“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.”
A scientist may explain life in simplistic terms of energy. Living things capture energy. Non-living things don’t. But, that description doesn’t account for the magic of life. How can a book come alive in our hands? A story blossom to life and take on momentum outside of its pages? Or, an idea sparked to life? A non-living thing made alive. It sounds fictional. Magical even. But it happens every day.
The Last Neanderthal is the story of Rose discovering Neanderthal remains and is intertwined with the story of the Neanderthal herself, Girl.
For Girl, survival is her primary focus, as it was for all living creatures then. Hunting and shelter and providing for the family takes most of her energy. Her purpose is simple, make sure the family survives.
Rose, on the other hand, is a product of modern times. The threat of survival is not as imminent, life has a different urgency, a different rhythm.
When I first started reading, I wondered how Cameron was going to weave these two stories together. How she could possibly intertwine the two lives, separated by more thousands of years, in a narrative that felt true. And somehow, she does exactly that.
In this book we get a stunning examination of what makes us human. It is interesting that this humanity is also what links us to the rest of the planet. Our ability to take from nature and learn allowed us to adapt and move forward. While we have always attributed these strengths and abilities to our species specifically, through scientific discoveries, namely DNA sequencing, we now know that we share a piece of our past with Neanderthals.
By making Girl one of the main characters, we are able to examine how we possibly could have developed to share this past. How we could have interacted with Neanderthals as a species and what could have led to our two species coming together.
The beauty of The Last Neanderthal, is that Claire Cameron doesn’t force us down any one path. We are given the outline of a question and are allowed the freedom to imagine the rest of the puzzle for ourselves. She doesn’t fictionalize an exact scenario or claim knowledge of specific stories. Rather, she leads us into a window of the past and lets us experience just enough to let our imaginations run free.
“It was not love that drove a body to live, but hunger.”
Cameron is able to take sentences like that, sprinkled throughout the book, and give them a double meaning. Specifically, hunger drives our needs, and in the case of the Neanderthal, alleviating hunger takes up a large portion of time. But, the truth is, our humanity still thrives on hunger. Rose is consumed by her hunger to complete her dig, to ensure that her discovery is kept whole and is valued. This hunger may not be the one driving Girl, but it is just as powerful and all consuming.
In modern times, most of us, just like Rose, hunger to find meaning within our lives. We all go after this in different ways. Some choose to focus on their families, others their careers. Some want fame or fortune, while others crave a quiet life. No matter what we do, how we go after this question, in some way or another, we all hunt for the answer.
I thought one of the most poignant moments in the novel, was a conversation between Rose and her husband Simon. Rose had often asked her husband, “Do you ever wonder… why you were put on this planet?” This is a conversation they have had many times, and yet this specific conversation ends with Rose stating she knows why.
“I found her.” This is the answer she gives him, the reason she doesn’t wonder anymore. Simon delightedly assumes she means the baby. Yet, she means discovering her Neanderthal. This conversation highlights the difference in their driving hunger, in their hunt for meaning and survival.
I went into this book expecting a good story. What I found instead, or I suppose, in addition to that, was a conversation about humanity. What does it mean to be human? Where do we get our humanity, and what does that even mean?
I’ve always thought the measure of a good book, isn’t solely in it’s ability to entertain. That a good book, a good story, is one that stays with you long after you finish the book. It should plant seeds in your brain. Seeds that grow and bloom long after you put the book down and forget the details of the story. It should give birth to new ideas, planting new seeds as time goes on.
I really believe that The Last Neanderthal does that. It isn’t the details of Rose or her dig. It isn’t the specific story of Girl and her hunt. It is the possibility of a reimagined past. That we can look at a set of bones and see a thousand possibilities. That even though we are evolved, that our societies resemble nothing like those primitive ones, that we can still recognize ourselves in them. That we resemble them, and they resemble us. That no matter how different we think we are, we are always the same.
“She had the same skin as mine. The same blood ran through her veins. Our hearts both beat. All our differences drop away. 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 Last Neanderthal will leave each reader with a different conclusion. Each person is left to imagine the rest of the story however they wish. It is a story of love, loss, and discovery. It will change you and stay with you long after you finish reading. As any good book should.
I received this book from Little, Brown and Company for an honest review as part of their Book Ambassador program.