At 9 p.m. on a chilly night in January 2016, I pulled on my winter coat, asked K once more whether she thought my plan was too foolish, then trundled out to the front yard to sleep in the grass. I pulled my arms close and lay there for several hours, uncomfortable and shivering, but failed to fall asleep. A few college students walked by; I don’t think they noticed me. Cars passed, blitzing my eyes with headlights.
Around midnight, I gave up. I stiffly rose, limped inside, sloughed off my coat and clothes, then crawled into a warm, soft bed in our dark, quiet, safe room. I quickly fell asleep.
I’d learned, again, that I am very blessed to have a home. Sleeping shelter-less in wintertime is awful. And a whole lot of people have to do it.
But that’s not why I was outside. I was writing a short story about one of the last Neanderthals and wanted to know more about what my protagonist’s nights might have been like. She lived in Europe approximately 40,000 years ago, a time when Europe was much chillier than it is now. She might not have felt so shivery at night – Neanderthals were perfectly capable of building campfires – but much of her life would’ve been marked by cold.
Fewer blinding headlights, though.
And more megafauna, creatures like mammoths, bears, lions, and wolves. More birds. More trees, sometimes – the Neanderthal clung to a tenuous existence, both individually and as a species, because of climate instability. During that era, Europe fluctuated between woodlands and plains as temperatures rose or plunged.
Then Homo sapiens migrated north and the Neanderthal went extinct. Murdered, starved of resources, passively outbred… we’re not sure. Even the least violent extinction would’ve felt heartbreaking to the final victims, though.
I began work on this story because I’d read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and kept thinking that he’d struck upon a fascinating genre: post-apocalyptic historical fiction.
Our civilization might fall. So many countries have nuclear weapons; an erratic narcissist has access to our button. A few degrees of warming and our food crops might die. Many of those crops are grown as single species across wide swaths of land: a particularly virulent insect or virus might wipe them out instead. Humans live so densely now, and travel so often: a virus might wipe us out, too. Or a bacterium resistant to our squandered antibiotics.
These horrors are grimly fascinating to read and think about: I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness. When we fall, we might fall hard.
Other cultures have. The Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Roman empire, the pre-Norman Invasion English.
And, of course, the Neanderthals. Their language, and religion, and entire species was swept into extinction.
But there has been a recent boom in our understanding of Neanderthals. I assume you know about Moore’s law, the rapid rate of doubling in the number of transistors that can be added to a computer chip, which has resulted in a massive drop in the cost of processing power. What you may not know about – you’d have no reason to unless you work in bioscience or diagnostic medicine – is that even Moore’s law is dwarfed by the astronomical rate of change in the number of DNA nucleobases that can be sequenced per dollar. Experiments that would have been exorbitantly expensive a few years ago are now routine.
It astounds me that archaeologists can recover any Neanderthal DNA from their dig sites. But they can. From tiny scrapings, they can sequence genomes. And so we’ve learned, for instance, that males probably stayed in their tribe as they aged but the female children would depart. This gave me an incentive to write about a female protagonist – she would’ve been away from her family, searching for a new tribe – which is a fun twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.
Post-apocalyptic fiction typically features male protagonists because female characters evoke the possibility of rebirth (one of the few exceptions I know is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Markson toys with this idea by having his protagonist make repeated reference to menstruation), but in the case of Neanderthals I think a female hero is appropriate. Neanderthals lost the world, but before departing interbred with Homo sapiens enough times that many modern humans still carry vestiges of Neanderthal genome in their DNA.
Comparisons between Neanderthal DNA sequenced from archaeological scrapings and the genomes of contemporary humans reveal that we occasionally interbred. Many different species of humans mated from time to time in the ancient world; some contemporary Homo sapiens still carry genes from each.
People who carry a hypoxia transcription factor from the now-extinct Denisovans seem better suited for life at high altitudes. People who carry a spritzing of Neanderthal genes seem especially susceptible to allergies and depression. Perhaps Neanderthal DNA conferred some benefits, too. Neanderthals seem to have been stronger, and had better eyesight, than Homo sapiens, but it’s not clear if genes for these traits remain.
The most speculative element of my story is the religion I gave to the Neanderthal protagonist. We’ve found no compelling evidence of Neanderthal writing or art, but this isn’t terribly surprising. After all, we’ve found very little artwork made by Homo sapiens during that time period, and they (we?) were some ten-fold more abundant. So I’d say that it’s reasonable to suspect that Neanderthal had language, and other “symbolic” behavior like religious belief, even though we have no evidence.
Of course, that same lack of evidence makes it impossible to know what they would’ve believed in. But that’s okay. Scientists cleave to the truth; writers get to make things up.
The religion I gave my protagonist does fit the scanty evidence we have, though. For instance, some Neanderthal practiced cannibalism. Knife marks on the bones show that they butchered the corpses of their own kind in the same manner as other oft-eaten animals.
We also know that, although both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens consumed a mix of meats and vegetables, Homo sapiens ate many small species. Squirrels, rats, and the like. Neanderthals, however, seem to have eaten exclusively large animals. This is particularly striking because Homo sapiens often obtained more calories from the meat of small animals than large game. The Neanderthal, with their superior eyesight, would’ve been better at spotting these critters than Homo sapiens were.
So I imagined a religious taboo. Religious food taboos are prevalent among modern human cultures, even in cases where the taboo seems highly detrimental to health. Perhaps the best-known example is the religious proscription against eating fish among the Norse who settled Greenland. Excluding fish from their diet made a large contribution to their culture’s demise, whereas the fish-eating Inuit living nearby survived.
It’s probably very easy to believe in spirits during an ice age, since you’d see your own manifest in wisps with every exhalation. And so I let my Neanderthal protagonist believe that these spirits lived on in her own self. In her mind, a clamor of souls takes up residence within her body, burgeoning whenever she eats meat.
If eating also meant ingesting a soul, a Neanderthal might consume only those strong, powerful creatures she wished to emulate. She might eat her own fallen friends, hoping to keep them forever near.
At times she’d surely espy Homo sapiens eating squirrels, but the Neanderthal might conclude that these pusillanimous dietary choices contributed to the scrawny physiques and skittish behavior (always living in such large tribes! And, throwing spears from a fearful distance!) of those interlopers.
But we will never know… because, around the time those Homo sapiens interlopers arrived, the Neanderthals all died.
The Neanderthal extinction may not have been their (our) fault. After all, the climate was changing. Other large species went extinct or vanished from these regions during the same period. Or, even if the Neanderthal extinction was caused by Homo sapiens, it might not have meant outright war, murder with rocks and spears. Perhaps competition for food or safe shelter drove the Neanderthal to death…
But that’s not how we humans have usually treated ancestral inhabitants when we embark on a new frontier. The historical record is replete with examples of methodical, knowing slaughter. There is only so much world to go around, and natural selection has no reason to favor those who share.
And yet. We purport to be thinking, reasoning creatures. We can be better than our genes.