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Jack London, Paleoanthropologist Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005
by Robert J. Sawyer

Before Adam

Despite the biblical reference, Jack London's science-fiction novella Before Adam (London: Hesperus Press, 2005; $13) was written by a staunch evolutionist with a good grasp of the theory's intricacies. When it was first published in 1906, the world knew of only two extinct forms of humanity: Neandertals, discovered in 1856, and Java Man, now known as Homo erectus, found in 1891. But London was sure that those couldn't have been the only ones. In Before Adam, he imagines the mid-Pleistocene as populated by three distinct hominids: the Tree People, a simian group; the Folk, with rudimentary material culture; and the Fire People, who have tamed flames. Before Adam may never eclipse The Call of the Wild, but it is a rousing adventure full of vivid battles between hominid groups, struggles against saber-toothed cats and wild boars, and fascinating glimpses of key points in human evolutionary development.

A nameless modern narrator recounts his dreams, ostensibly ancestral memories from the life of Big Tooth, a member of the Folk. Through his adventures, London explores hominid development, including advances in early housing, from a tree-bound "rude platform of twigs and branches and creeping things" to the more upscale caves; the relationship between language and higher consciousness ("We were vaguely thinking thoughts for which there were no thought symbols"); and the first attempt to domesticate dogs, which ends tragically when Big Tooth's peckish pal makes a meal of his puppy.

London's hominids have no precise analogues in the fossil record. Yet he is remarkably prescient in his view of humanity's past, by recognizing that multiple kinds of humans lived side by side. And by suggesting that the Folk and the more advanced Fire People may have merged their gene pools, he anticipates the current debate about whether we crossbred with Neandertals. As someone who has tried to imagine an alternate outcome to human evolution, I tip my hat to London, and can only hope that my own speculations hold up as well a century down the road.

Science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, won the 2003 Hugo Award for Hominids, the first volume of his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America