Missing Links: Claire Cameron on Researching "The Last Neanderthal"

Jon Foro on April 18, 2017

Last-Neanderthal225Clair Cameron specializes in out-of-body experiences. Not in the astral projection sense (that I am aware of, anyway); rather, the characters of her novels demand greater-than-usual imaginative leaps - and large doses of empathy - in order to make them real. The Bear was a tense survival tale from the point of view of a five-year-old girl, but her new novel goes even further, crossing millennia to tell the story of The Last Neanderthal (available April 25).

So how does one get inside the head of another species? Fortunately, with breakthroughs in genome research and new assessments of archaeological evidence, our understanding of human ancestry has come a long way from Ringo Starr in Cro Mag-drag (yes, this was a thing). For example, we know that Neanderthals and our modern human ancestors coexisted, at least for a while, and that if you're of Asian or European descent, between one and four percent of your DNA is Neanderthal. (Cameron's is a disappointing two percent; my results are pending). Here Cameron lists the books that explore the mind, physiology, and world of Homo neanderthalensis - and set the scientific bedrock for her remarkable story.


Seven Books That Tell a New Story About Neanderthals

by Claire Cameron

Have you heard that Neanderthals are no longer thought of as the hairy, grunting knuckle-draggers we learned about in school?

In 2010, a team sequenced the first draft of the Neanderthal genome and made an extraordinary discovery. Modern humans of European and Asian descent have inherited between 1 and 4 percent of their DNA from Neanderthals. Most scientists agree that this is evidence of relatively recent interbreeding between the two groups. It turns out that Neanderthals were much more like us than we previously thought.  

I wanted to write a novel that used the new scientific interpretations of Neanderthals to shape the story and characters. I did years of research and worked with experts. This allowed me to ground my story in the science. It also gave me a platform for imagining plausible answers the many questions that are still unanswered. As a modern day archaeologist in my novel says, “a relationship, a feeling, or a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.”

This is a list of seven of my favorite books that I used as sources while writing my novel, The Last Neanderthal.


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The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story by Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse
One of the best overviews of the new ideas about Neanderthals, this is a well-illustrated book with many pithy takes (“Like so many people who are different from us, the Neanderthals are now known mainly for the use of their name as a pejorative.”).

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How to Think Like a Neanderthal by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge
Written by an archaeologist and psychologist and who both specialize in ancient times, this book takes what is known about Neanderthals and builds a cognitive and psychological profile of them. In the last chapter they allow themselves to speculate about what a Neanderthal might be like—it is fun and it provided me a platform for doing the same.

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Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo
The head of the team that sequenced the Neanderthal genome tells how they managed this amazing feat. For someone so technically proficient, Pääbo is surprisingly good at explaining genetics. And somehow he manages to make the story slow and careful science into a nail bitter.

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Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins by Ian Tattersall
Tattersall is a paleoanthropologist and an emeritus curator with the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I love this balanced and sweeping look at our origins because he is careful not to be swayed by trendy opinions, which helped me be the same.

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Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils by Lydia Pyne
Pyne is a science historian who looks at how some skeletons become celebrities in themselves. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Neanderthals, which goes a long way to explaining why they ended up with such poor reputations.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
This bestseller does a great job of putting the Neanderthals into the context. Rather than diminish Neanderthals, Harari speculates that they didn’t have the same capacity to organize around imaginary concepts, like gods, money, or countries. I used this theory as a backbone for my novel.

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Café Neandertal: Excavating Our Past in One of Europe's Most Ancient Places by Beebe Bahrami
This came out after I finished writing, but I used it for fact checking. Bahrami, an anthropologist and travel writer does a beautiful job of describing what we do and don’t know about Neanderthals. The narrative follows her exploration of the famous sites in France, with fragrant wine, herbed snails, and warmed walnuts thrown in.

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