A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN DARNTON
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
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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