Why Claire Cameron wants to change the way we see Neanderthals
Fuelled by childhood curiosities and her experiences in the outdoors, Claire Cameron began to pen her latest novel, The Last Neanderthal. The story follows two women: a Neanderthal named Girl and a pregnant modern-day archaeologist named Rosamund Gale. Although Rosamund and Girl are separated by millennia, Cameron explores how the experience of womanhood links them. The Last Neanderthal is a finalist for the $50,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
In her own words, Cameron explains how she blended fact with fiction to write a story that questions what it means to be human.
Science versus pop culture
"There was this disconnect. The Neanderthals I grew up with were portrayed as hairy monsters. They were very other. They weren't seen to be human. You'd see movies about them and they'd be grunting and stooped over. They were portrayed much more like animals. When I saw the results of the [genome mapping], I learned that they are actually more similar to us. The science is saying one thing and our stories and popular ideas are saying another. I was interested in understanding why the science was saying one thing and our ideas about Neanderthals said another."
Beyond the bones
"I started looking for more information. What I was looking for, like what was it like for Neanderthals and humans to be together, wasn't there because scientists can only speculate so far beyond the evidence they have. There's a line in the book that says, 'It's the things that don't fossilize that matter the most.' The sound of my voice, the words I used, who I loved or how I felt — those things all disappear when someone dies. Those are also the things that make a story engaging and help you get to know someone. I realized that it might be up to a novelist to imagine those details."
Drawing on her wilderness experience
"I used the science in this book as a platform. Whenever I learned something I thought to be true or after working with an academic, I used that available knowledge as my jumping off point. I tried to make this book as plausible as possible. But for the things that we don't know — that you can't find in DNA or fossils — I had to work from my experience. I've lived for months at a time in the wilderness and I realized that my state of mind and how I respond to things in the wild might be really useful when developing a Neanderthal character."
Finding a personal connection
"I did one of those tests and I'm 2.5 per cent Neanderthal. But, the tests are quite limited because they use a very small sample. Your test for Neanderthal DNA is only as good as the sample and at the moment, we are working off very small samples. I'm realistic about what that actually means and I think, not much. But as a writer, it was incredible for me to think there is Neanderthal DNA in me. It was a jumping off point for my imagination. Because my book is written from the perspective of a Neanderthal, it was helpful as a trick of the mind to say, 'Maybe I am someone who can write about this. Or, I'm as close to them as any other human on Earth. And if they were that close, maybe I can make some assumptions about how they felt or how they saw the world.' The DNA helped me make that mental leap."
Claire Cameron's comments have been edited and condensed.