What inspired you to write this book?

I think my passion began with a visit to the caves of Altamira in northern Spain in 1983. I saw these incredibly beautiful cave paintings of bison and deer, far more beautiful than I had ever imagined or than I could have drawn myself. And I began to muse about the artist who created them, about the motive and the genius that guided the hand that made those lines on stone. I tried to imagine the mental universe that this being inhabited. That's when I got bitten by the bug. It caught me by surprise. I began reading about prehistory, as a hobby more than anything, and pretty soon I bumped into those strange human cousins of ours, the Neanderthal. But I wasn't thinking about writing a novel then. I was just following my curiosity -- normal human curiosity about our ancestors, which of course is really about where we come from and who we are.

What was it about the Neanderthal that intrigued you?

Their mystery. It struck home about five years ago when I read a short newspaper article that fascinated me. It said that evidence was mounting that there was actually a time in prehistory -- thousands of years in fact -- when Neanderthal and us, Homo sapiens, co-existed. That bowled me over. I imagined these two species, or maybe even members of the same species, living side by side in their caves. Did they talk to one another? Trade things? Did they fight? Make love? And then I learned that the Neanderthal brain size was as large as Homo sapiens or maybe even larger, which suggests that they were probably as intelligent as our ancestors. That intrigued me. I couldn't get it out of my mind. I kept wondering: if they were so intelligent and physically stronger, why did they die out and why did we survive? And I started to imagine reasons. Those imaginings became the core of the novel.

What is the novel about?

It's the story of two paleontologists, Matt Mattison and Susan Arnot, former lovers and now academic rivals, each propounding a different theory to explain the extinction of the Neanderthal. Their friend and mentor has disappeared in the wilds of central Asia where he was sent by a rather shady research institute in Bethesda, Maryland. He sends back a perfectly preserved Neanderthal skull and then drops from sight. The skull is dated and the result is astounding -- it's only 25 years old! So Matt and Susan are sent to track down their former teacher to find out if he's still alive and if he has actually discovered a renegade band of Neanderthal living on in the cold upper reaches of the Pamir mountains. Both the United States and Russia are interested, because these creatures have evolved an extraordinary power that has the potential to transform the modern world. And so Matt and Susan get to test their theories in ways they never imagined.

What are the two theories?

They're based, like all the scientific information in the novel, on the legitimate work of archeologists and paleontologists in the field. Sooner or later, anyone who looks into the Neanderthal is captivated by the great enigma that lies across their bones like a shroud. What happened to them? Why did they die out 30,000 years ago? They existed for thousands of years and then they're gone; the trail goes cold.

We now know that the Neanderthal's departure from the stage of prehistory more or less coincides with our entrance. There they were, happily enscounced across all of Europe and ranging deep into Asia, and along comes this interloper -- a thin, long-legged, flat-browed fellow species from the south. Either we killed them off with some new skill or technique or weapon, in what must have been the most brutal genocide the world has ever seen. Or we socialized with them and interbred and gradually their distinctive traits dropped away. In other words, maybe we all have a little bit of Neanderthal inside us. In the novel, Matt believes in interbreeding -- what Susan derides as the "make love, not war" theory -- and she believes in the idea of a primal war.

Which one is right?

Ha, for that, you'll have to read the book. But I'll give you a clue. There's a riddle at the heart of it all: what is it that we have that the Neanderthal don't? What special trait, still there today, gives us the upper hand in the struggle for supremecy? If you can answer that, you solve the riddle.

Do Matt and Susan solve it?

They do. But in the process, they set off a cataclysm that replays critical events that occurred 30,000 years before. So they don't just solve the riddle, they live it. And the search takes them right to the origins of humankind.
That's why I think this book is a new genre. We've had a number of science adventure novels. This one is more of a science mystery.

And is the science accurate?

Absolutely. Accurate and up-to-date. I've pulled together a lot of new information in archeology and paleontology and evolutionary biology. There's a lot of new research because the field is exploding with new finds and new theories. I tried to use them to come up with a credible way of describing the Neanderthal -- what they look like, how they move, how they might act and even to some degree how they might think.  Obviously, I've taken some liberties in areas where we simply don't know. But the foundations are all scientifically valid.

Do you believe they still exist?

Let's just say I'm agnostic. But a number of people out there do believe it, or at least are open to the possibility. They're knowledgeable about various sightings and footprints and other intriguing bits of evidence, not to mention all the legends about the Abominable Snowman or the Yeti or the Alma, which all bear a resemblance to the Neanderthal. Some people are actually trying to track them down. Russia has sent a number of official expeditions to search for them. In China, there's one underway at this very moment.

How did you go about the research?

A: Like any journalist. I reported it as if I were reporting a story. I poured through the libraries, I read books, I talked to paleontologists. I learned about digs and what it feels like to uncover a bone that is thousands of years old. I went to Pakistan and trekked up the Kyber Pass into Afghanistan to get a sense of the terrain. Finally, when I finished the manuscript, I sent it off to experts to check it over, people like Chris Stringer, head of paleontology at the British Natural History Museum.

How long did you work on it?

Five years, from the moment I got the idea. But of course I had to fit in the work on weekends and while riding in the back of airplanes.

Did you use any of your journalistic experiences around the world?

Definitely. I drew upon my travels and my experiences from Africa to Eastern Europe to Asia to the Middle East. There are a number of ancedotes and incidents that give it, I hope, an air of reality. Touches here and there. A character remembers walking through the blood-soaked basement of Idi Amin's State Research Bureau. Another one witnesses psychological death from a man who is giving blood during a transfusion. Those come from events I encountered as a reporter.

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