I’ve just rewritten this book. It has proved very popular but I was unhappy with a few sections. I had to do so more work on them to get them right. I’ve republished it.
Neanderthal extract 2
Roger searched the indistinct shadowy faces for the source of this dialogue. He quite liked getting a response from his audience but liked to put a face to it.
‘Probably not,’ he agreed. ‘But what is certainly true is that human beings do not like their supremacy challenged. There has been much energy expended in attempting to prove that while Neanderthal brains might well be bigger they certainly weren’t smarter. The cynics have churned out paper after paper discussing the relative size of the optical regions and motor regions. According to these research papers, our friends the Neanderthal were brilliant at seeing and controlling their bodies but lacked the cerebral folds to challenge us when it comes to maths or science. They’d be good at body popping though.’
He pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘I’ll leave it to you to check out what you think on that subject and come to your own conclusions.’
‘But I digress,’ Roger said, looking round at them. ‘Getting back to that mystery. Neanderthals prospered in Europe. They had migrated out of Africa at a much earlier stage to us and colonised a wide area. They had developed a rich culture and technology. Their use of fire, tools and cave painting was at least as advanced as ours. But around 40,000 years ago they suddenly all died out. Why was that?’
He held his hands out, leaned forward and raised his eyebrows as if wanting to illicit an answer from them.
‘Some say it was due to the climate warming. They were shorter and stockier, with shorter limbs, well-adapted for cool conditions but not the new, warmer climate. But personally I don’t hold with that theory. They migrated out of Africa and were highly intelligent. I don’t think they would have evolved that much to find a bit of climate warming a major obstacle. I reckon that if it became too hot for them I think they could easily have migrated further north or followed the herds, just like we did. It does not make sense to me.’
He strode to the side of the stage with his head down, rubbing his chin with his thumb thoughtfully, then stopped and looked back up.
‘Some say it was competition with Homo sapiens that wiped them out. Perhaps it was? We are a pretty competitive and vicious lot.’ He grinned round at them and began pacing to the other side.
‘Another theory is that they were bred out of existence.’ He paused again. ‘There, we’re back to those people who would breed with anything that moved – or indeed, a number of things that didn’t.’
Another chuckle went round the assembly.
‘Personally I don’t hold with any of these views,’ Roger said seriously, coming to a halt and peering round at the gathered students who were all straining to hear what he had to say. ‘All the evidence is that the Neanderthals were highly intelligent, had technology and yet suddenly disappeared off the scene.’
He raised his eyebrows and gestured.
‘So what was it?’ He spread his hands and looked around at his audience. ‘A cataclysmic event – such as volcanic eruptions? But surely that would have affected us too? Or was it a virus that did for them?’
He began pacing again.
‘I guess we’ll never know.’ He shook his head in sadness and then came to a halt centre stage, looking straight ahead. ‘So I guess we’ll never know what it feels like to share the planet with another species of human beings.’
I had never felt anything quite like this terror before.
Just a short while ago, looking down out of the helicopter window at the unbroken jungle below, I had been ecstatic. There is nothing extraordinary about that. Every time I look at the untarnished beauty of the world I am consumed by great joy. I watched the collage of greens and imagined the multitudes of creatures that lived there. It was a living oil painting, a colossal work of art. I had been smiling to myself – thinking – here I was again – peering at the most beautiful sight in the universe, the emerald sea of leaves broken by the rippling browns of intertwining branches, all bathed in mist, all throbbing with life. I was in danger of becoming hopelessly poetic. In a short while I was going to be in the midst of it. I was rarely happier than when I was looking at nature and contemplating a challenge.
But that changed abruptly; as soon as we hit terra firma that euphoria simply dissipated, to be replaced by a dread verging on outright panic.
The helicopter dropped us off on a mud bank at the side of the river. It was the closest they could get us to our goal. The rest was down to us.
That is when the terror struck.
It was not uncommon for me to feel apprehensive, it would be strange if I did not, given the circumstances, but I had never felt anything verging on panic before. It was extraordinary. As soon as the chopper hit the mud, I felt this great dread rise up in me.
I found myself wondering what on earth I had let myself in for.
The whole scheme had seemed crazy from the start but then, that was right up my street. I thrived on crazy schemes. We were heading off into the unknown, one of the few remaining unexplored areas left on this planet – a region of uncharted Amazon rainforest. Sounds crazy but it was heaven to me.
That is what I do. I am an explorer.
Even if I say it myself, I am an expert when it came to challenges like this. I might not be good in cultured society, indeed, I can often feel awkward and out of my depth, but in the rainforests of Australia, Africa and Borneo I was known for my resilience and had pitted myself against nature, and won. It was the one thing I seemed to excel at. So I charted the unknown for a living. There were always people willing to sponsor me. I had, in a short time, amassed a bit of a reputation for being fearless, though most of the time it was merely a combination of foolhardiness, sound preparation, teamwork and luck. As far as I am concerned nothing comes close to that euphoria of being in the wild. I loved it.
When, out of nowhere, Pinosaro, the President of Brazil, had contacted me, I, perhaps foolishly, jumped at the opportunity. Even when I later found that two teams had already been lost on this enterprise it did not deter me. I had great faith in my abilities and this represented just my kind of challenge. The excitement had welled up. I had not yet tackled the Amazon. What an opportunity. Sure, I was nervous, but I had not expected to find myself feeling sick with such a surge of fear.
That unexpected dread was like nothing I had ever experienced before. A jolt of electricity. I stood next to the helicopter physically shaking. It felt as if there was something fundamentally wrong with this project. I could feel it. I knew it. I was filled with a desire to clamber back in to that whirlybird and pull out of the whole thing, to get the hell out of there. It took all of my resolve to keep my wits intact.
With an effort I pulled myself back together and had a glance round to see if anybody had noticed the state I was in. I do not think they had. They all looked as shaken as me. It looked like we had all been stricken with the same jolt of terror.
Somehow I shrugged it off and began unloading and the others joined me – all of us were fighting with our own demons.
As to why I was here, that was a bit of a story.
Pinosaro, the madman, actually believed he could carry out one of the most audacious engineering ventures in the history of mankind, even though anybody with half a brain could see that the whole enterprise was foolish. He was proposing to build a highway right through the Amazon jungle, from Bellem through Santarem, Manaus to Muto and finally connecting up to Quito in Bolivia. It was intended to open the rainforest up to mining and logging as well as promoting trade. He arrogantly claimed he could make Brazil the greatest, wealthiest country on the planet. He told his adoring acolytes that Brazil had the resources and he was the man to turn them into cash. The whole idea was ridiculous. Some of the land he was thinking of crossing was treacherous and impassable. The cost of the project was too colossal to think about. But that was Pinosaro’s problem, not mine.
I knew it was a mad idea right from the start but I was not about to tell him that. Everyone knew of Pinosaro’s legendary temper. He had no idea of the obstacles in his way. I knew the scheme would never be completed. It was a mammoth project with such huge problems that it would cost trillions to reach fruition and Pinosaro could not raise that kind of funding.
Not that any rational reasoning ever impacted on Pinosaro. His mind only focussed on power. But I suspected that he was never really interested in completing this project in the first place. His primary aim was purely political. He sold the idea to the poor Brazilian people and made them believe in it. They voted for him in droves. They were behind him. That was enough to get him elected. He had the power and that was all he cared about – well that and money. His personal wealth was growing beyond all measure.
The thing is that when you have the power the cash flows in. They might not believe in that highway but all the mining, oil and timber companies wanted a part of the action. They were eager to get their hands on all that untapped wealth. Financing the project, at least for its initial stages, was not an issue and Pinosaro was carefully squirrelling away his share of that loot.
I do not think any of the people involved with Pinosaro actually believed they would achieve the whole of the scheme, but they knew that the first stage would open up the rainforest and they would get access to some of the greatest unexploited resources on the planet. It did not matter if they had the project completed, merely starting it would be sufficient to unlock those resources. They would be long gone before the infeasibility became apparent.
As for environmental issues, well they were never a consideration – not when there was huge profit to be made.
Personally I hated the idea of the rainforest being decimated but I tried to put that aspect out of my mind. Inside I was furious with myself. By accepting the role, I was part of a project that might speed up the destruction of the very thing I loved – the wilderness.
So that is why I was here.
The proposal had been irresistible. Pinosaro was offering me the opportunity to do what I loved best – to explore places that had never been seen before. There was nothing I liked better. I focussed on that. I deployed the common excuse that if not me then it would be somebody else. Pinosaro was not about to be deflected from his great scheme.
The other thing about this project that angered me was that Pinosaro insisted that I would be accompanied by two unknown companions who he assured me were highly capable local men who were conversant with the jungle and aware of its dangers. According to him they would be valuable in this terrain.
I had no qualms about using local expertise but I liked to put together my own team. When you were out there confronting the sort of dangers you were bound to encounter in such remote places you had to know who you could trust and what they were capable of. But it seemed this was not negotiable. If I wanted the job I had to accept the terms. So I found myself teamed up with two men I had never met before and had little time to get to know. I had to trust to fate. That had not filled me with confidence.
I was only introduced to my two companions just before we were due to leave and we were in a whirl of activity so there was little time to talk. It was all a bit of a rush job. We had just three days in which to make detailed plans and gather the requirements for our trip – hardly any time for such an undertaking. Luckily, I had the experience and knew what I would need.
The two men – Enzo Silva and Vitor Ruiz – were Brazilian nationals, brought up in the rainforest and supposedly adept at trekking and dealing with the type of dangers we were certain to encounter.
I had to admit that they looked the part. I was impressed with their physique and the capabilities they displayed right from the start. Despite my reservations I could see that they were going to be an asset while trekking through the type of terrain we were going to encounter. They were tough, strong and resourceful but, on the downside, I found them surly and not greatly friendly. I would far rather have had my own team, but took a pragmatic view; they seemed capable and it was the only way I could get the opportunity to embark on this venture. I had to put up with it.
I was in no doubt as to the real reason they were there. I knew their appointment, good as they might well be, was more of a political choice. They were there to make sure I kept in line. That was obvious. Pinosaro was using this expedition as a publicity stunt. He wanted to splash it across the media so everyone could see the grandiose operation that he was sponsoring. To that effect we were given the full media treatment and I had to perform before a hundred cameras. Not that I minded that too much. It was the price you paid and I was used to it. I did not find the media too much of a hardship.
But those two guys worried me. They seemed arrogant. That did not bode well. Arrogance does not make for good teamwork. It created friction. I weighed them up straight away and saw that the only way this was going to work was to have a hierarchy. If we could not be a team of equals one of us needed to be the boss.
I felt I needed to impress upon them just who was in charge of the operation. I laid out the plans, told them precisely what I required and established the protocols. I made it quite clear what their roles were; they were the support crew – I was in charge.
They seemed to accept things without argument but I had the distinct impression that the acceptance was skin deep; they were merely tolerating me. As far as they were concerned, I could play whatever role I wanted. They would go along with it – just as long as it suited them.
So it was, after all the hoo-ha of preparation, that I found myself, along with my taciturn companions, being deposited on a beach in a clearing on a tributary of the Putamayo River. It was a small river that took us into the densest forest on the planet; an area that no man had ever set foot in. That tributary was the only way in to the designated area. There were no clearings and the rapids, weed islands and logs made it impossible for amphibious craft to land. The place was as inaccessible as a place could be.
Our task was to head down that tributary, make our way into the dense forest, and explore the area, chart it and assess how a section of Pinosaro’s highway could be laid through this unknown expanse of virgin forest. While we did that we were meant to be noting any other possible commercial opportunities – oil, minerals or hardwood trees.
I had previously carried out such surveying work so I knew how to go about it.
In truth I had little hope of coming up with anything useful to Pinosaro in terms of laying that damn highway, and I do not really believe he cared one way or another, but at least I would get to explore an area of the planet where no man had ever been, not even indigenous tribes. For some reason the native Brazilians had put a taboo on the whole region. None of them ever ventured in. The rumour was that it was inhabited by evil spirits. But I was a 21st century man. I did not believe in evil spirits. The idea of getting into that area filled me with elation even if the whole venture was nothing more than a token gesture for Pinosaro’s crazy scheme. Indeed, it made me happy to think that it would come to nothing. I was relying on that. So I was in a good mood on that count.
Or at least I had been – right up until the moment we arrived on that desolate beach – now that elation was totally immersed with this overwhelming sense of dread. Maybe there was something in those evil spirits after all? Even though my rational mind rejected such superstitious nonsense, a deeper lurking fear was tugging at my subconscious, sending shivers through me.
In an attempt to restore my equilibrium I stood on the bank and looked around at the dense forest that surrounded us. It was so full of life. The foliage was unusually dense so that it was difficult to penetrate but I could see exotic birds flitting above the trees, monkeys in the canopy and the rich rustle and hum of insect life. The air was humid and earthy with the aroma of decay mixed in with tropical blossom. This was the sultry paradise that I loved. Or at least what I had loved up until now. Right now it felt strangely oppressive and threatening.
I could not help thinking that those indigenous natives had been right. Maybe there were evil spirits here? I could certainly sense a great unease that sent fear welling up in me. That was not because of the physical challenge or dangers that lay ahead. I was used to them. Those trials did not scare me. This was something different, as if some great terror lay beneath the surface, hidden beneath a thin veneer of normality.
That feeling of fear was something I hoped was not an omen of what was to come, not that I believed in premonitions. It was just that it had taken me by surprise, something I had never experienced before. I reasoned with myself: once we go going it would soon pass.
I repressed the fear. Underlying it was the joy of being back in amongst nature and I attempted to allow that to bubble up to the surface. I tried taking deep breaths, sucking the rich aroma of the jungle into my lungs but nothing I did seemed to dispel my qualms.
The nervous crew of the two helicopters were busy depositing the rest of the gear on the banks on the river. They too seemed unduly anxious to get the job done and be out of here. My two companions, Enzo Silva and Vitor Ruiz, ignoring me altogether, were already silently setting up the outboard on the boat and stowing their provisions and equipment on board. I watched them. It was difficult to work out what they were feeling. They looked permanently sullen. Pinosaro had obviously not chosen them for their extensive vocabulary or talkativeness. They were men of few words. They were dark skinned large muscular men whose agility and prowess was immediately obvious with everything they did. They were used to the jungle, resourceful and knowledgeable of that I had no doubt, but they also had a military air about them, and that look of men who had seen too much death.
Pinosaro had put them there as my minders. At least that is what I had decided they were.
Outwardly they had the remit of keeping me alive and getting me to my destination but I think they were also tasked with watching me to ensure I did not get up to mischief. Though what on earth Pinosaro thought I might be able to get up to out here in this isolated place was utterly beyond me. But he was just that sort of paranoid type who would trust nobody. Perhaps he thought I might go freelance, prospecting for gold or minerals and look to strike my own deal with one of the big mining companies?
I stood aside, hands on hips, projecting my role as boss and overseer as they packed the boat. Somehow their demeanour added to my unease. For the past three days I had developed the impression that they were watching me and making note of everything I was up to. Still – I kept telling myself, I did not care – as long as they were competent. Watching them as they set about their business in a most professional manner I had few doubts on that score. I resolved to tolerate them and not allow their surliness to detract from my delight at being back where I most wanted to be.
I sauntered across to where they were working and gave them some unnecessary orders related to the stowing of equipment. I made them move some of the things they had already loaded. I needed to reinforce just who was in charge of this expedition. From experience it was necessary. There was only room for one leader.
The obviously resented my intrusion but did as they were told in a resentful fashion without argument.