Sunday, 17 February 2013

An arrow to the heart.

I arrived at the exhibition of Ice Age Art in the British Museum full of doubt.

I wanted to hear voices from far away, from down the long millennia; but I was afraid the ancient sculptures would be dumb and stiff and dead.

What did I see?

I saw the delicate step of a questing deer, the fierce low-thrust head of a goose, the arched neck of a proud horse, the massive threat of a bison's shoulders...

...and more, and more...

...the stillness and contemplative fragility of women huge with child; the smugness of a well-fed lion; the wide-eyed anxiety of a swimming reindeer.

Perhaps these things come from a time when all art was true. When all art was beautiful, honest, and yet still full of secrets.

Imagine a blade of flint perhaps 20 cm long but only 0.6 cm deep at its thickest part. Imagine the delicacy of it.

Imagine a flute made of a hollow bone, and then imagine music and singing and dancing.

Imagine a people 40,000 years away and yet close enough to feel their breath on your cheek.


On the way out of the museum we came across a table of treasures the public was allowed to hold. There was a Greek vase made 2,400 years ago; a piece of cuneiform writing (the oldest writing in the world) incised on clay; and a flint hand axe.

The axe was 350,000 years old.

350,000 years. Older than my species, then. Far older. It came from the time of the Neanderthals.

And, oh, but it was a fine thing, carefully made and effective.

Once more, the millennia melted away.


It's been an honour and a privelege to be able to spend a year in the company of Neanderthal man, but now it's time for me to make my way back to the present, to Homo sapiens and the world we've made for ourselves.

Many thanks to everyone who's visited this blog (especially to Adele Geras, who has made this blog immeasurably more interesting). I hope the story of our brother human beings has proved rewarding.

I may post the occasional update here, but from now on I shall be blogging chiefly at The Word Den. Further news about Song Hunter will be available from time to time at

May the world turn dazzlingly about you, and may you find a thousand songs of your own to sing,

Sally Prue

SONG HUNTER by Sally Prue. Oxford, 2013.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The art of the Neanderthals.

Waiting for a book to be published always seems to take a long time, and the wait for SONG HUNTER to make it into print has been both long and anxious.

 A great deal of research is going on all the time. At any moment – at any moment -  someone might come up with a discovery which blows the principle behind SONG HUNTER clear out of the water.

 And sure enough...

 The thing is, a shell has been found in Spain. It does genuinely seem to have been used to mix up pigments, and it genuinely does have a hole in it as if for a pendant.

 So, can this be a sign that the Neanderthals had art after all?

 Well, yes, it can, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it must. Even if the hole was made on purpose then it might have been used to make carrying the shell easier, rather than as a decoration (my measuring spoons are tied together, for instance, but I don’t wear them to parties).

 As for the pigment (by which is meant ground-up rock or crumbled clay), yes this can be, and is still, used for painting; but it makes rather a good anti-insect coating for hides, too.

 But I’m still on tenterhooks, here, you know.


Friday, 15 February 2013

The arrival of the modern mind.

I'm off to the Ice Age Art exhibition today. It's entitled The arrival of the modern mind, and this is exactly what Song Hunter is all about.

I shall see a lion headed figure like this:

lion lady lion man

which was made while there were still Neanderthals living in Europe.

I'm longing to find out if it still has anything to say to me, or whether its power is dead and gone.

Report here on Sunday.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Hot love?

The science says that modern humans got together with Neanderthals to have children.

Whether they loved each other is harder to prove until we comes across some

 Humy Loves Neand


But if you're doubtful about the possibility, try watching this:

Makes you feel warm all over, doesn't it?
Hm...that's probably a no, isn't it.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A real man?

A real man?

Scientists aren’t in agreement about much to do with Neanderthals. They’re still even arguing about whether Neanderthals are the same species as modern man: whether they should be called Homo sapiens neanderthalis, or, if they're a different species altogether, Homo neanderthalis.

What do I think myself? Well, all I can say is that I feel more sympathy with the Neanderthals of SONG HUNTER than with a lot of people I’ve met; and that personally I’d be charmed and honoured to discover I have a Neanderthal many-greats granny and grandad whose brains were bigger than those of most modern humans and who could do useful and splendid things like making knives from flint, making fur coats from dead animals, and staying alive in a very very cold climate.

Monday, 11 February 2013

An evolutionary dead-end.

An evolutionary dead-end, Neanderthals, weren't they.

 Well, Neanderthals existed for half a million years.

 That’s twice as long as we Homo sapiens have managed to survive so far.


Do you think our own species will manage to break the Neanderthals’ record?


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Vole clocks.

Vole clocks?

 Oh, vole clocks are like moustache ukuleles.

 Well, okay, they’re only like moustache ukuleles in that they remind me I’m living in an infinitely wonderful world.

 (A moustache ukulele is a ukulele with educational pictures of various different types of moustache painted all over it.)

 Vole clocks are used by archaeologists to date remains. Voles have evolved at a nice steady rate, and by looking at the teeth of the voles which are buried at the same level as the remains you can tell how old everything is.

 And I say to myself...



Saturday, 9 February 2013

Naming the nameless.

It’s easier to tell a story if your characters have names.

 There were two alternatives for naming the Neanderthal people in SONG HUNTER: I could either use meaningless words like Kalgot, Bonzol or Smutch; or I could name the people after things they found around them in their valley.

 I decided to do the latter, and to make it easier for my readers to keep track of who is who I decided on to split the names very obviously between the women and the men. The men I named after animals: Elk, Bear, Lynx, and the outsider Seal. That was easy.

 The women had to be named after something else - but the trouble was that they don’t really have much else. There is grass and reeds and a few low shrubby trees.

 Stars, the sun, the sky, the clouds. Shadows. Ice. Snow. Rocks.

Plenty of rocks.

 Pebbles has already been taken as a name for a stoneage little girl; and Boulder, Flint, Quartz and Gravel don’t sound much like girls. But there are prettier stones that my people might have come across: Pearl, Mica, Amber, Garnet.

 Once I had their names they began to speak to me.

Friday, 8 February 2013

So how can I come up with new ideas?

SONG HUNTER tells the story of a girl who discovers a way to come up with completely new ideas.

So if you read the book you’ll know everything you need to know to become an artist or an inventor.

 Then, of course, it’ll just be a question of whether you can be bothered to do it.

Thursday, 7 February 2013


I became very fond of my Neanderthals, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that they had one or two habits which are really no longer acceptable in the Home Counties.

 Cannibalism, for instance. There are Neanderthal bones which do seem to have been stripped of their flesh as if for...well, dinner.

 I could have had my Neanderthals constantly at war, but that would have muddied the other strands of the story. I needed a reason why my Neanderthals could be cannibals without being savages.

 Then I remembered the marvellous books by Sir Arthur Grimble about the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and his account of ancestor worship there. Might not cannibalism be a form of respect shown to an ancestor?

 It’s certainly be a form of practical recycling, if nothing else.

 I also remembered Douglas Adams’ cow in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

 And between my memories of the books of these two brilliant writers, the cannibalism of my Neanderthals began to make absolutely perfect sense.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Strongest.

Who’s in charge of your family group?

 Why is it that person?

 Is it the person who earns the most money? The one who cooks best? Is it the eldest? Or is it the person appointed to the position by custom - or history - or God?

 Or is it the bossiest person?

 Or the cleverest?

 Or just the most frightening?

Who’s in charge? Who's strongest?

And what will happen when someone else becomes stronger than them?

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

What did Neanderthals dream about?

There’s a chapter about Neanderthal dreams in the book How To Think Like A Neanderthal by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L Coolidge.

 It starts from Thomas Wynn and Frederick L Coolidge’s idea of what dreams are for, and goes on from there.

 The idea is that dreams are basically of practical use: you dream about being embarrassingly naked, for instance, to remind you to put some clothes on before you go out.

 It’s a very interesting idea.

 And for myself, I don’t believe a word of it.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Taking notes.

I’ve talked before on this blog about research. I write on a computer, but I take notes with a pencil. It’s still the best technology if you want to get a great deal of information on a single page – and by far the best technology if you want to compare three bits of information from different sources.

 The drawback is having to read your handwriting, though. A scribbled note can degenerate into...well, it can be hard to say what.

 A wuveless lion?

 Wuveless? What’s that supposed to mean when it’s at home? I’ve never seen a lion with a wuve (whatever one of those might be) but ...well, is it likely to matter? Can’t I just use lion and never mind the wuves?

 Hang on, that a u? Or an n? And that squiggle at the beginning...

 That might be an m.


 No, no, maneless! They were maneless lions in Mica’s valley!

 Phew, it’s a good job I realised: because, let’s face it, shaking its mane is the sort of thing I could have easily imagined a bolshie Ice Age lion doing.

 Narrow escape from making a horrible mistake there.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Warm dark violence.

The grassland of Mica’s home has been likened to a frozen Serengeti. There was plenty of big game, especially in the Spring and Autumn, and some of the largest and smallest animals might have stayed throughout the year.

 Apart from the grazers (the great aurochs cattle, the giant deer, the mammoths, the woolly rhinoceroses) there would have been predators, too. Lions, there were, as well as wolves and bears (oh my!). As if that wasn’t enough, there were hyenas, too (most surprisingly in that cold climate) and smaller fierce creatures such as wolverines and weasels.

 Mica and her family had lots of competition when hunting for food.

 They would always, always, have had to remember that they were not only hunters, but prey.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The geography of nowhere.

I live in the Chilterns, which is a crescent of wooded hills and valleys in South East England. Mica lived there too, though in Mica’s time there would have been no trees higher than about thirty centimetres. The windy hills would mostly have been covered with rustling grass.

 The temperature wouldn’t have got much above freezing until May.

 In my mind I placed Mica and her family in the valley where I live now, but time has erased almost every trace of Mica’s world.

 When the wind gusts fiercely, though, I still find myself listening for the tread of heavy mammoth feet and for the sounds of the Neanderthal hunters making their way through the grass.

What traces of the deep past can be felt in the place where you live?

Friday, 1 February 2013

How old is madness?

I'm sure everyone is familiar with this irregular verb:

I have an independent mind
You are eccentric
He is round the twist.

 Analysis of the DNA of Neanderthals shows that some of them did have the genetic marker which sometimes leads humans to develop schizophrenia.

 The Neanderthals in SONG HUNTER live so close to each other, and depend upon each other so much: what would happen if the strongest of them was mad?

 All you could do is humour him.

But what if the course he is set on is going to lead you to disaster?

What could you do then?