The Book of Science and Antiquities

Written by Thomas Keneally
Review by K. M. Sandrick

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Shelby Apple is approaching the end of his days after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2015. As he contemplates his life, he comes to dwell on his collaboration with paleontologist Peter Jorgensen, the discovery of the remains of 42,000-year-old Australian Aboriginal Learned Man, and the two men’s quest to return the remains to their original burial site rather than house them in a museum display case. Learned Man himself observes his own life as he and his clan trek across shallow marshes to the site of the wrestling matches that presage the cold season, track a member of their hunting tribe who violated a woman from the forbidden Earless Lizard clan, and sacrifice to cure the curse that threatens the clan’s livelihood.

The Book of Science and Antiquities is the 34th novel written by Keneally, author of best-sellers The Daughters of Mars and Schindler’s List. A resident of Sydney, Australia, Keneally is sensitive to the heritage of the teller of tales. He begs forgiveness and understanding from Aboriginal writers for, as he writes in the beginning Author’s Note, being a white man who horned in on telling an Aboriginal tale. His objective, he notes, is to illustrate how Paleolithic ancestors speak to all of us, black and white.

To that end, paleontologist Jorgensen stresses how articulate people of Learned’s time were. “None…was done by a pack of well-meaning primates with howls and groans. They could talk all right,” he says. Yet the language attributed to Learned and his clan is sometimes arch and pedantic, distracting from the universality of the message. Documentarian Apple’s actions pay homage to the Aboriginal past; Learned’s words too often obstruct.