Neanderthals as Fiction in Archaeological Narrative

Article excerpt


A few years ago, Moser (1992) pointed out that pictorial illustrations of the past are powerful tools in presenting an accessible and convincing version of the past to a mass audience. Rather than merely illustrating an academic argument, pictures are also powerful vehicles for putting forward a range of subtexts and deeper meanings. Imaginative illustrations can therefore reinforce as well as reflect an argument; they can easily create the impression that the past is "known", and that the artist is reflecting certainty rather than doubt; a unanimity of opinion rather than a particular viewpoint. Moser (ibid.) chose Neanderthals as an example of how pictures both represent and reinforce a particular interpretation of the past. More specifically, Boule's and Keith's contrasting views on the place of Neanderthals in human evolution were visually and powerfully summarised by Kupka and Forrestier respectively, and published (inter alia) in the Illustrated London News in 1909 and 1911 (see Moser 1992: Figures 1 & 2). Independently, and on the same theme, Rainger (1991: 169-177) showed how the pictures commissioned by Henry Fairfield Osborn for the American Natural History Museum (New York) affirmed not only the brutish nature of Neanderthals, but also the creativity and nobility of the racially-pure, "Nordic" Cro-Magnons, thus reflecting his own political and social views on eugenics, immigration and the dangers of racial mingling. (The pictures were commissioned by Osborn, in time for the 1921 International Eugenics Commission, held in that museum, and Osborn was prominent in both the eugenics and anti-immigration movements). Almost a century later, the popular impression of Neanderthals as "primitive" clearly owes more to the power of visual imagery of subsequent paintings and more recently, television documentaries, than to the hundreds of academic publications on Neanderthals and the Mousterian.


Another powerful visual medium is film. Wyke (1997) has explored the ways in which Ancient Rome has been portrayed by film makers in Italy and Hollywood, and showed how various films reflected prevailing concerns about imperialism and fascism (before 1945), and subsequent ones about communism.

Novels are another art form than can link the public to an archaeological past. Whilst novels lack the immediacy of a visual summary, they have other advantages, most notably in their scope for showing character, sequences of action, and a plot. They also allow more scope for exploring moral and ethical issues and for considering the relevance of those events and processes to our present condition or status. This article examines how various novelists have written about prehistory, and, as with Moser, the examples used will concern Neanderthals.

Neanderthals and novels

Neanderthals appear to have fascinated novelists more than any other aspect of prehistory. No novelist (so far as we know) has written a novel set in pre-Neanderthal time, presumably because the characters would not be considered sufficiently "human". Few have written novels set in the Upper Palaeolithic, major exceptions being Reindeer Moon by Thomas (1987), and the later novels in Auel's Earth's Children series. Surprisingly, there are no major novels on that other major contact period in prehistory, between indigenous Mesolithic European hunter-gatherers and intrusive early Neolithic farmers. There are numerous novels set in later prehistory, but we have confined ourselves here to novels set in the remote past. We also exclude novels set in the present but encountering survivals from the remote past. The most famous of these is, of course, Conan Doyle's The Lost World, first published in 1912, and featuring Professor Challenger's expedition to South America, and the rescue of a local tribe from primitive, Pithecanthropine Neanderthal (or Piltdown) ape-men. Subsequent versions of this genre usually involve North American or West Europeans encountering relic populations of subterranean Pithecanthropines (Kerr 1996), defrosted Siberian Neanderthals (Davidson 1995) or telepathic Central Asian Neanderthals (Darnton 1996). They usually combine a boys-own adventure with concerns about medical ethics, tourism and conservation, and the occasional sexual encounter for the more testosterone-inclined reader.

The over-riding fascination about Neanderthals that novelists share with many investigators of human evolution is that they provide a way of defining ourselves by contrasting what it means to be "us" as fully-modern humans, as opposed to "them", or those who were not. Novelists can also explore more freely than academics the moral implications of Neanderthal extinction, and whether we as modern humans need bear any sense of responsibility, shame, guilt or loss over their extinction. For these reasons, all novels about Neanderthals (as well as a disproportionate amount of academic interest) focus on the encounter of late Neanderthals with early, fully modern, "Cro-Magnon" populations seen as directly ancestral to ourselves: Neanderthals on their own--whether in novels or academia- are thus usually seen of interest only in relation to ourselves.

The fictional accounts we have chosen are each very different, but focus on the interaction between these two groups. The earliest is The Grisly Folk by H.G. Wells (1921), a highly acclaimed popular writer, and in his younger years at least, an ardent believer in human progress. The next is The Inheritors by William Golding (1961), former schoolmaster, Nobel laureate, and one of the greatest post-war English novelists. The most scholarly novel in our set is Dance of the Tiger (1995) by Bjorn Kurten, a major authority in European pleistocene palaeontology who wrote his novel as a way of articulating his own theory about Neanderthal extinction. Lastly, we have Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel (1980), indisputably the most successful in terms of book sales. We can summarise each in turn before addressing wider generic issues.

Wells' The Grisly Folk, the most straightforward, is a narrative representation of Boule's and Keith's views of Neanderthals as a dead-end side-branch of humanity, combined with ideas of invasion and extinction derived from biogeographers such as Alfred Wallace and William Matthew (Bowler 1995:189). For Wells, animal characteristics and stupidity directly equated with evil, and the three were inseparable. He was very explicit that Neanderthals were more animal than human; they were "very manlike" but "not belonging to the human species" (1958: 285). As for empathising with the Neanderthals, he commented "We may as well try to dream and feel as a gorilla dreams and feels" (ibid: 287). Their brutish appearance reflected their brutish character: a large, short body, with which they ran on all fours or shambled along, and a head that was "hairy or grisly, with a big face like a mask" (1958: 282). They had no social structure or social relations, and the only food procurement described consists of one eating his own sons, and the stealing of a little (fully-modern) girl. Generally these Neanderthals are seen to wander aimlessly around the landscape, suggesting laziness as well as incompetence. The brain of Wells's Neanderthal is lacking the part involved in intelligence or reasoning of any sort, so that he has only "a long unreasoning memory and very set purposes" (ibid., 288).

Wells is also clear about the evilness of the Neanderthals. Besides stalking the modern humans they encounter, and the attempt to kidnap the human girl, they are also evil on a much deeper level, a monster without morals or even motivation for evil acts. Wells wrote, "The legends of ogres and man-eating giants that haunt the childhood of the world may descend to us from those ancient days of fear" (ibid. 298). For Wells, Neanderthals are simply evil brutes, devoid of any redeeming features, and were an impediment to the happiness and progress of human kind. Just as various nineteenth century Europeans such as Sir Charles Dilke could express such sentiments about the benefits of imperialism as "the gradual extinction of the inferior races is not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind" (quoted by McDougall 1982: 99), so Wells saw the extinction of Neanderthals as a cause for celebration. Human progress may have been over the bodies of those deemed irrelevant, but that was no reason whatsoever for feeling guilty. In what Bowler (1995) has termed "the geography of extinction", the idea of past extinctions caused by the immigration of superior species fitted well an age of imperialist expansion.

Golding's book (which begins with a quotation from Wells' 'Outline of History') is in complete contrast. Even though the novel mirrors many of the events in 'The Grisly Folk, it is seen through the eyes of the Neanderthals rather than the fully modern humans. He portrayed Neanderthals as a mixture of animality and innocent childishness. His Neanderthals were innocent and vulnerable, and lived in an unchanging world, wholly in harmony with their surroundings. The creatures appear animal-like both through their appearance and low level of evolution. They are covered in hair, avoid water, grin with fear, and track each other around the landscape through scent, as other non-human primates do. Often, basic instincts and needs distract from the matter in hand, for example, whatever the situation, Lok always responds to his hunger, thirst, tiredness or lust. On the opening page, in which the Neanderthals are travelling to their summer camp, it is even unclear whether they are hominids or some other type of animal: "Liku rode him laughing, one hand clutching the chestnut curls that lay on his neck and down his spine, the other holding the little Oa tucked under his chin. Lok's feet were clever. They saw. They threw him round the displayed roots of the beeches, leapt when a puddle of water lay across the trail. Liku beat his belly with her feet." (1961: 11). Golding's Neanderthals were not dangerous animals, but innocent, helpless, childlike creatures. Apart from the oldest Neanderthals, the group is expressive and energetic, constantly crying, laughing screaming and playing. (Interestingly, we do not see the action through the eyes of the older Neanderthals, which adds to the childlike impression we get of them). Their encounter with humans is hopelessly one-sided, as Neanderthals cannot cope with the sudden intrusion of change, violence, debauchery and sin into their lives. According to this version of the past, humanity must commit Original Sin in order to progress in the world, and for Golding, we as modern humans need to confront within us the murderer, defiler, and our readiness to harm.

Kurten's novel is the most sophisticated and factually-based (it even includes an end-paper with comments on the environmental setting of his story, and a summary of his argument). In striking contrast to Wells and Golding, Kurten's Neanderthals are as human as us, comparable but different. Both groups lived in fixed base camps, with long distance contacts, complex spiritual beliefs and humanlike communication, relationships and social structure. Differences in appearance were superficial: Neanderthals were fair-skinned, short and squat, whereas modern humans were dark-skinned, tall and slender; Kurten emphasises this superficiality in appearance by drawing up differences along the lines of modern ethnic variety. He also spelt out the similarity of the two species when he wrote, "While there was much to differentiate them, there was more that the two species had in common. They lived off the same land. They lived by the same laws, which governed rigidly the patterns of their thoughts and emotions, their actions, and their reverence for the numinous things in their world" (1995, 31).

The genetic differences between the two groups is manifested only in the Neanderthals' inability to imitate the sounds made by the fully modern humans, a controversial claim derived from Lieberman (1989), and in the unusual effects of breeding between the two species--hybrid children survived more easily than other children, but were infertile themselves. The extinction of Neanderthals was caused not by vast differences and incompatibilities between them and modern humans, but, ironically, by their very compatibility--interbreeding and infertility reduced the reproduction of fertile offspring among Neanderthal women. Neanderthals thus ended not with a bang but a whimper, and the last Neanderthals were the mules of the equine world, hardy but sterile.

Jean Auel's Neanderthals are also like Kurten's in being comparable to modern humans. The Neanderthals are not shown as a stereotype, but as variable as modern humans in character, temperament and behaviour. The lives of the Neanderthals who adopt Ayla, a little young orphaned Cro-Magnon girl, revolve around a fixed base camp and daily chores. Daily life and social hierarchy is structured and purposeful, and the complex, ritualised, patriarchal social culture of the group, (including strict gender roles and taboos on both men and women participating in certain activities), controls their body language, personal freedom and individual relationships. Although the general impression is of a civilised, complex group comparable to modern hunter-gatherers, there is also a certain innocence about the Neanderthals; they are purer, more spiritual, and more closely connected to the past than the humans that succeed them through their telepathic access to the knowledge of past generations, and their ability to regress ritually in joint telepathy through their evolution to their beginnings. The primary cause for the extinction of Auel's Neanderthals lay in their desperate clinging to their traditions and accepted ways, and Ayla's (and thus our own) humanity and ultimate triumph lies in our ability to experiment and embrace change. While for Kurten the differences between Neanderthals and modern humans are superficial, Auel's Neanderthals are genuinely a species separate from and incompatible with modern humans, and so cannot be considered more human than animal. This uncomfortableness with the intermediate status of Neanderthals is reflected in the attitudes of the fully modern humans in Auel's subsequent Earth's Children series. The humans do not understand how the 'animal' Neanderthals can imitate their human behaviour, bur their fear of the unknown in manifested in an avoidance of the other species--for the most part, they want to avoid trouble.


Misia Landau (1984, 1991) pioneered the analysis of various scenarios of human evolution in terms of their narrative structure, based on Propp's (1968) analysis of Russian fairytales. Different elements in the narrative are defined by their function, that is, their significance for the course of action. Landau showed how various accounts of human evolution showed the same narrative structure as many fairy-tales, and typically involve a hero leaving a comfortable initial setting, undergoing numerous tribulations, receiving help in the form of gifts or special skills, undergoing a final challenge, and ending triumphantly with a happy ending. Darwin's version is shown from among the examples she chose. Well's story about the eventual triumph of modern humans over Neanderthals follows the same structure, and is one example of how our own recent history can be portrayed as an academic version of a fairy-story. In this way, according to Landau, the scenarios of human evolution written by Darwin, Arthur Keith, Grafton Elliot Smith, Fredrick Wood Jones, Henry Fairfield Osborn mad William King Gregory, could all be fitted into the same narrative structure, in which human beings play the role of 'hero' in 'a story of struggle and transformation' (see Figure 1). Following Landau, John Terrell (1990) illustrated that the same idea could be applied to the history of the Pacific; the Austronesian people are given the role of a collective hero in a struggle to colonise the islands of the Pacific, and fulfil a final aim of giving rise to the Maori. These historical accounts give the impression of linear progress and temporal sorting, and can be divided into distinct narrative steps (ibid.).

In Propp's, Landau's and Terrell's schemes, the hero plays a central role as the causal agent, giving meaning to the action. Things happen in order to bring about the final destiny of the hero. In each of our four works of fiction, regardless of the way fully modern humans and Neanderthals are portrayed, the Homo sapiens sapiens characters represent the collective hero and follow Landaus 'hero' narrative. The fully modern humans (either as an individual or a collective hero) begin with a journey brought about by a change, face many trials and tests which they pass successfully, and finally achieve an end goal, giving meaning to the journey and tests which they have just endured. For example, in 'The Clan of the Cave Bear' Ayla's journey begins with an earthquake, and she faces many difficulties and threats to her life before successfully leaving the Neanderthal clan to continue with her journey and destiny. Tiger in 'Dance of the Tiger' witnesses the death of his father and must journey and struggle to bring about his vengeance. In ' The Inheritors', the modern humans are initially unnerved by the actions of the Neanderthals, but have no trouble in overcoming them and continuing their migration. In each case, it is a process with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The emphasis is on a linear progression, temporal sorting, and an overall sense of purpose, reflected perhaps in the traditional evolutionary timelines, in which each species of hominid marches purposefully towards its final goal.

However, the best example of Landau's narrative structure is ' The Grisly Folk' in which the plot fits almost exactly the sequence laid out by Landau (see Figure 1). Thus, the initial situation of the warming of the Ice Age is set (stage 1), and the heroic 'true men' introduced (2). A change in population growth and food availability (3) leads to the hero making a journey northwards (4), and suffering many hardships. The first test (5) is the humans' first encounter of the 'grisly men', a terrifying experience, as the Neanderthals represent the ultimate evil. The gift (6) can be interpreted as the 'true men's' higher intelligence and inherent superiority, which is represented as their ability to laugh at the Neanderthals, something which the 'grisly men' themselves are unable to do. This reaction brings about a transformation (7) in the humans, in that it turns fear and disconcertion into bravery and determinism--after the laughter, the humans become much more proactive, and begin to plan the defeat of the Neanderthals. The second test (8) is the long hard struggle to wipe out the Neanderthals, a time of great suffering for all the humans, which eventually leads to the triumphant (9) extermination of the other species.

In each example, the Neanderthals serve as an important stage in the modern humans' heroic epic (Landau, 1984). The Neanderthals in "The Inheritors' and in "The Clan of the Cave Bear; who scare our heroes can be seen in the context of a test (5) for Homo sapiens sapiens. Alternatively, following Golding's pessimistic description, the meeting of the Neanderthals and fully modern humans in 'The Inheritors' can be seen as the degeneration of the fully modern humans after they have triumphed (9). In 'Dance of the Tiger', the Neanderthals save Tiger from death and help him achieve his revenge on Sheik, so that his realisation that the Neanderthals are an equal and civilised people can be seen as a gift (6). Importantly, the Neanderthals have no relevance to the key narrative except in relation to the stages, or tests, of modern humans, and never take centre stage in their own linear narrative.

Levi-Strauss (1955) provides an alternative way for us to identify a narrative pattern common to each Neanderthal population. He analysed the structure of myth such as Oedipus, and divided it into four themes, which provided a dialogue between opposing qualities, such as the desire of Oedipus to sleep with his mother and murder his father. In order to identify such themes within our stories, we need to establish how the author has ascribed his/her protagonists. For example, the themes of animal and human in ' The Inheritors' are demonstrated in the Neanderthals' childlike, innocent characteristics, and their potential to be 'more than animal' can be seen in their loyalty to one another and spiritual beliefs. They also occasionally show flashes of humanlike planning ahead and logic. However, this is never enough, as it is countered by their animal side; they are incompetent, easily distracted from the matter in hand by base needs (hunger, tiredness, lust), and later become more passive, doing very little to solve their problems, in contrast to the energy of the modern humans.

Despite their shortcomings, the Neanderthals are clearly intended to be the 'good' force in 'The Inheritors'. Golding represents the theme of good through the Neanderthals' connection with their ritual past, their continuity and love of the familiar. In contrast, all that the modern humans bring, including technology, change, alcohol, debauchery and murder, are considered evil.

The themes of 'good/evil', 'animal'/'human' form a repeated dialogue within the structure of' The Inheritors', so that the Neanderthals are confronted with 'evil', their nemesis because they are 'good', try to resolve this with their 'human' traits, yet are thwarted by their more dominant 'animal' traits. Therefore a spiral pattern exists between these polarities (see Figure 2), in contrast to the linear progression of Landau's (1984) 'hero' narrative. As Golding's narrative unfolds, we see a steady progression of increasing evil, leading to the extermination of the Neanderthals and the continuation of the fully modern humans' journey. However, alongside this, runs the Neanderthals' continually-confounded attempts to stave off" this progression and save their species. The Neanderthals achieve little during the story, and have no effect on the course of the action. They are running in circles, restrained by their intermediate position in evolutionary terms. For example, in the first loop of the spiral, the Neanderthals (good) find that the humans have moved the log over the river (evil). They attempt to solve this (human), bur by using their memory (animal) rather than innovation. The Neanderthals are inherently incompetent (animal), so do not solve the problem effectively enough. Mal still falls in the water, which eventually leads to his death.

The Neanderthals in 'The Grisly Folk' are fighting modern humans for their own survival. Watching the fully modern humans (threat, evil), they constantly try to drive them out of their land (attempt, human), but they are no match for the cunning and planning of the fully modern humans (failure, animal). In 'The Clan of the Cave Bear' (Auel 1980), the Neanderthals must fight the challenge to their beliefs and way of life by Ayla (threat). Despite much debate, and several death-curses placed on Ayla (attempt), the Neanderthal Clan fail to retain their traditions (failure). When Ayla leaves the clan (to continue her own linear narrative) Broud breaks all clan traditions and protocol in order to force her to leave, and Brun acknowledges the fact that he can still see her despite her being death-cursed (failure) (Auel 1980: 586). In 'Dance of the Tiger; Tiger confronts Sheik; his is a hero-narrative concerned with good and evil. However, the Neanderthal narrative is mainly concerned with the complex kinship relations in the novel; their fight is not with Sheik, but to attain the same status as the fully modern humans (threat). Throughout the novel, the Neanderthals seem to achieve this, with ever increasing contact and breeding between the two species (attempt, human). However they cannot overcome their animal physicality; while the increasing contact seems to be bridging the gap between the species, their hybrid offspring are all infertile (failure, animal). Therefore, every point of contact is another step towards to extinction of the Neanderthals. Hints of this in the novel can be seen in tension between the close lifestyles of Neanderthals and fully modern humans.

Ultimately, the Neanderthals are a poor imitation of humans, not true humans, and so are unable to subvert the course of evil and their eventual fate. At the end of Golding's book, a spiral of failures leads to the death of all members of the group except for Lok. He finally transgresses his animal/human dichotomy by returning to the base camp and dying of a broken heart. This action fits the 'animal' theme (familiar location, passive action, regeneration of his dead body as it returns to the earth), however, Lok's love for his companions and loyalty to his group overpower his primeval urges to survive, in a uniquely human way.

In each of these patterns, the intermediate status of Neanderthals (as humanlike non-humans) is key to the spiral of their destruction. Their inadequacy is not only the cause of their own destructive but also serves to highlight the innate superiority of modern humans. The Neanderthals have become irrelevant to the plot, and the linear narrative pattern destroys them inadvertently; the species is not proactive, but passive, and there is no longer a space for them to survive. This contrasts with the meaningful action towards a set goal that we saw in the 'hero' narratives centred on modern humans (Landau 1984).

Within the spiral narrative, the present situation (i.e. the extinction of the Neanderthals and the survival of humans like ourselves) forms the centre of the spiral, and the end of the narrative. The spiral structure begins and ends at particular points in time, allowing no other possible endings; with hindsight, we know the Neanderthals would have been right to fear change, because with change came their end.

Discussion: narrative and archaeological discourse

As Pluciennik (1999) has pointed out, much archaeological explanation is written as a narrative, in the sense that it involves character, action and plot, the last being the explanatory framework or outcome that gives "meaning" to an otherwise disconnected set of observations. As noted, the peopling of the Pacific is one such narrative; other examples of "grand narrative" are Childe's (1958) Prehistory of European Society, with the triumph of eastern civilisation over European barbarism, Fagan's (1987) The Great Journey culminating in the peopling of North America--and Gamble's (1993) Timewalkers, in which humans end up everywhere save Antarctica, where only penguins greeted European explorers. Prehistorians thus share with novelists a use of narrative. In the context of novels about Neanderthals and early modern humans, we as academics might disagree with some of the detail given in a novel (for example, did Neanderthals really bury their dead, or were racloirs really used in that manner?), whilst agreeing with the basic structure: that two groups (Neanderthals and modern humans) existed and interacted, and the former became extinct. In this sense, narrative--both as novels and in more academic syntheses--is the prime means of explaining the past. We are inherent story-tellers, and in lectures, papers, syntheses and novels, we tell and re-tell stories about the past with a greater or lesser reliance on hard-won factual detail.

There are various reasons why narratives about human evolution of the kind examined by Landau are so appealing. One is that they lend themselves well to adaptive scenarios; in short, they make good stories. As Bowler (1991, 2001) commented, Landau's narrative structures fitted better the adaptive theories of, for example, Darwin than Spencer, Huxley or Haeckel. Likewise, within the fictional stories we have examined, Landau's analysis fits very well, and the implied theories behind each story tend to lean towards adaptive scenarios. Can the tendency for a similar narrative structure within literature on Neanderthals be explained by comparing modern academic arguments? As example, we can consider the most popular academic theory about Neanderthal extinction today, the 'Eve' hypothesis. This has frequently been compared to the Genesis creation in that one woman provided the world's population, yet it is also ideal for a narrative investigation. The obvious heroine of the Homo sapiens sapiens narrative is Eve (2), who evolves to perfection (3) before travelling over the world (4). After overcoming the inferior hominids in every area (5) through the use of language, art etc (6), she triumphantly introduces civilisation into the world (9). The implied Neanderthal story also fits our analysis, in that the Neanderthals are a polar opposite force, who attempt to survive the threat of incoming modern humans, yet are frustrated in their aims. The implicit conclusion is it is better for the world that they died out.

Another reason for the popularity of narrative explanations specific to Neanderthals is that stories arising from their (alleged) contact with modern humans tell us something important about ourselves. As commented at the start of this article, novelists as well as academics have tended to see Neanderthals on their own as of little interest. As example, Shreeve's (1995) Neanderthal Enigma is written as a personal narrative journey from when "I met my first Neanderthal in a care in Paris" (ibid. 1) through his gradual discovery of them to ending with reflection on our own humanity: "What would he think of us?" (ibid. 342). Like so many who study Neanderthals, Shreeve portrays the scientific study of them as a personal journey, a meaningful story that is as much about himself and his fellow human beings as it is about the Neanderthals.

The reason why Neanderthals illuminate what we are is that we are defined osteologically by their (alleged) non-Neanderthal traits, or by their alleged "modern' behaviour, even though we know the boundaries are blurred. As Cartmill (2001:104) states: the term "Anatomically modern human"--whose impact is matched only by its vagueness - has no clear or established meaning, and is basically a scientific sounding way of evading the fact that there is no agreement on the list and distribution of the defining autapomorphies [unique features] of the human species". There appears to be no way of defining Neanderthals in such as way that they also exclude all recent modern humans, or defining modern humans without including some Neanderthals, a point made by Brown (1990) as well as Wolpoff and Caspari (1998), Brace (2000) and other multi-regionalists, just as there is a considerable overlap in the behavioural competence of both groups (e.g. Roebroeks et al. 1988, Hayden 1993).

Each generation tells and re-tells familiar stories in its own idiom, and those interested in the history of a subject rightly emphasise the importance of social and political con text. Wells, for example, can be seen as a product of an era of imperialist expansion, Golding as a post-WW2 writer confronting the human capacity for evil, and Auel as reflecting the feminist outlook of recent American universities. Such pigeon-holing is useful, but needs to be balanced "in allowing individuals autonomy with personal responsibility for their views, whilst also acknowledging the importance of when and where each developed' (Dennell 2001 : 46). At any time, there are considerable differences of outlook, and authors (and academics) are not just puppets dancing on the strings of the prevalent Zeitgeist. Similarly, Bowler points out the complexity of views and differences in historical context exemplified by Darwin or Elliot Smith in his critique of Landau's analysis. Despite the individuality of each author, our study has revealed a clear pattern that forms a consistent narrative dialogue throughout very differing interpretations of Neanderthals. This might suggest that social and political context affects not only individual fictional and academic writing, but other factors, notably the perceived nature of that contact, the amount of actual information made available and, crucially, our own views, as readers, of the nature of that contact. As example, Wells's story about incoming modern humans that totally replaced indigenous Neanderthals can easily be dismissed now as a metaphor of European conquest and imperialism. Yet, as Cartmill (2001: 104) points out, an identical scenario presented by the Eve hypothesis is "hailed as affirming racial equality by demonstrating that all modern humans have a common ancestry in Africa". The narratives are constant; what changes has been our interpretation of them.

A final point we wish to make is that whilst narrative is a powerful device, it can also be restrictive. One reason why a replacement model for modern human origins is so persuasive could simply be because it can be written as a narrative, involving familiar ingredients of character, action and outcome: like our literature, it gives meaning to past action and produces an emotive response. A novel or archaeological narrative based on, for example, a multi-regional process has much less to work with--there are no distinct groups of protagonists, and nothing much happens except gradual mutation. Even if the outcome is the same, there is no distinct conclusion to the narrative, giving meaning to what has gone before. Again, as Bowler (1991: 365) points out, "theories that turn evolution into a predictable trend are much less easily analysed in narrative terms because it is the trend that does the work, not the incidental changes ... that constitute the hero's adventure". Therefore, in the academic versions of the past most acceptable to us, we use narrative to separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom. To iterate a point developed by Pluciennik (ibid.), we remain limited in our explanations so long as we rely on this type of narrative structure. To date the most popular archaeological or popular narratives deal with direct Neanderthal-modern human contact as the primary vehicle of Neanderthal extinction: they appeal to our sense of linear order, they explain the nature and purpose of our species, and they reaffirm our uniqueness. Our analysis of the subtexts behind the argument suggests that perhaps alternative theories begin at an unfair disadvantage. However, if we wish to understand Neanderthal extinction better, we should consider other types of explanation: if Neanderthals never met humans, they may have become extinct through, for example, infectious diseases, or inadequate responses to sudden fluctuations in climate or resources, and of course, various multi-regional scenarios. Nevertheless, the contrast between "us" and "them" persists as the means by which we define ourselves. Whether in novels or much academic writing, if Neanderthals did not exist, we would have had to create them. Neanderthals exist as 'the beast within' in Victorian gothic novel, as the scapegoat ethnic minority in racist thinking, in the Old Testament as the nonbelievers, in fairytales as the "baddy". 'Them' remains a fundamental way by which we understand "us". What this perhaps shows is that if we wish to find a way of defining ourselves as modern humans, we should find alternatives to a century- old tradition of defining ourselves in terms of what Neanderthals are not. So long as we rely on a formulaic narrative of Neanderthal-meets-modern-human-and-becomes-extinct, based on the usual suite of character, action and plot, we merely retell the same story in different ways, whether as novelists or academics. What we need are different tales, and different ways of telling them.

Figure 1. Narrative structure of human evolution, as seen by Darwin
(based on Landau 1993), and Neanderthal extinction, as told by Wells.

Stages                   Darwin

1 Initial situation      Apes live in trees
2 Hero(ine)              and include the first
3 Change                 They become bipedal
4 Departure              and terrestrial;

5 Test                   And face carnivores,
                         seasonal shortages, etc.
6 Donor                  They learn to make
                         tools and hunt
7 Transformation         that enable them
                         to flourish.
8 Test again             Ice age conditions
                         test their skills,
9 Triumph                but they survive

10 Ending                and later become

Stages                   H.G. Wells

1 Initial situation      Apes live in trees
2 Hero(ine)              and include upright,
                         gibbon-like apes;
3 Change                 They become bipedal
4 Departure              and terrestrial;

5 Test                   They struggle against
                         their animal mentality
6 Donor                  And acquire reason and
                         a large brain,
7 Transformation         and thus become
8 Test again             Ice age conditions
                         test their skills,
9 Triumph                but they survive

10 Ending                and later become

Stages                   The "Eve" hypothesis

1 Initial situation      An African homeland
2 Hero(ine)              in which AMH/Eve live;

3 Change                 They become fully modern
4 Departure              And move Out of Africa
                         into Europe
5 Test                   Where they meet
6 Donor                  The moderns acquire
                         language, art, etc.
7 Transformation         and initiate an Upper
                         Palaeolithic, revolution.
8 Test again             Under harsh ice
                         age conditions
9 Triumph                they replace all
                         indigenous Neanderthals
10 Ending                and modern humans


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Abigail Hackett * & Robin Dennell * (1)

* Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield, Northgate House, West Street, Sheffield S1 4ET.

(1) (Email:

Received: 31 January 2003 Accepted: 27 June 2003 Revised: 11 August 2003