When I was 9 years old, my dad and I started writing a musical together. He was a linguist with a taste for opera, and I was deep into disco. We found our point of overlap in Cats, the first in a wave of mega-musicals that swept through the '80s. My dad suggested our musical should tell the story of Emily Carr, one of the early modernist painters in Canada. I was sold when he showed me a photograph of Carr living in a caravan with a pet monkey named Woo. Her life would become a series of songs. Every number would star me.
The egocentric approach suited my young mind, and the first song we wrote was a showstopper with a throaty chorus. My dad indulged my theatrics by accompanying me on the piano, like a church organist set on fire. I sang the solo tonsils-out and danced with the vigor of a girl in love with Donna Summer.
But we never got further than the first song. My dad had cancer. He died the next year.
I imagine he knew he was dying when we started writing the musical. I don't know if his choice of subject had any significance. Maybe writing a musical about Emily Carr was just his way of spending time with me, a kind of parting gift. And for the life of me, I can't remember how it was supposed to end.
About six years ago, I became fascinated with Neanderthals. In school I was taught that they were primitive, uncivilized, and brutish — an evolutionary stopgap between modern humans and apes. They were extinct because they didn't evolve, or we killed them off, or we outsmarted them with our large brains. In 2010 many scientists started to rethink Neanderthals based on evidence found in modern human DNA. People of European and Asian descent have inherited between 1 and 4 percent of their genome from Neanderthals.
Modern humans and Neanderthals lived in the same areas for thousands of years, and, it's becoming clear, they were physically more like us than we had allowed ourselves to imagine. Their brains might have been slightly larger than ours. They had a hyoid bone, which anchors the tongue and possibly allowed for speech. They also had the FOXP2 gene, and it plays an important role in our ability to talk. If I asked a Neanderthal a question, could she answer? If we could find words in common, how else could our relationship develop? Somehow, it did. The presence of their DNA in us confirms that we had sex and reproduced with them. The more I read about this new view of Neanderthals, the more I struggled to understand why our similarities to them weren't always obvious. In modern clothes, after a shower and a moment with a razor, a Neanderthal might look like what they are — our closest cousins. Why couldn't we see it?
A beautiful and sprawling piece in The New York Times Magazine, "Neanderthals Were People, Too," recently explained how our similarities to Neanderthals go beyond genes. We shared behavior that was previously believed to be exclusively human, like burying our dead, making jewelry, and using toothpicks. The article summarized much of the research I'd done for a novel I was writing. It was affirming to see that the Times agreed with so many of my opinions. But when I finished reading, something niggled. I wasn't sure what, so I started again and found a question in the fourth paragraph: "Who was Neanderthal Man?"
There are many things that we will never know about Neanderthals, but there is one thing we do know: around half were women.