I’ve always been fascinated by Neanderthals, but when I was young they felt as distant as dinosaurs. In school I was taught they were an evolutionary step between the apes and us—hairy, grunting knuckle- draggers who died out because they were inferior, a casualty in our species’ journey from primitive to perfection.
In 2010, a team sequenced 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. Rather than a more evolved version of Neanderthals, we are close cousins.
But we think of ourselves as the ones who killed off the Neanderthals, not as having sex with them. So how did humans and Neanderthals make contact? We don’t know the answer, but a novelist should take on the risk of imagining one.
In my search for a plausible answer, I researched the new scientific interpretations of Neanderthals. I used my findings as a set of rules to work within, like creative constraints. I also drew on my experience in the outdoors for insight into how survival in the wilderness might have felt more than forty thousand years ago.
But even with the recent findings, there are still many unanswered questions about Neanderthals. As Rose says, a relationship, a feeling, or a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.
For those who are interested in reading more about Neanderthals and the current thinking about the evolution of our species, I’ve recommended a few of my favorite books below:
Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse, The Neanderthals Redis- covered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story(New York: Thames and Hudson, 2015).
Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge, How to Think Like a Neanderthal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Svante Pääbo, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
Lydia Pyne, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Hu- man Fossils (New York: Viking, 2016).
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper, 2014).
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (New York: Ballantine, 1999).