The Challenge of Going Way Back in Time

Harald Johnson has entertained us before with a perspective on transporting readers in time and place for his novel New York 1609. Today he tells us of going wayyyyyyyy back in time as he’s done in his latest novel Neander: A Time Travel Adventure. Yes, that’s Neander as in Neanderthal.


On its surface, the writing of historical fiction seems straightforward: pick a theme, premise, or concept from at least 50 years ago (the official minimum), spend some time researching locations, conducting interviews, studying photographs or artwork, reading documents, letters, memoirs, articles, etc. And then write your book.

Beyond the obvious challenges of having the time/resources to do it, having or not having a publisher to accept it (not a problem for an Indie author like myself), and all the other challenges that novel writing presents, the path to creating a work of historical fiction seems fairly direct, albeit sometimes—many times!—daunting.

But here’s another complication I encountered in publishing my recent time-slip novel, NEANDER: A Time Travel Adventure: a lack of most of the resources listed above. Why? Because my time frame drops back to 40,000 years ago!

Here is what I faced in doing my research:

* Documents, letters, memoirs? Nope. Writing wouldn’t be invented for another 30,000 years or so.

* Photographs? None; photography was invented in 1826. How about drawings/paintings? The earliest-known examples of representational art (e.g., the famous cave paintings of Lascaux and Altimira) date to a time period later than mine. So nothing there.

* Interviews with survivors, relatives, witnesses, etc.? Obviously, none. But here’s a further twist: my subjects were not even Modern Humans (Homo sapiens). They were Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis)! So, technically—and realistically—there were no first-hand subjects I could have interviewed on this entire planet (notwithstanding the fact that all/most of us actually have fragments of Neanderthal DNA within us, but that’s another discussion).

* Then there’s the question of language. In some cases, a writer has to deal with unusual accents, or even different or archaic languages. But what if the existence of language itself is questioned? Did Neanderthals even speak? Did they have the cognitive ability plus the anatomy to vocalize (beyond simple grunting)? The answer is Yes but see more below.

* How about the location(s)? Now we’re getting somewhere. My main setting is Gibraltar, that British overseas territory attached to Spain like an appendix. But here’s another quirk: the Gibraltar of today was not the Gibraltar of 40,000 years ago (“40 kya” in scientific lingo). Yes, it still jutted out toward the Mediterranean, but sea levels were 100+ meters lower back then. Which made the geography and environment very different.

(Top) Gibraltar of today. Note the caves at sea level under the promontory. (Bottom) A reconstruction of late Neanderthal times. Note the exposed land leading out from the caves. Courtesy: Gibraltar Museum.

So what was left for a historical novelist to do in terms of research? In a word, science.

Happily for me, there are entire fields of scientific investigation—anthropology, paleoanthropology, archeology, evolutionary genetics—devoted to my subject. So that’s where I went. To read the research studies, papers, and articles that these scientists have presented since the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. To discover that Neanderthals were not the dim-witted, knuckle-draggers that popular culture portrays. Instead, these archaic humans were not that much different from ourselves: thinking, speaking, and feeling people.

And what about other books/novels? Where there some to consult?


Beyond the nonfiction books that summarize the scientific findings mentioned above, there were the novels already written. A few of these are famous. Like Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear series. And J.H. Rony-Aine’s La Guerre du Feu, which you probably know better for its film adaptation: Quest for Fire.

Amoukar, Naoh, and Gaw in the 1981 movie Quest for Fire

The problem with these and other fiction books is that many include ideas and plot concepts that have now been proven wrong by science. As an example, take Clan of the Cave Bear. While Ms. Auel certainly did her research prior to the release of her first book in 1980, time has overtaken her. Having her heroine (Ayla) being a blue-eyed, blond (Daryl Hannah in the movie) is probably the opposite of what the situation was back then. In reality, the “modern” people (Sapiens) were darker-skinned and the Neanders were more likely lighter. After all, the Neanders had had tens—even hundreds—of thousands of years to evolve to be better adapted to their higher-latitudes environment (where lighter-pigmented skin provides an evolutionary advantage). The Sapiens were the (relatively) new arrivals from Africa.

In La Guerre du Feu (published in 1911), the time period is roughly 80,000 years ago and it features a village culture that would not exist for another 70,000 years at the earliest!

Well, it’s called “fiction” for a reason, but as we all know on this site, historical accuracy is still very important. It just gets a lot trickier when the historical record has so many gaps and deficiencies. And then in my case, I added a further complication to my story-telling: time travel from the modern to the prehistoric. But traveling through time is relatively easy to deal with in writing. It’s called: magic.

Many thanks, Harald. As always a fascinating look at your writing and the time period you’ve chosen. Best wishes for success.

Neander: A Time Travel Adventure by Harald Johnson ~~ At an archeological dig in Gibraltar, a boat explosion shatters the hopes of science journalist Tom Cook. His pregnant fiancée was on the boat and is missing. During the search, things go from bad to worse when Tom plunges through a time portal and into the strange and dangerous era of the Neanderthals. Can he get back, or is he stuck in the past forever?

On top of figuring out how to return to the present, Tom must use his modern-day wits to fight for survival in the world of 40,000 years ago. And contend with a group of archaic humans that are not at all like what he expects. Finally, Tom faces a crucial decision that could alter the course of human history. A history he knows he has the power to change. Will he make the right choice?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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7 Responses

  1. Thanks for the kind words and for having me, Mary. And if anyone has any questions about our hominid “cousins” (the Neanderthals), let me know. I’ve become a bit of an expert on them!

    1. Thanks, Roland. Yes, once I started diving into the research, there was no looking back; I was hooked.

      1. True but the food available at the time for say Gath and such are hard to get a handle on as well as sketchy versions of their gods. Luckily, my city is fantasy-based but I do hope to bring some of the reality of that biblical time into my story. I do admire your efforts to plunge back into the neander time however. As you said, it would be even more difficult.

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