In a small, nearly inaccessible cavern on an archaeological dig in France, Dr. Rose Gale discovers two entwined skeletons, astonishing evidence of contact between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Who were these last—and first—peoples?
Scrabbling for survival and with little need for words (indeed, their shortened larynxes might have made modulating language difficult), the last Neanderthal family members think of each other as simply Girl, the remaining daughter; Him, the elder brother; Bent, the younger brother with a deformed arm; Runt, a scrawny foundling taken in by the family; and Big Mother, the matriarch, who, at over 30, is declining rapidly. Transcending the challenges of bringing to life a nearly silent family, Cameron (The Bear, 2014, etc.) generates excitement through a hunt gone unexpectedly wrong and even an uncomfortable sexual tension. Just as Him prepares to meet a suitable mate at the fish run, an annual gathering of the dwindling Neanderthal population, Girl goes into heat. Big Mother attempts to keep the hormonally charged youths apart, but growing up in isolation has made it hard to convey the dangers of incest. Once the taboo is broken, Big Mother has no choice but to cast Girl out. Runt tags along for a while, but his smaller frame, lack of body hair, and inability to pack on muscle trouble Girl. The weeks pass, however, and Girl's worries shift as she realizes she is pregnant. Cameron’s narrative arc shifts between Girl and Rose, separated by time yet inextricably linked through a bit of DNA. Centuries later, Rose, too, faces a cold world: tenure track jobs are scarce in academia, and financial disaster looms for her and her partner, Simon, so she races to secure funding from a prominent museum, excavate the site, and secure her reputation before the birth of their first child.
Across millennia, Neanderthal and Homo sapiens, ancient girl and contemporary woman, hunter and scientist—all share much in common.