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Our Epic Prehistory

Neanderthal reconstruction by Kennis & Kennis/Photograph by Joe McNally

I love me some Tolkien. But for everything that The Lord of the Rings has done for the fantasy genre, it has also been so overwhelmingly influential and compelling that it is has spawned entire franchises set in worlds imitating Middle Earth, and has stifled the genre’s creativity. Unless otherwise specified, fantasy is assumed to be set in a medieval European setting and populated by humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and halflings. Dwarves are always assumed to be great craftsmen and miners who live underground in halls of stone and favor geometric patterns in their art and writing. Elves always inhabit verdant forests, are skilled in magic and craft fine weapons and armor with leaf shapes and magical properties. Orcs are brutish and primitive and wear spiky black armor and wield spiky black weapons. I am hardly the first person to make these observations, and in recent years there has finally been some real progress in emerging from the shadow of Tolkien, but we have a long way to go. I would like to propose just one alternative that not only bucks some of the trends that Tolkien started, but also has some science at its heart.

In most fantasy settings, there are several intelligent species coexisting in the same world, each with a distinctive culture and appearance. In our modern world of course, there are humans of cultures and appearances that vary beyond anything seen in most fantasy, but there are no other similarly advanced intelligent species for us to interact with. This was not always the case. In the course of human evolution, we coexisted with several other species of human, including Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, and the recently discovered Denisova hominin.

Hominid evolution is a complicated and rapidly changing field, and my summary here will likely make archaeologists and anthropologists cringe, but I hope it will also kindle some ideas for speculative fiction writers looking for something a bit different.

I will start with homo erectus, a species that originated in Africa around 1.8 million years ago and spread across much of Asia into India, China, and Indonesia. Homo erectus was clearly quite successful, and there is evidence that they used stone hand axes and fire, and were probably one of the first hunter-gatherer societies. They stood about as high as modern humans, but their skeletons are more robust and they were more heavily muscled. It is not clear when homo erectus went extinct, but they may have lasted in isolated pockets until relatively recently, and may have interacted or even interbred with early homo sapiens. In fact, Homo floresiensis, which lived in Indonesia as recently as 12,000 years ago, shows some similarities to homo erectus, although homo floresiensis is smaller.

Model of Homo erectus from Museum of Archaeology, Herne, Germany

The most famous hominid that coexisted with humans is the Neanderthal. Neanderthal remains have been discovered throughout Europe and as far east as the Altai mountains. They lived from 600,000 years ago until about 25,000 years ago. Despite the stereotype of Neanderthals as dumb brutes, evidence suggests that they may have been just as intelligent as humans. (In fact their brains were larger than ours!) They made wood, bone, and stone tools, and the discovery of healed fractures in some skeletons suggests that they cared for their sick and wounded. They buried their dead and may have used body paint, and they constructed large shelters out of animal bones. (They also may have practiced cannibalism, but then, so do some modern humans so you can’t hold that against them.) Neanderthals have long been thought of as pure carnivores, surviving by hunting mammoths and other big game, but recent discoveries show that they ate plants too.  Evidence in a cave in Gibraltar, the most recent Neanderthal site, shows that they even foraged from the sea, much like the humans who used the cave thousands of years later.

There is good evidence that Neanderthals used language, and there are even some speculations that their language pre-dated the separation between speaking and music – that it was a hybrid of the two – something that just screams (sings?) to be used in fiction.

So why did the Neanderthals go extinct if they were as smart as we are, significantly stronger, and geographically widespread? There are several theories. One, put forward in the book “The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived” by Clive Finlayson, is that they were simply unlucky. It appears that Neanderthals hunted primarily in wooded areas, ambushing their prey using short spears and relying on their strength to bring the animal down. As the climate changed, the forests receded and gave way to wide steppes. Ambush hunting is less effective out in the grassland: it favors a hominid species specialized for long-distance walking or running, who use projectile weapons. That’s us.

Simulation of the spread of modern humans into neanderthal territory, beginning 1600 generations ago. Neanderthal territory is light gray, homo sapiens territory is dark gray, and the black band indicates areas of coexistence.

Another theory says that Neanderthals competed – perhaps violently – with homo sapiens and that we eventually won. This scenario is appealing from a fictional point of view because it goes against preconceptions and lends itself easily to the tale of a noble species of intelligent (perhaps even musical) Neanderthals being wiped out by a smaller, more devious species of humans: homo sapiens.

Of course, you can go completely in the other direction too. Another theory is that Neanderthals and humans interbred to the point where we stopped being different species. Some Neanderthal remains are sufficiently well-preserved to extract DNA, and the DNA of non-African humans include some portions that match pieces of the Neanderthal genome. Recently, DNA recovered from a 41,000 year old finger bone found in Denisova cave, Russia, shows that it came from a species that is distinct from both Neanderthals and humans, but which shows some degree of interbreeding with both.

My suspicion is that all of these theories are at least partially correct. It is conceivable that even as Neanderthals were dying out as their forests receded, humans could have accelerated their demise. And, knowing human nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if some interbreeding occurred even as our species was killing off the Neanderthals.

All of this evidence for coexistence between humans and other hominids is a ripe setting for fiction much like modern fantasy but with the added benefit of being somewhat realistic. Add in the various exotic mammals that still roamed the world and the changes in climate that drove the migration or extinction of entire ecosystems, and the stories practically write themselves.

The wide geographic range of earlier species like homo erectus, and the persistence of pockets of similar species until quite recently, also spark the imagination. Almost every culture in the world has tales of human-like creatures that live in remote locations on the fringes of civilization. Could these stories be rooted in our distant past when they were not fiction at all? Could the revulsion triggered by the “uncanny valley” be a deep-seated instinct based on a time when there were other humanoids out there, competing with us?

There’s no reason that fantasy has to be confined to a pseudo-medieval Europe populated by the same old fantasy races. Long ago, our planet really was home to multiple species of human, and they fought and loved and explored and invented and sang songs into the night. Let’s hear their stories.