The Last Neanderthal follows two narratives set 40,000 years apart
Claire Cameron's new novel follows Girl, the elders daughter in a small matriarchal group, and Rosamund Gale, a pregnant archaeologist in modern-day France.
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When Toronto author Claire Cameron took a DNA test designed to identify a person’s ancient ancestry, she discovered that she is 2.5 per cent Neanderthal. The Toronto author was a little disappointed, as she had hoped for 4 per cent, the highest average trace of the DNA generally found in humans.
Although the last Neanderthals walked the Earth 40,000 years ago, the common belief for the past 150 years was that Homo sapiens killed off our hunched, hairy cousins, and there was certainly no comingling or sex involved. That is, until 2010, when a group of microbiologists led a project to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and discovered that indeed, the two groups had interbred.
Although scientists refused to speculate about how these relationships came to be, it fuelled Cameron’s imagination.
“It was frustrating because you could see there was this big juicy story there,” she says. “How the two groups could make contact, and under what conditions would they make contact without killing each other on sight?” Cameron realized that answering her hypothetical question would require a great deal of study, and so she spent five years scouring textbooks and any other materials she could find.
Her new novel, The Last Neanderthal, follows two narratives, set 40,000 years apart. There’s Girl, the eldest daughter in a small matriarchal group led by Big Mother. A skilled hunter with a nurturing instinct, Girl is focused on survival for her family.
The second narrative follows pregnant archaeologist Rosamund Gale, who is leading an excavation in France where she discovered Homo sapien and Neanderthal bones together within an intimate proximity. Rose, facing the physical deadline of pregnancy and pressures from her museum employers, becomes obsessed with finishing the dig before giving birth.
“I’m using the modern story to comment on how we have definitely made advances, but we’ve also put women who are trying to survive and feed themselves by making money in a difficult position,” says the self-declared feminist. “When you contrast that to ancient times, you can see that this is a choice, rather than something that’s inevitable because of our biology.”