John Darnton

Hutchinson, 1996, London. £9.99. ISBN 0-09-180202-4

Reviewed by Cornelius Holtorf

Films based on books sometimes disappoint their audience. Having read "Neanderthal", the story of a few contemporary scientists who find living Neanderthals in the upper reaches of the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan, I am confident that the movie will be even better. It is known that Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to the story, and it is thus no wonder that the dust jacket claims "You haven't been back to the future like this since Jurassic Park". Already now the novel reads like a film script. There are no extensive descriptions of people's confused feelings or complex thoughts – in fact there is nothing very confusing or complex in the novel at all – and almost the entire storyline is contained in brief and simple dialogues between the main characters. Moreover, the different sections of the text read like individual film scenes, and there are plenty of visual surprises already written into each chapter.

Author John Darnton demonstrates the skill of attracting large audiences, by combining a whole series of highly popular topics and evocative images in the novel. Firstly, there is of course the tribe of several thousand Neanderthals with "superior physiques ... made for combat" (p. 266) who have survived extinction in one of the most remote areas of the globe. They carry clubs, dress in animal skins, and use a truly amazing means of communication, superior to language, which I will not, however, give away here. Darnton is clearly well aware of the reception history of the Neanderthals; he has found a way of incorporating the two most popular clichés into the story (see Stringer and Gamble 1993: chapter one; Trinkaus and Shipman 1993: 397 - 410; cf. Moser 1992). The prehistoric tribe is split into two groups. One is trustworthy, innocent and peaceful:

"the pacific hominids... They're wonderful souls – truly innocent, truly good, nobler by far than Rousseau's noble savage" (p. 291).

The other group is primitive, brutal, and aggressive:

"Looking up, ... an overwhelming sense of revulsion seized her. The brute was so hideous that its presence could be detected by smell alone. There was a spark of cleverness in its eyes but it was the glint of low cunning, not the refined brilliance of an august being" (p. 327).

The latter group are social outcasts, as Darnton explains, using the voice of his fictitious archaeologist Dr. Susan Arnot:

"Every so often someone comes along who is born different. Antisocial – or worse maybe – a criminal. There's something pathological about him, genetically different. ... Spontaneous misfits. ... Every society produces them" (p.240).

I hope this is meant to be fiction too!

Secondly, there is the well established topic of the Wild Men, also known as Yeti or Bigfoot. They are hidden monsters that are responsible not only for mysterious footsteps but also for occasional disappearances of human beings (see the excellent compilation of source material in Rätsch and Probst 1985; see also Shackley 1983). These Wild Men, of course, turn out to be Neanderthals that now and then had come into the sphere of modern Homo sapiens.

Thirdly, a group of scientists from the West find themselves in an adventurous encounter with a lost prehistoric species, surpassing "anything in human history" (p.70). They also discover an archaeological treasure: Neanderthal cave art – "just like the caves of Lascaux" (p. 123) – depicting the decisive battle against Homo sapiens...

All these themes are connected with each other in the style of an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie. The novel contains, for instance, plenty of action and brutality (including a human sacrifice and a bridge over a ravine which eventually collapses!), a budding romance between the two scientist-heroes Matt and Susan as well as a twisted but nevertheless clear-cut division between the 'goodies' and the 'baddies'. Even the old competition between American and Russian secret services was apparently felt to be essential for the story ("Glasnost was a load of crap", p.81).

The main thread of the book reads nevertheless like a true story. Much of its background is indeed taken from original documents and academic literature. It appears to be entirely possible that Neanderthals could some day be found as described in the book. However, the idea for the book was hardly Darnton's own, as much of the storyline can be found in the work of Myra Shackley (1980: 128-133; 1983). Shackley writes about the Pamir mountains:

"From the hominid point of view the area clearly has great potential as a refuge." (Shackley 1983: 117)

She then goes on to describe a Russian Expedition sent in 1958 into the region in order to find early hominids and suggests that the mysterious Alma (or Yeti) may in fact be Neanderthals. But even if it was not his idea, Darnton has no doubt succeeded in the execution of the theme. I found the novel thrilling and enjoyable throughout. The themes, of whatever popularistic appeal they may be, are all developed with quite some skill and sophistication. John Darnton, who is the chief correspondent for The New York Times in London, clearly benefits from a long journalistic experience. He earns brownie points for the carefully researched passages on human evolution, in which he was assisted, and influenced, by Chris Stringer of the National History Museum in London, for using several well documented reports of Wild Men sightings, for the thoughtful discussion of ethical dilemmas and responsibilities in science, and for the often not-far-off descriptions of academic archaeology. Moreover, the novel is full of intelligent thoughts about the achievements of Homo sapiens vis-à-vis Neanderthals, about biological and social evolution in general, and about the origins of language and human civilization in particular, even though not all passages are equally convincing:

"Matt felt that they were witnessing the birth of civilization, the moment in which our ancestors turned from the brutish existence of solitary apes to the splendor and rigors of community and industry. But in another respect the colony was still steeped in savagery" (p.270).

Darnton does not always attempt to avoid simplistic clichés, his mind perhaps preoccupied with box office figures. The question of why the Neanderthals died out is ultimately answered with reference to the ability to deceive which is said to characterise Homo sapiens. According to the book, deception once led to the nearly complete extermination of the Neanderthals in a sequence of fights over dominance between the two species. The underlying human philosophy is not very complex; Susan explains to Matt that

"'there is something you should know about Homo sapiens....That he is duplicitous. That he cheats. That he lies. And therefore that he always wins" (p. 356).

Deception is not only presented as the decisive quality of Homo sapiens, but it turns out to be the underlying theme of the whole book. In the end every character has been deceived by others at least a couple of times, but the greatest and most dangerous deception is probably that of the reader who might take such an ill-founded notion of human nature seriously.

Likewise misleading is the portrayal of archaeology as a Science searching for the historical Truth (with capital letters in both words), e.g. where Susan says "It's real science, quantifiable, verifiable. Not all that guesswork..." (p. 365), and elsewhere "You must understand, I'm a scientist first and foremost. I demand facts where others are willing to proceed on faith. Suppositions, theories – none of that interests me" (p.161), or "No more theories, no more conjecture, no more speculation. Just observation, straight old-fashioned cultural research – except that it's prehistoric" (p.172f.). Even the most 'old-fashioned' scientists would nowadays not display such naïvety! Furthermore, Darnton lets the scientists proceed in a manner not unlike that of Heinrich Schliemann. They believe in evidence disregarded by the scientific establishment, take personal risks carrying out their own investigations, and are in the end rewarded by full confirmation of their initial suspicion. This must further encourage amateur archaeologists of all sorts in their own particular pursuits of Truth. Darnton forgets to remind his readers that only a very small minority of 'believers' can hold out any hope for eventual recognition in Science, while all the others remain on the fringe for a lifetime (which may, however, in many ways be preferable to Science).

The most controversial part of the novel must be its ending: the Neanderthals, once 'discovered', are exposed neither to Western civilization nor to well-meaning members of various secret services. Due to deception once again, they can continue their secluded lives in the Pamir mountains, even though the future of the remaining hominids is anything but certain. The scientists have affected the life of 'their' Neanderthals in a drastic way. Matt and Susan seem to realise in the end that they should never have come. They try to make up for their earlier misjudgement by not accepting responsibility for the future of their 'tribe', and keep quiet. Matt states: "Obviously, if we write anything, this place is finished" (p. 353), but he does not seem to care what happens to 'this place' when he does not do anything at all. Nowadays, anthropologists would be crucified for such an attitude! Matt and Susan ought to know along with John Darnton and all of us, that the notion of a timeless paradise where people can live without being in contact with others, but knowing that they exist, is an anthropological myth of some time back. Once 'discovered' and disturbed, there is no way to make an encounter undone by simply not telling anyone. Matt and Susan in fact deceive the people who had supported them all that time, too. In doing so, they do not only repeat the first victory by Homo sapiens over the Neanderthals, but they also exemplifiy the terrible consequences of a more than questionable theory of human nature which Darnton puts forward in the novel.

The ending does, however, spare the novel an admittedly even more embarassing Hollywood finish of love, peace, and overwhelming political correctness. At the same time it gives the idea of living Neanderthals even more credibility, because – well, who knows....?

Note: I owe the reference to Myra Shackley's work to Paul Graves-Brown's review of Darnton's book in Antiquity 70, 1996, 978-81.


Moser, S. 1992. The visual language of archaeology: a case study of the Neanderthals. Antiquity 66: 831-844.

Rätsch, C. and Probst, H.J. 1985. Namaste Yeti-Geschichten vom Wilden Mann. München: Knaur.

Shackley, M. 1980. Neanderthal Man. London: Duckworth.

Shackley, M. 1983. Wildmen. Yeti, Sasquatch and the Neanderthal Enigma. London: Thames and Hudson.

Stringer, C. and Gamble, C. 1993. In Search of the Neanderthals. Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins. London: Thames and Hudson.

Trinkaus, E. and Shipman, P. 1993. The Neanderthals. Changing the image of mankind. London: Pimlico.

Cornelius Holtorf writes about himself: "Currently a Ph.D. student at Lampeter, I have been interested for several years in the meanings of the distant past in different presents. Last term I have been teaching most of an option course on 'Archaeology, Film and the Media' , while my Ph.D. research is about the role of ancient monuments and the distant past in later prehistoric NE Germany. My interest in Neanderthals reaches back to when I studied for five years physical anthropology as a subsidiary subject at the German Universities of Tübingen and Hamburg."

© Cornelius Holtorf 1997


© assemblage 1997