Archaeologists must sometimes envy fiction writers. They share the same basic task--to imagine lives they can't observe directly--but their tools couldn't be more different. While archaeologists dig and deduce, novelists imagine. In 11,000 Years Lost (New York: Amulet Books, 2004; $18.95), a novel for 10- to 14-year-olds, Peni Griffin dreams up a vivid and engrossing picture of Pleistocene society in what was to become Texas 11,000 years later through the eyes of a modern 11-year-old girl named Esther who travels back in time through a mysterious portal. Did Clovis peoples eat cattails? Did they hunt only unattached male mammoths, leaving the females to raise their young? Did they name their sons after predators and their daughters after plants? Did they say a prayer before making the last, trickiest blow to an emerging flint point? Through Esther's adventures with the Paleoindians who adopt her, Griffin draws on her careful research to invent the past with a specificity beyond an archaeologist's wildest dreams. Though she relies on widely accepted theories, there's no way to know if her answers are as far off the mark as a spear thrown without an atlatl. As she writes in her author's note, "I picked a model and ran with it. Other interpretations of the data could be turned into other stories. I hope they are. I'd love to read some."
However, the book has a slightly unfinished feel because Griffin doesn't address the vital questions of time travel. In the Pleistocene, Esther teaches her adoptive family the Heimlich maneuver, warns them about the impending extinction of the megafauna, and leaves behind a T-shirt, a plastic bracelet, and a hair scrunchie. Might these actions affect the course of history, perhaps even changing things enough that Esther herself wouldn't be born? Griffin would have done better to explore the potential consequences of such a meeting for people of the stone and digital ages alike.
Polly Shulman is a contributing editor at Science and the author of the forthcoming young-adult novel Enthusiasm.
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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America