The year is 40,000 BC, give or take a few millennia, and only a handful of Neanderthal families are left on earth. Girl, who has just come of age, is determined to find a mate and start a family at the annual fish run. But with the Neanderthals’ numbers so diminished, everything from hunting bison to breaking a taboo is potentially deadly, and Girl soon finds herself the sole caretaker of her strange adopted brother, Runt, who looks and behaves like no human she’s ever seen.
Skip forward to modern day France. Rosamund Gale, a paleoarchaeologist, has discovered a career-defining treasure: the skeletons of a Neanderthal female and a modern human male buried together, looking into each other’s eyes. Rosamund believes her find proves that Neanderthals were as intelligent and sophisticated as modern humans, but sexism runs rampant in archaeology, and she fears that control of her project will be taken away from her before she can make her mark on science. As Rosamund excavates Girl’s remains, their lives take parallel turns, forcing them to navigate the complexities of motherhood, family, and survival.
It’s true that The Last Neanderthal is similar to other novels set in the Pleistocene, like Clan of the Cave Bear and Shaman, but those similarities don’t make the story any less enjoyable or poignant. Both Girl and Rosamund experience the wondrous and frightening transformation of pregnancy and childbirth, and although their circumstances are wildly different, their experiences stretch them almost to the breaking point. We see echoes of our Paleolithic ancestors in the emotional landscapes of Rosamund and her partner Simon; we also see shadows of the future in Girl’s encounters with new technologies. And although some parts of the novel read more like a research paper than a story, both Girl’s and Rosamund’s storylines contain raw and moving depictions of family struggles and the trauma of caring for a newborn in a hostile climate. There’s also a subtle ecological lesson in the book, as the author imagines the Neanderthals’ close-knit relationship with the natural world.
It’s hard to imagine a world with more than one human species, and sometimes fiction can give us a clearer insight into other realities than the most detailed history or science book. Girl’s story will make you feel like you’ve hunted bison amidst frigid winds and clung to life in the depths of winter, and Rosamund’s scientific eye provides context that feels tender and compassionate instead of didactic. The Last Neanderthal is an engrossing read that will haunt you afterwards.
Content note: this novel contains depictions of violence towards infants.