The Wonderful World of Neanderthals

Paleontologists agree: Homo sapiens neanderthalensis disappeared from the earth about 30,000 years ago. But according to writer Robert Silverberg, Neanderthals still exist in popular culture in many different ways.

Folktales and fairytales (especially in Northern Europe) abound with tales of gnomes, ogres and trolls. Where do you think these myths came from?

Could it be that the small, ugly, hairy men featured in the stories of Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and Jacob and William Grimm (among others) were Neanderthal survivors living in historic times?

Did isolated pockets of cavemen exist a few thousand years ago, here and there in Europe, the memory of them lingering from generation to generation in tales told to frighten children? “Perhaps,” says Silverberg.

One thing is true; the romance of Urmensch (Primal Man) continues to inspire dreamers, prehistorians and science fiction writers. It even inspired Silverberg and his editorial colleagues to compile this timeless short story collection from the late 80s.

Most of these stories can be found in the “What If” section of your friendly neighborhood library. What if Neanderthal Man was actually from Mars (“Genesis” by H. Beam Piper), or traveled the world as a circus attraction (“The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp), or was your next-door neighbor (“The Hairy Parents” by A. Bertram Chandler)?

Isaac Asimov contributes the biggest “What If” story in the book. What if science allowed us to travel 40,000 years into the past and bring a little Neanderthal boy back to the present? “Snatched callously out of time,” writes Asimov, “the boy becomes the only creature of its kind in the world. The last and the only.”

After a few years, the “Timmie Experiment” is discontinued. Science has squeezed all the prehistoric data it can from the little caveboy. It’s time to move on, says one scientist. “Timmie stands in the way of expansion, and he is a source of possible bad publicity. We can’t let him block us from further progress.” The ending of “The Ugly Little Boy” is not as sad as you’d think, however. It paves the way for the ascendancy of Cro-Magnon, the Early Modern Human.

I cannot end this review without mentioning “The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer. It’s a disturbing story about a modern day throwback to prehistoric times—possibly the last Neanderthal purebred. First published in 1959, it should probably come with a list of trigger warnings for today’s easily offended audience.

To Farmer’s credit, he doesn’t sugarcoat his protagonist’s (antagonist’s?) bad behavior. Old Man Paley isn’t a noble savage at all. He’s a liar, a drunk, a rutter and a layabout. Says Farmer: “He’s a dirty stinking one-armed middle-aged man. The ugliest man in the world. He smells like a goat that fell into an outhouse.”

Whether Paley is human or subhuman is never exactly clear. He may be a prehistoric anomaly (“older than Adam and Eve,” he says) or he may be the product of reading comic books and watching Alley Oop cartoons. A local doctor says Paley has concocted his personal myth to compensate for his extreme ugliness, his inferiority and his feelings of rejection.

Either way, the reality is the same. In a fit of self-realization, Paley shouts at the top of his lungs: “It ain’t only Neanderthals has to live on dumpheaps. It’s the crippled ’n sick ’n the stupid ’n the queer in the head that has to live here. No diff ’runce. We’re all ugly ’n hopeless ’n rotten. We’re all Neanderthals.”

[Neanderthals: Isaac Asimov’s Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction #6 / Edited by Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh / First Printing: February 1987 / ISBN: 9780451147165]