The Road Not Taken: Neanderthals in Science Fiction

This is how it begins in many of the stories: A prominent scientist thinks he can reconstruct a Neanderthal genome and puts out a call for a willing surrogate mother. Is this real-life Harvard geneticist speaking out of turn, or is he really as close as he thinks and claims? Because if this really happens, we’ll be entering a new era. A new (or rather, old) species of human being will walk the Earth alongside our own, for the first time in 30,000 years.

This is how it begins in many of the stories: A prominent scientist thinks he can reconstruct a Neanderthal genome and puts out a call for a willing surrogate mother. Is this real-life Harvard geneticist speaking out of turn, or is he really as close as he thinks and claims? Because if this really happens, we’ll be entering a new era. A new (or rather, old) species of human being will walk the Earth alongside our own, for the first time in 30,000 years.

I remember being struck the first time I discovered this fact: There were once other branches of humanity, parallel to our own. Today, our closest living relatives are the Great Apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans — in that order), the nearest having separated from our lineage more than five million years ago. But we were not always the sole extant member of our genus. Once there were several cousins to our kind.

The best known of these (Indonesian “hobbits” notwithstanding) is also the most well-established. Homo neaderthalensis came into prominence in the 1850s, when miners in the Neander Valley of Germany chanced upon some unusual remains. This discovery came on the cusp of the dinosaur fever of the late nineteenth century, not to mention Charles Darwin’s decades of literature on the subject of natural selection — essentially these few decades saw a complete turning over of everything we thought we knew of our own origins.

As a pejorative for aggressive, unthinking masculinity, the word Neanderthal has a pedigree more than a century long. But while this stereotype has had a head start in the collective unconscious, science fiction authors have been penning more thoughtful considerations since at least the 1950s (Isaac Asimov’s “The Ugly Little Boy” comes to mind). The best writers have gone back to the known anthropology literature, leaving aside entrenched popular views of our species’s superiority.

Ted Kosmatka’s 2008 story, “N-Words”, asks the rather obvious question: Given that their brains were actually bigger than our own, why do we presume we were ever smarter than our Neanderthal kin? And what happens when our clever science brings them back?

It’s a short treatment, but manages to work simultaneously as social commentary and thoughtful speculative writing. Citing the larger brain and greater musculature of the Neanderthal body plan as simply too costly in an energy-poor environment, Kosmatka imagines our weaker and dumber Cro-Magnon ancestors as survivors merely by virtue of their smaller fuel requirements.

The modern-day cloned Neanderthals in Kosmatka’s story (first published in the Seeds of Change anthology) are at no such disadvantage in a world of caloric surplus, and rapidly transition from novelties to objects of resentment. Geniuses, pinnacles of athleticism, even artists, they are paradoxically spit on as sub-human while besting us in every conceivable area of human achievement.

There are allusions to MLK, the modern trials of the Jewish People — “N-Words” is a story likely to hit on a lot of nerves, and all the more worthwhile reading because of it.


It is worth asking why we survived when our cousins didn’t. Many religious traditions would have us believe we are the result of special creation, and being so far removed from our nearest surviving relatives, it’s easy to maintain, if only sub-consciously, the conceit that we are a thing apart from other beasts. Perhaps we survived because of superior intelligence and culture. But the extreme opposite view is at least as likely: that we were the barbaric ones, and the dawn of our age was baptized in the blood of the world’s first genocides.

Jean Auel’s 1980 novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear takes a middle-of-the-road approach. The first in what would come to be known as her Earth’s Children series, she follows a band of Neanderthal hunter-gatherers who chance upon an orphaned Cro-Magnon girl (dubbed by this Elder species as one of the Others).

Auel is one of the few authors who treats Neanderthals as different, a species in possession of another way of being human, rather than being just like us but better or worse. Amongst other things, the author speculates on the different anatomy of the Neanderthal brain, suggesting they should possess an incredible capacity for memory, with the cost being a more limited ability to deal with abstract concepts and greater difficulty in adapting to new situations.

There’s perhaps a touch of “the noble savage” here, where Auel romanticizes the culture and certain abilities of this Elder race, while dismissing the possibility they ever could have survived to, or within, the modern world. With the attendant weight of 30,000 years of foreshadowing behind her, it’s easy to treat extinction as a foregone conclusion.

But I don’t really buy this after-the-fact, destiny-laden view of history. Paleontologists and modern ecologists know how brutally fast and arbitrary natural selection can sometimes be. In his Neanderthal Parallax, Robert J. Sawyer takes this coin flip to its natural conclusion. In one universe, we survive. In another, it’s the Neanderthals.

By recognizing that we may have simply been lucky, Sawyer’s treatment ends up being the most balanced of them all. And a portal connecting the dimensions demonstrates that the way our species does things isn’t the only way, or even always the best way.

Still, even this scenario is a little sad, as no reality is posited wherein both species survive. Why should there only be one surviving race? One way to be human? The Neanderthals represent a road not taken in our own genetic history, and it’s hard not to be wistful about that.

 


J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.

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