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NEANDERTHAL, by John Darnton

by Stevi Deter

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Man meets proto-man, and they are poorly met indeed.

What if a tribe of hominids managed to survive into the present day in a remote area of Central Asia? What if leading anthropologists in search of the proto-men got trapped in the valley with the tribe?

One hopes the result wouldn't be Neanderthal, journalist John Darnton's yawner of a first novel. Poor plot construction, transparent characters, and pseudo-science lead one to believe that what it takes to become a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection is friends in the business, not talent at telling a good tale.

Darnton takes what should be an interesting premise and then promptly loses sight of what makes it so. Instead of exploring the intricacies of two intelligent and related species learning to communicate, he thrusts the reader in to a poorly constructed conspiracy, aimed mostly at incompetently hiding surprises that will fuel increasingly more implausible plot twists.

At the core of the story are two paleoanthropologists who spend more time rekindling an old flame than studying the live specimens of a species to whom they previously only had access through bones and chipped stones. Dropped into Margaret Mead's wet dream, they decide to train the vegetarian, peaceloving tribe that has rescued them to be hunters and fighters so that the sloping-browed hominids may assist on a rather incomprehensible raid on the war-loving mountain-dwelling tribe.

The novel is littered with simplistic and poorly incorporated themes. The neanderthals that live in the valley are peaceful and communal, unable to distinguish themselves as individuals. They are contrasted with the aggressive mountain-dwelling neanderthals, who war and worship a bear god. Yet the mountain hominids are more civilized, showing a family structure and individuation. The valley dwellers cannot resist the march of development; they move into the mountain cave when the warrior tribe is vanquished.

Man, we learn, defeated neanderthal through trickery. In a memorialized battle, man defeated the trusting and less sophisticated neanderthal through deception -- man played at peace, then ambushed the competing evolutionary branch. In fact man defeats neanderthal again, making the valley tribe subject to development in order to defeat the mountain tribe, thereby completely altering the existence of both societies. The mountain dwellers are destroyed, but the valley dwellers immediately move into the vacated caves and start developing some "civilization" of their own. The neanderthals have been living in these valleys and mountains for a millennia; the anthropologists manage to restructure their entire society in a matter of weeks.

Oddly enough, the scientists still fear exposing the neanderthals to the rest of the world. The neanderthals, after all, have only survived this long by hiding in the Roof of the World. As an important link to man's evolutionary past, the scientists fear that exposure to the world will lead to their extinction. Despite the fact that man has survived thinking this branch of the hominid tree was long gone, and has come up with some rather silly theories of what happened to them, losing the neanderthals this time would be a bad thing. Darnton never addresses the obvious counter-point: evolution has an amoral logic - the fittest survive, oblivious to the logic of diversity. Homo sapiens sapiens was the victor, homo neanderthalis lost, and will only be kept alive by isolation from the forces it cannot conquer.

Darnton provides a bibliography on the subject of neanderthals; this merely underscores that he read enough to be conversant on the topic, but is far from an expert. His inexperience with any real issues of this encounter between man and his past are painfully, and boringly, evident.

The cover tells us "their time has come." After reading the book, one is led to ask, their time for what? The neanderthals lose, and the logic to which Darnton must resort in order to let the "heroes" escape means the hominids never had a chance. The reader is left wondering why he bothered to finish reading the book.

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