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The Last Neanderthal
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Forty thousand years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard winter, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate.
But the unforgiving landscape takes its toll, and Girl is left alone to care for Runt, a foundling of unknown origin. As Girl and Runt face the coming winter storms, Girl realizes she has one final chance to save her people, even if it means sacrificing part of herself.
In the modern day, archaeologist Rosamund Gale works well into her pregnancy, racing to excavate newly found Neanderthal artifacts before her baby comes. Linked across the ages by the shared experience of early motherhood, both stories examine the often taboo corners of women’s lives.
Haunting, suspenseful, and profoundly moving, The Last Neanderthal asks us to reconsider all we think we know about what it means to be human.
Our deeds still travel with us from afar,
and what we have been makes us what we are.
—George Eliot, Middlemarch
Aroo: A tonal word; the precise meaning changed with pitch and context. Most often used as a sharp warning but could also be a call for help or a term of endearment.
Bearden: An expression of fear, as in the quiver you feel when you suddenly find yourself too close to where a bear sleeps.
Boh: The blowing sound made by a bison. They were the staple food of this particular family and therefore at the front of their minds much of the time.
Chewfat: Most often used in reference to a strong body. One interpretation might be “I would like to sink my teeth into that meat.” It was a phrase of active encouragement, not a direct compliment.
Crowthroat: Someone who talks too much. Derived from the despised crow, the worst offender when it came to mindless chatter and making a racket.
Cu-cu-cling: A phrase meaning “My head is a bison” that was often chanted in singsong. It expressed the feeling of a deep hunger that occupied the mind and body.
Deadwood: A body on the other side of the dirt; used as an equivalent to our idea of death, though it expressed a change of state rather than a permanent end.
Pitch: A tarlike substance distilled from a pine or birch tree. When directed at a person, the word could be roughly interpreted as “Keep your head attached to your meat,” as in “stay alive.” It had a double meaning, as it also conveyed the importance of, and the skill involved in, keeping one thing attached to another.
Stone tooth: A handmade stone tool.
Sunbite: A disease with a high mortality rate that started with flulike symptoms, followed by red spots all over the body that turned to blisters; believed to come from the sun burning the body from the inside out.
Warm: It meant “family,” but the word had a connotation of physical warmth and safety of the kind that brought peace of mind.
Wintersleep: Literally translated as the sleep that occurred during the height of the winter storm season. While not technically hibernation, it was the process of becoming languid, slow, and inactive during winter to keep the energy needs of the body low.
They didn’t think as much about what was different.
There was good reason for this, as they lived in small family groups. Every day was spent among people who were similar to them. The bodies that sat around the fire shared the same kind of cowlick at the backs of their heads, or the same laugh, or teeth that were equally crooked. Every time a head turned to look, a body could find one part of itself in another.
It’s because of their similarities to us that I can speak for them when I say that much of what you’ve heard isn’t true.
They were kind and clever. They had hands with opposable thumbs and a light dusting of hair on the backs. They had hearts that throbbed in their chests when they saw certain people, and this happened more than you might expect. Their brains were larger than ours by about 10 percent. Many of us have inherited up to 4 percent of their DNA, and now that both genomes have been sequenced, we know that theirs differed from ours by only about 0.12 percent. To be fair, these slight variations are significant. They had a sensitive patch of skin on the gums above the front teeth; by curling up the top lip, they could feel the heat of a body from a mile away. Their ears could pinpoint where a drop of water had fallen in a pond long after the ripples were gone. Their eyes could see the unique pattern of bark on each tree and this allowed them to tell one from the next, just as we can with human faces.
If they knew I was telling you this, though, it would embarrass them. They did not like to focus on inward thoughts, as this lay the body open to outward dangers. They would hold up a hand, lower their eyes, a slight pink to the cheek. If they were still alive today, they would want to make clear one pressing point: They were much like you.
But they aren’t alive. They are extinct. The knowledge that something is extinct often leads to worry. You are probably already feeling guilty because you assume that I’m about to place the responsibility for their end on modern humans. We compare ourselves to them through one stark reality: We survived and they did not. The space between those two things, life and death, is where our trouble starts. We focus on that one difference and it dominates our thoughts. Blame comes next.
But the last thing they would want you to worry about is their passing. They didn’t dwell much on difference, and it was the resemblances between seasons, bodies, and species that stood out to their eyes. They were so few in number. The world in which they lived was vast and empty. As a matter of survival, they tried to focus on what was the same.
If you happened on one in the woods—say, a female named Girl with a shock of red hair—it would not be by accident. She would have sensed you coming long before, felt curious about another upright primate, and allowed you to approach. She would make a noise in the brush to let you know she was there. Maybe she would drop her spear to show that she didn’t mean you harm. She would spread the fingers of her left hand and raise that palm to greet you.
The polite thing to do would be to raise your right hand the same way. Walk slowly toward her.
Her body is streaked with dirt and only partially covered with a loose cloak of bison fur. She is often too hot and doesn’t like the feel of tight animal hides on her skin. Her breath comes in plumes from her nose, expelling heat from her broad body into the cold air. Look at her densely packed muscles. They hold a kind of strength more on par with a bear’s. As you get closer, notice the earthy smell of bison meat and sour stomach. There is nothing wrong with her; that’s just from how she lives.
Take a deep breath because you will feel intimidated. And you should. This is your instinct taking hold. You’ve never seen such a magnificent creature before, but your ancestors did. They knew from experience that she could close up your throat with one squeeze. They passed this sensible fear on to you.
Don’t run, though. You feel scared because on an instinctual level you acknowledge that you are weaker. Remember that she isn’t worried about you. She knows she is stronger and she can afford to stare. The thing to focus on is that you are the most spectacular thing she has ever seen. Because the Neanderthal population was always small, she has seen only a handful of other upright bodies in her lifetime, and never anyone like you. What she feels is a sense of wonder.
Hold up your palm. Spread your fingers out like hers in a greeting. Walk up to her, slowly.
When you are close enough, press the skin of your palm against hers. Feel her heat. The same blood runs under the surface of your skin. Take a breath for courage, raise your chin, and look into her eyes. Be careful, because your knees will weaken. Tears will come to your eyes and you will be filled with an overwhelming urge to sob. This is because you are human.
When you look into her eyes, you will feel an immediate connection. All the difference drops away. You each know with certainty that you can feel the mind of the other. You share a single thought: I am not alone.
It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.
When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle; the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm.
As the sun had turned its face away, they were all exhausted from the work that came with spring. For once, there had been no nighttime shadow stories, talk, or laughs—though when they had all settled, Him, the oldest brother, issued a tremendous fart. He could have split a log with the force. Runt replied with a messy blow of his lips to the back of his hand. Bent laughed, just once, and Girl let a smile curl her lips but was too tired for more. Big Mother said, “Hum.”
And then it was quiet in the hut; heavy breathing, slow.
Deep in the middle of the pile of bodies lay Girl and Wildcat. Girl usually slept soundly, but that night she woke too early and pulled her cramped arm out from under the large cat. Earlier Big Mother had shooed him away to the edge of the nest. The sneaky cat had waited and, once he heard a whistle of air running evenly through Big Mother’s large nose, crawled back in. Wildcat was gray with pointed black tips on his ears. He was thick-boned and robust and had a dense mat of fur. A set of black rings ran the length of his tail. He had made a single chirp, a sound he had trained Girl to know, and moved in to cuddle up to her. He rubbed his head and ears against hers. She made a faint chirp in reply. They were good friends and Wildcat was the softest thing she knew.
Girl scratched at a flea that was attempting an escape from her armpit. She ran her sleepy fingers across the skin to try to flick it off. A shift and a slight grunt and she couldn’t reach. A moment later a thick finger pressed on her back. It skimmed across the shoulder blade and pushed. It was her brother Him, she knew from the feel of the rough skin on the tip of his finger. A pinch and a pop and the bug body crushed between his teeth. Girl didn’t say thank you. There was no need. It was built into all the times that she would pick a flea or louse for Him. Words could be empty. It was the return of a gesture that held meaning.
And then it was quiet. Girl sighed and fell back and became part of the tangle of bodies again. The protective layer of bone and muscle blurred. The edges of their shapes melted into the warmth. Thick lashes hit cheeks, breaths came slower, and the weight of long limbs fell away. When one had a dream, the others saw the same pictures in their heads, whether they were remembered in the morning or not. It wasn’t just their bodies that connected in sleep; it was also their minds.
The family lay in a pile on top of two thick, stretched bison hides. Under those hides was a bed of fresh pine boughs, crisscrossed to lift the nest away from the cold dirt floor. Girl and Runt had just changed the boughs that day, so the air was heavy with the scent of pine. Over the bodies were hides that had been cured and chewed until they felt soft against the skin. A layer of furs was spread on top to keep the family cozy. This nest lay inside a hut that was tucked into the side of a granite cliff, a carefully chosen position, as it was perched on a ledge with steep rock above and a sharp slope below. They had to slink along a narrow trail to get to the hut. While not convenient, it limited the routes that a predator could use to approach.
When going to sleep, the family imagined that they were crawling into the belly of a bison. The hut was roughly the same shape as the bison they ate. It had a low, tight back end to hold the heat in close. The front was stronger and made with more support, horned and watching. A long tree limb formed the spine of the structure. It was propped up at one end with a forked branch and wrapped in place with twine made from strips of the inner bark of a cedar tree. Once these main supports were up, long sticks were laid across the center pole, like ribs. Thicker branches were secured with stones at the front and back to form legs for stability. A first skin, cured with brain oil, was pulled tight enough over the frame to quiver. Dead pine boughs were then placed on the skeleton, like a thick slab of fat. The outermost layer was rough hides made of the densest fur from the backs of two old male bison, thrown over and tied on with cured tendons.
With body heat, it was snug inside the hut. The strength of the animals remained in their parts and gave the family a special kind of protection. In a land full of peril, protection of any kind was precious. What comforted the body was also solace for the mind.
When Girl was inside the hut, she had a habit of murmuring a word: “Warm.” She craved the feeling of being connected to so many beating hearts, to ears that listened, and to all those pairs of eyes that would watch to ensure that something wasn’t sneaking up behind another body. It was how her blood spread heat to the bodies she loved. It was how she stayed alive.
And much later, when the family was all gone and Girl was alone, the warmth was what she would remember about that night. She would let her longing out in a lonely moan: “Warm.”
When Girl peeked her head out of the hut that morning, she could smell the struggle of spring. It was the first day of the hunt and the land had come alive. The sun worked hard to peel the winter ice away from the earth. As it did, it uncovered a deep hunger in the land. The same kind of craving lived in the bellies of all the beasts who roamed the valley of the mountain. Girl watched as the trees below swayed with worry. They could feel the vibrations from the growling bellies through the soil around their roots. Cold air clung to the pine needles and each sprouting cone at the end of each branch quivered in anticipation. The ground shifted in discomfort as the ice let it go. Spring brought life for some, but it brought death for others.
Down the slope at the hearth, Big Mother stirred the coals to rouse the morning fire. The old woman wore her bison horns, which were secured in a soft hide and tied onto her head. The two horns protruded straight out at the spot where her short forehead met a thick hairline. With only a glance, any beast could tell that Big Mother was in charge. She was old by then, which meant that there were more than thirty springs she could remember. She had lost count of them all, but her milky eyes could still pick out shape, light, and movement. Her nose could still catch the scent of a fresh green shoot from a hundred strides away.
As the head of the family, Big Mother would decide on the particular beast they would try to kill that day. Though her hunting days were over, she would still make the trip to the bison crossing with the rest of the family. Girl wouldn’t risk leaving Big Mother, or any of the other weaker-bodied ones, alone at that time in the spring. A young leopard had recently come slinking around near their hearth. He was new to their land and unsettled. In earlier times the family could have driven him away easily, but that spring their numbers were especially low. They didn’t dare allow the leopard a chance. Only some meat got to eat.
As Him, Girl’s brother, walked over to the fire, Big Mother started to laugh. It took Girl a moment to see why. Him often had an erection and, given the loose arrangement of his cloak, she could see that this morning was no different. Big Mother laughed with joy, as an erect penis signaled good health. It was happiness.
Many things had dropped away from Big Mother’s body by then, but not her smile. Her laugh came out as a sharp cackle and showed her missing teeth, all gone except for a few mid-teeth in her upper left jaw and two molars on the right. When she laughed, she put a hand to her cheek, and Girl knew the old woman wished those teeth would also fall to the dirt. The pain made her body feel like dry meat. A clutch of wiry gray hairs lifted from her chin, and large breasts lay proud and flat over her belly. The thick skin on her face showed the trail of a tear. Big Mother believed that the measure of a life could be reduced to such small things, a count of the wrinkles to see how many laughs versus how many frowns a body had produced. Because of this, Girl knew that the old woman made sure to laugh often.
The smells of spring and her aging mother mixed together in a way that caused Girl some unease. Realistically, she knew that Big Mother could drop dead at any moment. She often said her breath smelled like the hindquarters of a bison after so many years of eating just that. While the back end of a bison had a distinct smell, it wasn’t necessarily bad. Shit came out of it and stank of life in a sweet way. If mixed with sand, bison shit could be stuck around the pine poles of a hut to fill up the cracks and keep out the wind. There was nothing bad about stopping a damp wind from blowing down your neck, just as there was nothing bad about aging. If Girl was wise enough to live so long, she would also earn that breath.
Big Mother’s wisdom was needed. Only the best instincts could get a body to reach old age and she had taught Girl that living a life, riding the back of the churning seasons, meant that change was constant. Everything around them sprouted, grew, and, at some point, reached its peak. Its strength would start to recede when the thing was no longer able to renew itself. It would then die—be deadwood. A leaf that falls starts to decompose. It soon becomes nutrients for the soil. The rich soil will take in rain and become food for the tree. And in that way, in time, things didn’t really die. They only changed. But all changes came with discomfort and unease. And Big Mother did her best to give comfort to the family by keeping what she could the same. Over all her years, she made her tools with the same source of rock, ate the same kind of foods at close to the same time of year, and built huts in the same way again and again.
Girl looked at Him and admired the shiny brown hair on his head. Its glossiness was a sign of health. Raked back above his ears, the hair was pulled away from his sloped brow and tied with a lash. His back was broad and flared out wide from his waist. He had gone through a change of his own. It came later than it had for some, as the years before had been lean and his fat stores were low. The change included moods that alerted Girl to what might be happening. Given the close quarters, moods were endured in a fairly stoic way. Though she pretended not to notice, she knew he might catch the eye of a woman at the fish run that summer.
Just thinking of the bright colors of the fish run was enough to make Girl’s heart quicken. Saliva flooded her mouth. Her hunger deepened. She thought of the soft fish eggs in her fingers. The year before she had held one up close to her eye and it looked like the river was trapped inside. That small river held the next generation of fish and so she wanted their strength inside her body. She had put the eggs between her back teeth, crunched down, and listened to them pop. She imagined the slippery skin of the fish in her hands and eating the soft, orange flesh underneath, and her blood felt as though it boiled under her skin.
When the spring sun climbed high enough to kiss the cliff that stood behind their hut, the family would start moving toward the meeting place. Other families who lived on separate forks of the river would also make the journey. It was by a broad stretch of the water that flattened into a series of shallow rapids where the river’s branches came together.
At that time of year, it was also the meeting place for the fish. As they flung their bodies up rocky steps, some were smashed on the rocks, some found themselves in the waiting reed nets of the family, and some fell into the jaws of bears. And a few of the fish made it through. Each was as long as an arm and as thick and muscled as a thigh, with two fangs that protruded up from the lower jaw. They were as smart as crows and as quick as snakes. Their scales were speckled gray, but the tastiest ones wore a blaze of orange across their backs to show they were ripe. The family believed that those were the best fish. They were not necessarily the strongest, but their traits—cunning, strength, size, or eyesight—were best matched to the conditions of that particular year. They were the ones who continued on to lay their orange eggs in the shallows higher upriver. The new generation of fish would come from them.
Girl’s mind was full of inward thoughts of the meeting place, but she knew she shouldn’t be distracted. She quickly snapped back to the present as she looked at her family by the hearth—Big Mother, Him, Bent, and Runt. They were a small group and some of them looked weaker than other beasts. She knew from their previous visits to the meeting place that they might not be the most attractive of the bunch. But she didn’t let worry about their chances flood her then. Like the skills of hunting, repairing, and building, learning to hold some of her worries back was part of growing up. She had to focus on the hunt. She shouldn’t divert the attention of her body from the present moment; it could put them all at risk. The world was so easily lost.
Him had been the first to climb down the steep slope from the hut to their hearth that morning. The land of the family was still in the grip of the ice, but he didn’t mind the cold. He was driven by his urge to mate. He knew that he would mate only if he looked in good health at the meeting place, and health lay in the food he ate. In the spring, it was only bison meat that could fill the needs of his dense muscles and large frame.
Him didn’t stop working when Big Mother laughed. His erection stood for the desire to eat and mate and it only drove him harder. He smiled, kicked the embers of the fire to extinguish the flame, and scraped the ashes to the side with a stick. Using a hide to protect his hands from the heat, he lifted a slab of stone with a concave surface that was used for making sticky pitch from birch bark. Someone in the family long before had found the slab and it had since been passed down from one body to another. As they moved frequently to find or follow food, it wasn’t a practical thing to carry. They cached the slab each year near where the spring hut was likely to be. Him handled it like a treasure. It was one of the few objects that many generations of the family had used. That was how a thing was made precious, by how many hands of the family had touched it before. The work he did linked him to the family through time.
The day before, Him had put layers of bark from a birch tree into the concave slab of stone and let the heat of the fire coax black ooze from the bark. Once hot embers were added, he used this sticky pitch to seal a triangular flake of stone onto the end of a wooden thrusting spear. Him quickly worked the pitch before it set. He licked his fingers often. He pressed and molded the pitch to get it just right. Once happy with the shape, he dipped the new tip in cool water.
As Him waited for the tip to set, he watched his younger brother Bent, who had a forearm that was curved like the horn of a bison. The thumb pointed away from Bent’s body, and his wrist was fixed. He was attempting to tie a hardened hide onto his shin for protection in the hunt, and the guard was difficult to get in place with his crooked arm. He could turn his hand only by twisting his elbow. It looked like Bent’s arm was aching too, as it often did when the weather changed. Bent spat in frustration.
“Runt.” Him let out the word in a loud, piercing bark. His larynx was short, which gave his voice a high pitch. This shrill sound shot through his broad nose cavity with a nasal quality. At the same time, it resonated through his deep, muscled rib cage. When he spoke, his voice came out loud and it tired his throat.
But Him didn’t need to stress his throat with words very often. Big Mother had set the quiet tone of their social customs, and living in such a small group meant that many things didn’t need to be said. Big Mother’s throat was even more prone to strain and she discouraged too much chatter, though those who witnessed her occasional flashes of rage might question her commitment to quiet. She called a body that talked too much a crowthroat; with a hand out, she would flap her fingers against her thumb, a gesture that stood for the beak of the bird she despised the most. The crows squawked and shit with no regard for what lay around them.
PRAISE FOR THE LAST NEANDERTHAL:
"Arresting... Gripping... This vivid...novel makes clear how much we carry on from those who existed long before us."
—Emily Gray Tedrowe, USA Today
- "Masterfully examines our connections to our evolutionary cousins...a novel to cherish."—Trevor Corkum, Toronto Star
- "A powerful, warm and thought-provoking book that artfully blends facts with fiction to put flesh on many abstract scientific debates."—Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
"Claire Cameron reunites us with our past, with the beginning of humanity. In this book I lived next to people who populated the earth a very long time ago and have long since vanished completely. To make you feel for them, and what is more: feel with them is a great achievement. The Last Neanderthal is one of those novels that opens the world to you in a different way. And after you finish reading, this world will never look the same to you again."
—Herman Koch, bestselling author of The Dinner
"The Last Neanderthal is astonishing. With delicacy and tenderness, Claire Cameron imagines the struggles of a Neanderthal family to sustain itself physically and psychologically in the face of extinction. As we follow Girl, her mother and brothers, and a mysterious stray called Runt, we are put in touch with what is most ancient and noble in human nature. At the same time, the parallel contemporary narrative shows us how little, over the eons, the human heart has changed. I'm thrilled by Cameron's adventurous and deeply empathic tale, an example of what fiction at its best can do."
—Pamela Erens, author of Eleven Hours
- "Claire Cameron's newest novel, The Last Neanderthal, is fascinating, insightful and poignant; a moving narrative of the last survivors of a harsh and unforgiving environment that is both exotic and achingly familiar. It is a story of our profound connectedness to our ancestors, exploring the ultimate question of what it means to be truly 'human.'"—Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic's Daughter
"The Last Neanderthal is a book like no other. Claire Cameron effortlessly inhabits the worlds of two very different women-a female Neanderthal desperate to survive and an archeologist who fears losing control of her dig site-and shows us they are not that different after all. A powerful novel that will make you cry. And laugh, too."
—Marcy Dermansky, author of The Red Car
"This rich, literary, science-based imagining of Neanderthal life intrigued me from the start. The parallels between two women navigating complex lives from across time and space-and across a narrow species boundary-is captivating in itself. But more than this, while reading The Last Neanderthal, I felt myself standing with new feet within our human lineage. This book makes me want to pay attention to the senses that are in our blood-an alertness to vision, smell, touch, weather, the presence of other creatures-that can come naturally to us as a Homo sapiens, but have been lost from inattention and lack of use. I find myself walking into the world with a heightened awareness of what it means to be fully human."
—Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Mozart's Starling
"Thoroughly immersed in the recent explosion in knowledge-and speculation-about our closest kin."
—Brian Bethune, Maclean's (Canada)
- "The women of Cameron's The Last Neanderthal are fierce, whatever their time period. This meditation on motherhood, passion and survival is lush and lovingly detailed, creating a world that's frighteningly accurate and reassuringly heartfelt. Couldn't put it down."—Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach
"A necessary, brilliantly feminist and intuitive reading of our earliest history. Cameron memorably paints a full world with her Neanderthals and binds it perfectly to our own."
—Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?
- "Forty millennia separate the two female protagonists of this impressively executed novel from the author of The Bear. ... [The] book's greatest strength [is] its ability to collapse time and space to draw together seemingly dissimilar species: ancestors and successors, writer and reader."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "Cameron expertly intertwines Girl's and Rose's stories....an engaging tale that celebrates the search for life's meaning and its quotidian nature."—Carla Jean Whitley, BookPage
- "Cameron pulls out all the literary stops in giving Neanderthals as much free rein, agency, and authenticity as possible.... This could easily be the best book that shakes up the classic Neanderthal tropes in science fiction and fantasy."—Lydia Pyne, Los Angeles Review of Books
- "Poignant...shines a mirror into our own humanity."—Martha Anne Toll, The Millions
- "Transcending the challenges of bringing to life a nearly silent family, Cameron generates excitement through a hunt gone unexpectedly wrong."—Kirkus Reviews
- "The Last Neanderthal offers current science but places it in the context of emotional lives, particularly the intensity of pregnancy and childbirth --- and in so doing, Cameron urges readers to reflect on just what being "human" really means."—Norah Piehl, BookReporter
- "The Last Neanderthal is emotionally engaging.... This immersive story unites two women across time [and] infuses the interrelated stories with warmth, enhanced by vivid details about Neanderthal experiences."—Suzan L. Jackson, Shelf Awareness
"Cameron understands what we share with our distant cousins-those basic emotions, fundamental feelings-but she also has a seamless understanding of the contours of those feelings and she uses that natural empathy to incredible effect. It's perhaps a strange thing to say about a novel that's fundamentally about extinction, but The Last Neanderthal is a pleasure to read."
—Stassa Edwards, Jezebel
- "A deeply sympathetic portrait of a Neanderthal girl struggling to survive some 40,000 years ago, battling leopards, bison, a brutal winter and starvation. Her vivid survival story is interwoven with the tale of a pregnant archaeologist named Rosamund, who makes a startling discovery when she finds the fossilized remains of a Neanderthal and a human buried next to each other."—Alexandra Alter, New York Times
- On Sale
- Apr 17, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Back Bay Books