A few explanatory words of a personal nature are necessary before I begin my discussion of The Inheritors. When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the paleontological reports of the remains of early man and pre-human species. A great deal is known now about the complex evolutionary lineages of hominid and pre-hominid species, in part as a consequence of sophisticated analyses of DNA remains in fossilized bones. We know that hominids evolved first in Southern Africa, and migrated out of Africa into the Near East, Europe, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and beyond in at least two separate waves of migration -- the first perhaps a million years ago or more, the second quite recently as geological time is measured, perhaps 100,000 years ago or less. We know that there was some measure of interbreeding among the several hominid species, so that 3 or 4 percent of the DNA of modern homo sapiens sapiens comes from other hominid species.
But none of this was known when I was a boy. What science had, at that point, was some bones. And one of the best collections of those old bones was to be found in the Museum of Natural History on the upper West Side of Manhattan. There, in long glass-covered exhibit tables, were mandibles, crania, teeth, ulnae, and other odds and ends from the best-known of the "ape-men," homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthal Man [named for the Neander Valley in Germany], side by side with the quite different mandibles, crania, and whatnot of our true ancestors, Cro Magnon Man. On Saturdays, I would take the subway to the museum and spend hours staring at the bones, consulting my little Handbook of Physical Anthropometry, written by Harry L. Shapiro, who was actually on the staff of the museum. I became knowledgeable about ascending rami and sigmoid notches and zygomatic arches. I learned that Neanderthal Man had a heavy bony orbital ridge [useful for keeping rain out of the eyes], and a brainpan as large as, or larger than, that of modern man. I knew that he had heavy bones, capable of supporting powerful muscles, that he made stone tools, and had learned the use of fire. I knew that he had managed to survive the series of ice ages and wild temperature swings that beset northern Europe over a period of several hundred thousand years, and that he seemed to have disappeared from the paleontological record some thirty or thirty-five thousand years ago.
Cro Magnon man, by contrast, was slender, gracile, with a lighter, less massive mandible, a slender ascending ramus, and a deeper sigmoid notch, and without the heavy oribital ridge. Cro Magnon man had a more sophisticated toolkit, including an array of tools worked from bone. He too had the use of fire, and in a number of caves in Southwest France and Spain had left astonishingly beautiful paintings of a variety of animals indigenous to the area. Genetically, Cro Magnon man, it seems, is identical with modern human beings -- our true ancestors. There really was not that much time, viewed paleontologically, between the remains of Cro Magnon man and the pyramids or the epics of Homer.
The message of the early paleontology was clear: Cro Magnon were the good guys, and Neanderthal were the heavies.
Which brings us to William Golding's lovely novel, The Inheritors. Golding [1911-1993] was an English novelist and poet, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who is best known for his novel, Lord of the Flies. The Inheritors, published in 1955, is a short novel, only 213 pages in my PocketBooks paperback edition, which tells the tragic story of an encounter between a small band of Neanderthal and a group of Cro Magnon, from the point of view of the Neanderthal! In a genuine tour de force, Golding manages to create a believable portrait of a small band of Neanderthal from the inside, as it were.