Shaman is one of several novels I’ve been reading about early man and the interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (more about the others below). It follows the early adulthood of Loon, a young Homo sapiens man training with Thorn, a cranky shaman. [Don’t read any further if you’re strict about “spoilers.”) I loved the description of Loon’s coming-of-age “wander,” in which he must fend for himself naked, without tools or clothing. Robinson also gives us a vivid sense of Loon’s sexuality, culminating in an ideal relationship with a woman-of-no-“pack” who gains acceptance in Loon’s group. The character of Heather, Thorn’s partner-yet-antagonist, an older wise woman herbalist who functions as Loon’s mother, is also interesting. Robinson describes Neanderthals as simpler, lesser beings who wander around as displaced individuals, but one of them, a man Heather has healed, ends up saving Loon, his woman, and Thorn when the woman is stolen by slave-keeping, wolf-taming northerners. Significantly (and inexplicably), the Neanderthal dies in the middle of the night on their return home, and is then eaten – and used as a frozen sled! – by the three survivors, thus saving their lives. In this way, it seems Robinson is suggesting that the survival of our species rests on the help of an earlier one, our older “brothers and sisters.”
Another thing I liked about Shaman was the beautiful description of the cave paintings made by Thorn, his predecessor Pika, and, ultimately, Loon. This is similar to the art made by Tiger in Bjorn Kurten’s earlier novel, Dance of the Tiger. Both authors suggest that only Homo sapiens made art, as does William Goldman in his novel The Inheritors. Kurten is (was?) a paleontologist, who uses Dance of the Tiger to give us a picture of how Neanderthals and Homo sapiens may have interacted and interbred. He imagines that the offspring of the two species would have been infertile, but there are other explanations for the fact that many descendants of European or Asian ancestors have a tiny percentage of Neanderthal genes (they could have come from more distant ancestors). Kurten explains more than Robinson does about the different perspectives and cultures of the two species, and in his book only some of the Homo sapiens “gods” think Neanderthals are inferior.
I almost stopped reading Golding’s book after the first chapter – it’s hard to read, because he’s taking the point of view of the Neanderthals, who don’t depend on language to communicate as much as Homo sapiens does. It isn’t even obvious until the end that these characters are Neanderthals. Now that I’ve done a little online research, I understand better what’s going on, and am going back to the book, which apparently even more than Kurten’s shows the good side, perhaps even spiritual “superiority” of the Neanderthals.
To clarify a bit more, all three authors seem to depict Homo sapiens as much more capable of evil (cruelty to others) than were the Neanderthals. They may even believe the Neanderthals to have been free of this kind of stuff.
I find all of this quite fascinating!
After finishing The Inheritors: Golding portrays the Neanderthals not as inferior at all, just different is their way of perceiving and thinking (they actually spend more time just being). They’re very group-oriented, as opposed to the homo sapiens group, which contains some individuals who are greedy and violent and some who are more thoughtful about what’s going on. Contact doesn’t turn out super-well for the Neanderthals, but I felt that there could be more to the story, since some of them survive – an epilogue or even a sequel.