise—Cameron juxtaposes the last Neanderthal family against a parallel modern-day storyline. Initially I was unsure, Neanderthals? After finishing The Last Neanderthal, I'm glad that I requested something that normally I wouldn't be attracted to.

40,000 years in the past, the last Neanderthals are fighting for survival after a hard-fought winter. Their numbers are low, but Girl is coming of age and her family are determined to make the trek to the annual meeting place in hopes of securing her a mate to carry on their species. The small family's existence is further threatened by the elements and nature and Girl is left to care for Runt, a small foundling of unknown descent. Once again, Girl and Runt must face the winter and risk their survival.

In modern-day France, we meet archaeologist Rosamund Gale who has just learned that she is pregnant and worried about the repercussions of having a baby. The site that Rose is working at contains the remains of a female Neanderthal that appears to be embracing a Homo Sapiens male—were they lovers? This startling discovery has scientists reevaluating what they believed were our origins. With a race against impending motherhood, Rose does not want to give up her work after making incredible strides in a male-dominated field of study. She often has to defend her position simply because she is a woman. Rose begins to feel an incredible amount of pressure as the project in jeopardy of losing funding, and she has just learned that she is the sole bread winner after her partner Simon loses his teaching position.

Rose and Girl are linked through time by their pregnancies and experiences of what it means to be a woman, a mother, and to survive.

Primal, raw, and unique, this was an interesting read. ( )
  GirlWellRead | Apr 11, 2017 |
France, a female archeologist finds the bones of two people, the bones displayed as if they are looking at each other at the time of their deaths. A very important discovery as it turns out because one of the skeletons is a female Neanderthal and the other a male homo sapiens.

This is a cleverly constructed book, as we go back to the time of the Neanderthal and our author reimagines a time when they were living. She uses a family, a mother, a girl, a boy and another boy, and a young boy that they have sort of adopted that is quite different from them. They call him Runt. Their daily lives, constant quest for food, the danger from predators, each members role in the family, though eventually this will be the girls story as circumstances dictate that it is her we will follow. This story alternates with the modern day as Rosamunde, our archeologist struggles to get financing for her dig, an unexpected pregnancy and trying to maintain control of the dig and her personal life. Both paths of these women will have commonalities and differences but the struggle for women will intersect across time.

Changing views of our perception of the intelligence of the Neanderthal made this book believable. Genetics has proven that many ancestors of these early people are still alive today, it is in their DNA. Although little is known about their lives, which the author acknowledges in her afterward, leaving her free to use her imagination. I enjoyed this look into some unknown history, and freely admit that the historical storyline was the more fascinating one. Well written, well imagined, a different type of read.

ARC from Netgalley.
Publishes April 25th from Little Brown. ( )
  Beamis12 | Apr 8, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 031631448X, Hardcover)

From the 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 06 Jan 2017 14:39:34 -0500)

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