The Last Neanderthal

Written by Claire Cameron
Review by Kristen McQuinn

The Last Neanderthal is necessary commentary on the topics of feminism, motherhood, and gender, topics that have been dogging women literally since the dawn of humanity. Cameron handles the issues with grace through the dual tales of Girl, one of the last Neanderthals, and Rosamund “Rose” Gale, a modern-day archaeologist. Girl’s story follows her as she navigates through her coming of age and learning her place in the brutal world she inhabits. She eventually becomes responsible for Runt, a foundling child who may be at least part Homo sapiens, as they make their way to the annual meeting place of their families. Rose’s story unfolds at a dig site in France, where she has discovered the remains of a Neanderthal and modern human which could restructure the understanding of the earliest days of humanity.

Throughout the novel, Cameron tackles the deep issue of gender roles, particularly as they relate to motherhood. While we don’t know for certain what Neanderthals or early modern humans might have done in certain situations, we can make educated guesses based on evidence. Cameron adroitly navigates some of these possibilities, showing the precariousness of Girl’s existence through a pregnancy and unexpected role as primary caregiver to Runt. Cameron further explores the themes of motherhood and its tandem feelings of ambivalence and helpless anger with Rose, who rails against patriarchal social assumptions that she will meekly give up her career and quietly go home to be a mother. Both women deal with uncertainty about becoming mothers, have to learn to juggle that role with survival, both literal and professional, and find out just what they are willing to give up to retain the most important parts of themselves. As both a feminist and a mother, I strongly recommend this book.