A discovery in a cave in Misliya, Israel has changed our perception of human history. Analysis of a fragment of a human jawbone excavated from the cave reveals that the earliest human left Africa for other lands some 170,000 to 200,000 years ago. This find, mind you, is approximately 100,000 or so years older than the last such discovered fossil.

The discovery understandably caused quite a stir in the scientific community, radically changing our notions of how old human beings are as a species. And it came with yet another startling revelation: Homo sapiens could very well have coexisted, interbred and interacted with their less evolved counterparts – including Neanderthal Man, or Homo Neanderthalensis – far longer than previously imagined.

The discovery was in fact made some 15 years ago near Mount Carmel in Israel, but the implications have only now been proven as fact. However, it seems such an idea was open to literary speculation over 60 years earlier, at around the time Nobel Laureate William Golding published his enigmatic second novel The Inheritors.

The Inheritors, published in 1955, is a story of the tragic meeting of two cultures: the Neanderthal and Homo sapiens. Without giving too much away, it will suffice to say here that the encounter proves to be far from pleasant, leading to one party being virtually eradicated by the other.

Wells pitted modern man against their ancestors

Golding was, as a matter of fact, reworking a short piece written by none other than HG Wells. The piece, titled “The Grisly Folk” (1921), is a curious bit of sensationalism from an author who spliced his moral fictions ever so often with a little grotesquerie, just to add flavour. However, with this one, Wells seemed to have hijacked his otherwise prescient imagination. He coloured the Neanderthal as a savage species, monstrous in appearance and uncouth in behaviour. There is a touch of romance in his descriptions, and a neo-Victorian longing already emergent in his need for adventure and sensation:

“What leapings of the heart were there not throughout that long warfare! What moments of terror and triumph! What acts of devotion and desperate wonders of courage! And the strain of the victors was our strain; we are lineally identical with those sun-brown painted beings who ran and fought and helped one another, the blood in our veins glowed in those fights and chilled in those fears of the forgotten past.”

The overall tone of the piece, here and elsewhere, is also one that champions civilisation and civilised man while retaining a boyish and somewhat misplaced nostalgia for mythic beginnings. Golding, however, took a distinctly different approach, one he’d already experimented with in a previously published novel.

The Inheritors was not Golding’s first such reworking of older material. He had tried something similar with what is probably his most well known book, The Lord of the Flies (1954), a take on the RM Ballantyne classic The Coral Island (1858). However, far from being a boy’s adventure tale like Ballantyne’s novel, The Lord of the Flies was an exercise in exposing human depravity, kept in check by the civilising powers of human society. Anyone familiar with that novel knows that Golding is interested in excavating certain primal and unfortunate truths regarding human behaviour that have been largely repressed in flourishing a vainglorious and selective brand of “humanism”. His tales are ultimately moral fictions, but he insists on debunking the myth that morality is somehow naturally emergent in man, that it is an organic given.

Golding turned the idea upside down

The Inheritors portrays a family of Neanderthals who are not simply peaceful, but have a curiously advanced relationship with their natural environment and their bodies. Golding insists that, if not telepathic, the Neanderthals certainly seem to have compensated for their lack of communication skills with an ability to “picture” what the other person is thinking. Whether this is accomplished via some extra sensory capability, or is merely a heightened form of deciphering body language is debatable, but the overall effect is one of remarkable fictive credibility.

Furthermore, the Neanderthals don’t seem to suffer from any Cartesian delusions regarding a body-mind separation. Their legs and arms possess a life of their own, and they accept their bodies as marvelous mechanisms, much more lively and vital than we as modern human beings perceive them to be:

“Lok’s feet were clever. They saw. They threw him round the displayed roots of the beeches, leapt when a puddle of water lay across the trail.”

Golding’s brilliant use of the third person here accomplishes something truly astonishing: without anthropomorphizing another way of life, he insists on the possibility of partial empathy with the near-human “other” using language.

Golding is playing a game with the reader through such a portrayal. He is essentially saying that our convenient and instrumental demarcations of “superior” and “inferior” intellect suffer from a myopic vision concerning what is “proper” to human progress and what isn’t. Fellow feeling and community, two values we try and uphold even today as decent human beings, are shown to be far more nurturing, uninhibited and holistic in a prehistoric culture than in modern society.

This, however, comes with a price: the essentially mild mannered but hardy Neanderthals, in encountering their first human tribe, do not have any vocabulary to engage with a force of nature that seems to define itself on how much it can transform the environment around them, and how vigorously and violently it can express incipient and contradictory desires. Confused and hurt, Homo neanderthalensis is no match for these strange creatures, largely because the Neanderthal’s inherent instinct is to trust, when he should flee or fight. Golding’s sinister question is, put simply: at what cost intelligence, and intellect?

The Inheritors is a superb example of what rigorous speculation and a sympathetic portrayal of the “other” can achieve through literature. It is a staggering synthesis of research and imagination, that often goes overlooked in favor of some of his less speculative works. With the profoundly impactful discovery in Israel, now seems to be as good a time as any to revisit this classic. Bear in mind, however, that Golding is merely one author of a handful who have written speculative fiction and won the Nobel prize: Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Lessing’s Shikasta, José Saramago’s Blindness, and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go are other SF gems sure to stimulate thought and delight in equal measure.