What If The Neandertals Didn't Die Out?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

With recent news that Neandertals painted, and proto-human homo erectus sailed to Europe on boats, this is the week for hominid power. In that spirit, let's take a look at a subgenre of science fiction where Neanderthals never went extinct.

While the subject of contemporary Neandertals is often treated with startling gravity in many SF stories, probably some of the most memorable entries in the subgenre are comedy. These stories often use the terms "cavemen" and "Neandertals" interchangeably, and are basically an excuse for lots of slapstick humor so low that it makes Pauly Shore look good.

Encino Man was a flick that somehow managed to contain both Pauly Shore and the relative unknown (at the time) Brendan Fraser. When two kids from San Fernando Valley find a "million year old" frozen Neandertal, boob jokes, slushee jokes, and dance sequences ensue.

Neandertal humor hit a new low, however, when the Cavemen TV series was spawned out of a series of Geico commercials. The hook was supposed to be that these cavemen were actually regular guys living in the modern world who really resented the species-isms of their culture, where cavemen are stereotyped as stupid and uncouth. The show lasted for only a few episodes before being yanked off the air, to much rejoicing.


Click to view

Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer is a cult favorite recurring skit from Saturday Night Live, starring Phil Hartman, which worked the same territory as Cavemen - except it was actually funny.


On the serious side, one of the earliest entries in the genre was Isaac Asimov's short story "Ugly Little Boy," which Robert Silverberg later expanded into a novel. A corporation brings a Neandertal child forward into the present, to study him. Unfortunately he's imprisoned within a very small area because mopping up all those time paradoxes gets more expensive the farther he roams. The company commissions a nurse to care for him, who quickly realizes he's much smarter than anyone realizes. When the company decides to send the boy home, after getting him accustomed to the modern world, she decides to go with him.

While time travel is one good way to relocate Neandertals into the present, the 1980s flick Iceman with Timothy Hutton goes the Encino Man route. A scientist defrosts a Neandertal and learns to communicate with him by being really understanding. Of course the modern world is too much for this natural, peaceful creature and in the end he must die to escape the scientific-industrial complex. Like many other movies and stories in this genre, Iceman depicts Neandertals as deeply spiritual and connected to nature. Also, as in many other stories, the Neandertal sings to show his humanity.


If you can't unfreeze your Neandertal, why not just retrieve him from a parallel dimension where Neandertals evolve into the planet's dominant species? That's the premise of Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax series, an enjoyable multiverse romp that answers the question we've all been asking: Do homo sapiens have sex with homo neandertalis? Sawyer imagines the Neandertal society as - surprise - very ecofriendly and connected to nature.

Another popular way of telling the contemporary Neandertal story is to speculate about what would happen if there were a small tribe of the ancient hominids left somewhere remote - like, say, the mountains of Eastern Europe. That's what happens in John Darnton's mega-seller Neanderthal, where the US and the Soviets are fighting to find two lost tribes of Neandertals. Turns out that not only are these Neandertals connected deeply to nature, but they also have psychic powers that would be very helpful to the military of whatever superpower finds them first. (But of course most of the Neandertals are so peaceful that they can't imagine war.) The idea that Neandertals might have psychic powers isn't unique - in her novel Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel imagines that the Neandertals have a kind of collective consciousness and racial memory that they inherit. This allows them to "remember" things that their ancestors have done.


In Paul Levinson's novel The Silk Code, it turns out that a tiny number of Neandertals still exist today as a result of some kind of "natural genetic engineering" process that is never explained.

Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, later made into the late-1990s flick The 13th Warrior, is the story of a medieval explorer who encounters a group of Neandertals in a remote Northern region. They are in the process of being slaughtered by Vikings. Here we get the classic story of the Neandertals' demise being retold in the Middle Ages instead of 40 thousand years ago in Europe.


Even alternate history maven Harry Turtledove has tried his hand at this subgenre, in the novel A Different Flesh, which imagines an alternate history where the Americas are inhabited by homo erectus and megafauna instead of the indigenous peoples from our own timeline.

In Orphan of Creation, Roger MacBride Allen imagines a world where Australopithicus still exists. And in Ancient of Days, Michael Bishop uses time travel to bring a homo habilis into modern Georgia, where he finds romance with a homo sapiens.


And of course no list of this sort would be complete without mentioning the 1970 disaster Skullduggery, in which Burt Reynolds discovers ancient but buxom hominids hanging out in New Guinea.