Once, near Shanidar in northern Iraq, a young Neanderthal saw his cousin Nandy, who was trying to catch a wild goat, slip on the loose stones and tumble out of sight. The hunter had time enough, as he scrambled down the cliff, to realize that his friend Nandy would be dead before he reached the dessert floor.
The hunter was familiar with death. He had watched his mother die in childbirth and held the limp body of her child in his hands, its head rolling loosely on its neck. He had twisted the heads of birds and slaughtered goats. He had even stabbed a man to death with a shard of obsidian when their cave was raided by another group during that long, long winter.
In his hurry down the rock face, the hunter fell and slid several meters down the scree before catching himself with bloody hands. As he clung to the rock, looking down at his friend’s body twisted on the gray rock below, he realized that he too could die and it frightened him. He moved more carefully. When he got to his friend’s body, the hunter discovered that Nandy was still breathing, in spite of the blood pooling under his head. It was hopeless, but the hunter, frightened by the prospect of his own death, bandaged the crushed head with goat skin and carried his heavy body back to the cave.
When Nandy finally awoke, his head was misshapen, he was blind in his left eye, and he was partially paralyzed on his right side. Again the hunter, who had a new respect for life, saved Nandy by protecting him from others in the group who said he should be put outside the cave because could not benefit the tribe. As Nandy gained strength, the two friends often spoke about how they had almost died.
One day, a sudden rock fall in the cave killed the sleeping hunter. Nandy, who knew about death, would not let them drag the body from the cave and into forgetfulness. He arranged the stones carefully over his friend’s body and scattered worked stone points over the cairn, because his friend was a hunter. Then he lit a fire next to the pile of rocks and began to tell stories about his friend. The others had heard stories before, stories about hunting trips, but these stories were different. These were stories meant to preserve the memory of his friend beyond death. Nandy became a story-teller, a shaman, and lived until the very old age of forty, after which he too was carefully buried and his memory was preserved through stories.
Based loosely on evidence gleaned from:
“What Does It Mean to Be Human?” Smithsonian Natural Museum of History. Web. 1 May 2010.
(To read more about the conjectural history of storytelling, read my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon, and my post “The Myth of Myth: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Myth Interrupted.”)