Neanderthals as Fiction in Archaeological Narrative

By Hackett, Abigail; Dennell, Robin | Antiquity, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Neanderthals as Fiction in Archaeological Narrative

Hackett, Abigail, Dennell, Robin, Antiquity


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). …

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