Book Review – Early 1900’s style

My second essay for Neanderthals.  Two book reviews from the perspective of 20th century paleontologist Marcellin Boule.

Greetings to you.  My name is Marcellin Boule.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with my work, I am a French paleontologist.  My distinct specialization is in the study of Neanderthals.  From 1911 to 1913, I studied the La Chappelle aux Saints skeleton and subsequently published my analysis in the Annales de Paléontologie.  In later years I created a name for myself by exposing the hoax of the anthropological world, that of the Piltdown Man.

I’m getting a bit older now.  In the years since then, my study of La Chappelle aux Saints has gone under heavy scrutiny, but I stand firmly beside my belief that my analysis is the most thoroughly explicit and factually based account of Neanderthal physiology ever produced.

I recently procured two interesting novels dealing with the subject of Neanderthals.  How I came upon these two texts is a subject of much mystery, but I’ll do my best to explain.  One Tuesday afternoon in November, I stumbled across a letter in the post advertising very rare science fiction novella.  This society, which billed itself as the Cross Temporal Book Club, offered a variety of texts dating as far back as the Fifteenth Century and up to the Twenty First century.  At first I thought this was some sick joke orchestrated by that abruti Otto Hauser.  But the more I pondered over this, the more my mind was filled with fantastic notions.  Two of the books on the list were of particular interest to me.  The first was a book entitled The Inheritors by William Golding.  The second was a book called Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer.  I was instantly drawn to both books by their titles.  I followed the instructions on the envelope; selected the books I wanted, provided a form of payment and then delivered the letter to a certain mailbox on Rue Des Moines.  Months went by.   I’d all but forgotten about the event until one cold February morning a package arrived at my door.  Stamped across the brown paper wrapper were the initials for Cross Temporal Book Club.

In the privacy of my office I opened the package and beheld my two novels.  The bright covers alone were of great amusement to me, much more exciting than the crimson and auburn leather bound novels that filled the shelves of my office.  A note was attached to one of the books from the President of the company.  He had seen my name on the list and instantly recalled my contributions to the academic community.  He asked that if it wasn’t a bother, could I please review the books for him because my opinion would be priceless.  I was quite honored and decided it was the least I could do.  Refusing to wait another minute I settled down immediately with both the novels.

I chose to start with The Inheritors because it was published first.  The Inheritors is a fascinating account of the last days of the Neanderthals, eight individuals forced to relocate due to the changing climate.  Geography, nature and the elements make this a challenging task, but it isn’t long before the Neanderthal’s encounter what may be their most complex obstacle of all, modern man.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, especially experiencing the world through the eyes of a Neanderthal.  The author did an excellent job translating the Neanderthals from the pages of science digests to the chapters of popular fiction, although I did encounter a few problems.  First, allow me to analyze the Neanderthal physiology in attempt to provide you with an accurate description of what is factually sound and what is the result of artistic license.  Not to boast, but my countless hours of research left me with a very clear understanding of Neanderthal physiology.  What William Golding creates is a creature that is a brilliant combination of both sapian and simian characteristics.  The Neanderthals of The Inheritors are covered in red curly hair, they are bow legged creatures with social and cultural characteristics that are solid representations of a species in development.  At times they move on all fours, very much like a Chimpanzee.  They are excellent climbers and terrible swimmers.  I found the idea of the Neanderthal’s as water fearing creatures quite interesting.  No doubt the short legs would make swimming a challenge.  The Neanderthal’s bipedal motions are a correct representation of how a bow-legged animal would move, with a sort of side to side swaying of the body.  In regards to the body, I feel that Golding underestimated the overall size of the Neanderthal’s.  My analysis defined the creatures as short in stature but very massive.  Golding’s creatures have a much daintier physique, or so I gathered from the reading.  But the descriptions of the protruding browridge, the flattened skull and the absent chin are tres bien.

The primitive landscape presented in The Inheritors is a completely accurate representation of the prehistoric climate in which Neanderthals lived.  The Neanderthals reside on the edge of a glacial formation, most likely the preferred type of climate for these creatures.  They seek shelter in caves with access to a nearby fresh water source.  Their close proximity to humans is a fairly accurate assumption.  As I stated in my research it is highly likely that Neanderthals and modern humans occupied the same areas at roughly the same times.

The Neanderthals communication in The Inheritors is based on the transfer of simply worded statements.  Since the story is told through the perspective of the hominids, we don’t get a clear indication of what their actual voices would sound like to our ears.  We do get an interesting take on their internal thoughts however.  I found it interesting that the creatures would refer to memories and ideas as ‘pictures’.  I suppose this is how a simple minded creature would seek to deduce something as complicated as a childhood memory or a thought process.

The Neanderthals in the story rely heavily on inherited knowledge and are reluctant to make any new decisions.  The moderns that they encounter in the story are much more advanced.  They are large in numbers, utilize language, perform complicated rituals, and carry advanced weaponry like bows and arrows.  From the very first moments of their introduction, we see the vast differences between the two groups of hominids, which can be attributed greatly to technology.

The anthropological definition of technology is ‘the body of knowledge available to a society that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials.’  The Neanderthal men in the Inheritors carry with them large sticks (referred to as thorn bushes), which isn’t entirely inaccurate.  Since wood very rarely preserves, any archaeological evidence of such tools would have long since vanished.  It is a completely safe assumption to say that Neanderthal’s used wooden implements.  My own analysis has proven that Neanderthals had a stone tool culture; we know this because stone tools have been uncovered at Neanderthal sites.  Stone tools were used almost exclusively for hunting and food processing.  One scene in the novel shows how the Neanderthals used stone to break the joints on a deer carcass, remove the flesh and internal organs and collect the meat.  It is interesting to read how quickly they are able to reduce the animal to little more than bones and there is no doubt in my mind that it is an accurate representation of the processing of their food.  The Neanderthals of the story also do not believe in waste.  They transport and store the deer remains in the animal’s stomach.  Rather than devour the kill in one sitting, food is rationed off and priority is even given to the elders and the sick.  The Neanderthals of the novel are hunter-gatherers, they rely on grubs, berries, shoots, and any animals they can hunt and kill.  Allusions are made to cannibalism in one scene.  Shortly before Mal passes away he tells the others not to eat him.  I am quite intrigued by this idea of cannibalism amongst Neanderthals.  While I myself had never considered the idea, I feel that in all likelihood, cannibalism could have occurred.

The Neanderthal’s of the story a portrayed as creatures with sexual desires.  They do not seek sex for pleasure, but do strive to reproduce and willingly share partners without jealousy or hatred.  The elders of this novel are held in great respect and their knowledge is greatly valued amongst the other members of the clan, especially the wisdom of the old woman.  Her role as a type of medicine woman is completely believable though there is no archaeological evidence to support such social roles.  The author really knew his stuff when it came to the subject of ritualistic behavior.  One of the conclusions I drew from my analysis of the La Chappelle aux Saints skeleton was that Neanderthals must have prescribed to some form of religion or belief system, otherwise they wouldn’t have buried the ‘Old Man’.  When Mal dies he is placed into the ground and covered by dirt.  As I explained in my publications, burying is a sound example of ritual.  The Neanderthals in this story also speak of Oa, who I attributed to be some sort of higher power represented through nature.  This is believable because no physical evidence of religious worship (idols for example) has ever been uncovered.

Overall, I enjoyed this book for its interesting premise and solid attempt at portraying Neanderthals in the way that I found them to be.  Certain ideas such as hair color and thought process were intriguing to read, but are impossible to represent in the archaeological record.  The reader gets a good sense as to why the Neanderthal’s failed as a species.  They simply could not compete with the advanced ways of the modern humans.

Now we come to the matter of the second book, Hominids.  The author of this book must have been a complete madman!  Neutrino observatories, parallel worlds, machines that think; utter madness!  I read the book with an open mind, finding myself sometimes quite vexed by the fantastic examples of technology.  Can the world really change that much in the next hundred years?  I’m skeptical.  Skeptical too about the way in which the Neanderthals are portrayed.

The novel is set in the early Twenty First Century.  By some coincidence of physics, a Neanderthal from another version of reality is transported to our world, providing the humans with a living specimen.  A specimen that is completely flawed.  Never mind the fact that Sawyer’s Neanderthals are depicted as being on the same intellectual level as modern humans, let me explain what was correct and incorrect about his physical depictions of Neanderthals, one in particular named Ponter.  But first I must compliment the human characters in this novel who possess commendable qualities of understanding and treat the Neanderthal as a member of society and not an individual to be dissected.  I was quite fond of the character of Reuben Montego.  His personality, character and intelligence reminded me of my dear friend and colleague Albert Gaudry.  But the Neanderthals are the focus of this review, therefore, what can be said about Ponter?

Ponter is (and for that matter all of the Neanderthals are) an astounding creature, but terribly misconstrued.  I was disappointed at the description given by the author, major attributes of the Neanderthal physiology were completely wrong.  Was Sawyer not aware of my in depth study of the La Chappelle aux Saints?  If he had simply read over my analysis of the Neanderthal remains he would have seen that they were much different from the way he described them.

I give Sawyer credit for his in-depth description of the Neanderthal physiology. Over the course of several pages he systematically points out almost ever feature of the Neanderthal body.  As a fan of thorough analysis, I found his hominids to be much more clearly defined than those in Golding’s Inheritors.  However, the specific details of the Neanderthal physiology in Hominids straddle a fine line between what I would consider scholastic accuracy and fantastical farce.  At times, Sawyer hits it on the nose, at other points however I feel he is completely misunderstanding the archaeological evidence.  Sawyer’s first descriptions are of a creature with a large, long skull bearing a round protrusion in the back, a doubly arched browridge, low forehead, a large mandible, a completely absent chin, and gigantic nasal cavity with strange triangular projections.  His description of the Neanderthal face is a sure sign that Sawyer did his homework.  The characters even recognize these physiological differences as distinctly Neanderthal.  However, it is in the description of the body that Sawyer’s facts begin to get misconstrued.

Ponter is light skinned with blond hair, a fact that could be attributed to his geographic location.  No archaeological evidence exists to support this.  Ponter is said to be around five foot four inches.  My analysis of Neanderthal skeletons estimated their height to average around five foot one inch.  This difference in height is no doubt a result for the blatant disregard Sawyer has for my analysis of the Neanderthal vertebral column and limb bones.  Sawyer is confused into thinking that Neanderthal’s stood fully erect.  This leads to several other problems later on in the story.  At one point in the story Ponter rushes through a location carrying Mary.  My analysis clearly states that because of the orientation of the bones in the legs, this burst of incredible speed would be impossible.  Neanderthals were bow legged creatures that were far less perfect in bipedal motions and therefore would be unable to run as fast as Sawyer presumes.  This combined with the structure of the foot, which rested on the outer edge, makes the scenario completely impossible.

The computer implant that assists Ponter in his communication is quite intriguing.  Even the humans of the future seemed equally baffled.  No doubt the authors intent was to make the novel more exciting by allowing Ponter and the humans to communicate.  Ponter’s language is described as lacking complicated vowel sounds such as the ‘-ee’ sound at the end of Mary.  This could be attributed to the position of the voice box, but archaeological evidence cannot support this claim.  As far as I am concerned, it is doubtless that they possessed only the most rudimentary articulate language.

I was quite intrigued by the concept of the neutrino observatory.  While I have never heard of such things in my studies, I’m led to believe that in the future such scientific observations are imperative to human survival.  The beginning of this novel takes place a mile and a half below the surface of the Earth.  Astounding!  Originally, my academic career began with the study of geology so the interest comes naturally.  A unique feature of this novel is that it takes place in two separate realms that have evolved simultaneously.  Both of these realities somehow exist in unison but can only be bridged through special circumstances.  I find the concept of parallel worlds to be much too far-fetched.  Sawyer’s details are interesting though.  I was fascinated by the descriptions of the Neanderthal world, a land that seems to utilize technology but never at the cost of nature.  The environment of the Neanderthal world is pleasant wilderness supporting all types of extinct animals, including woolly mammoths.

The world of the Neanderthals is separated by sex.  Females inhabit one part of the city while the males inhabit another.  This idea is based on the menstruation cycle and seems to indicate that violence and strife are much less frequent when sexes are separated.  Sawyer also alludes to bisexual activity amongst Neanderthals.  I’ll admit, this idea caused me to blush.  What a truly bizarre concept!  In the Laboratory of Paleontology the relationship between culture and morphology (or sexual preference) isn’t an issue as we stick specifically to physical descriptions.  Such accusations could only be the work of a fiction writer.

The population on Ponter’s world is somewhere around one hundred and eighty five million, which makes logical sense if his people are prescribed to a hunter-gatherer form of subsistence.  This choice of subsistence is interesting as it controls population, avoids waste, and could essentially curb obesity.  When Ponter journeys into the realm of modern man, he is encountered with new eating habits.  The people of the Twenty First Century seem to prefer foods heavy in salt and sugar.  Ponter is quite fond of one beverage in particular, Coca Cola.  I find it interesting that he has no tolerance for bread.  I would attribute this to the fact that his people were much too inferior to develop the technologies to produce bread products.  He also shows no interest in dairy products.  The mere idea of collecting milk from cows probably wasn’t even a twinkle under the browridge.  No, as a hunter-gatherer Ponter would be more inclined to want juice or water rather than coffee or milk.

Ponter describes to Mary that his people have no belief system; he has trouble even wrapping his head around the subject of religion and God.  The Neanderthals of Ponter’s world believe that death is simply the end.  One closes their eyes and that is it.  I have trouble with this because of, again, the archaeological evidence surrounding the La Chappelle aux Saints skeleton.  I refuse to waiver from the truth, that burial is a sign of ritual and therefore religion.

Overall both books were entertaining reads and fine examples of the way fiction can sometimes overwhelm scientific fact.  Both The Inheritors and Hominids serve as attempts to explain Neanderthals as they once were.  The examples given are based on some scientific results but the authors in both make frequent mistakes.  If I were forced to choose which novel portrayed the Neanderthal’s in a more accurate light, my favor would rest with The Inheritors.  Hominids is simply too much of a fictional romp.  It favors a heavy emphasis on inconceivable technologies, misconstrued understandings of Neanderthal physiology, and a scientifically impossible interaction between modern Neanderthal’s and modern humans.  The Inheritors however shows how these creatures really were: distant cousins of modern man that through their simple nature and inferior morphological function could not seek to compete with moderns.


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