Dedicated to Gabe.


We offer these extracts from the diary of Professor Luke Oliver in an attempt to explain his disappearance following his discovery of a group of Neanderthals living in a remote gully to the west of Mount Hagen, Papua-New Guinea.

31 March, 2024

Ever since we made our discovery, some of our team think they’ve got it made. They spend their time drinking beer, eating and laughing at the tribespeople, plotting how they’ll write a book or an article about it when they get home. They see the Neanderthals as ugly, clumsy, and stupid; but to me, the tribespeople have a distinct beauty. Not a physical beauty: a beauty of movement, a slowness and grace we lost in the drive to become more efficient.

As yet, we’ve not made any media announcement about our discovery, and the team are banned from saying anything to the outside world. I’m sure it won’t be long before word gets out: apparently there’s a “strategy meeting” (God!) tomorrow to discuss what we do next.

1 April, 2024: April Fools’ Day

An appropriate day for some colleagues to be taking decisions. I’ve managed to persuade them our discovery will be more compelling if we offer information on how the Neanderthals live. Naturally, most of these “scientists” want to run straight to the media. All they think about is securing their funding, alongside the usual curse of wanting to be a “celebrity” of some kind.

Take that oaf Bill Holz, our dear leader. Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Tuskalooska. 300 pounds if he’s an ounce, barely able to see over his belly and down into the ravine. Linen shirt and canvas shorts, like Indiana Jones goes to Walmart. Wants to do a media release from the jungle, but I’ve persuaded him to observe the Neanderthals for another week. And by that, I mean examining their natural behaviours before word gets out and they’re corrupted. Holz, as a “scientist,” wants to “experiment” on them to “acquire data.” Of course he does. And since he runs this expedition, all I can do is advise him. So I acquiesce to his suggestion—for now.

Evening: I walked over to watch the tribe from the lip of the ravine. The sun was setting, a fat bulb sinking into the Western edge of Mount Hagan to our left, the Neanderthal encampment already mostly shadows. I saw the tribe preparing to sleep. They gathered giant palm leaves together and set them out in circles. Then they laid down on the piles in family groups or singly, none too distant from the rest. My eye fell on one couple in particular, their child with its matted orange fur visible from this distance through the gloom. The male and the female slept either side of the child, keeping it warm and safe. I noticed the mother’s tenderness, how the child clung to her, while the father spooned his body around them to offer them warmth and comfort.

Elsewhere, the elders lay awake after the rest of the tribe had gone to bed, keeping watch—or, perhaps, reflecting on the lives they’d already lived in this hollow. Then, from our camp, the sound of laughter, drinking, and canned music blaring. I sent a quick text to Susan to wish her and the kids a good morning back in Herefordshire. Then I went to bed, avoiding my colleagues and their mindless partying.

2 April 2024

We carried out the first of Holz’s experiments today. His people used a bulldozer to fell two acres of forest then shove the felled trees into the ravine. They tumbled down, roots and dirt and all, until they formed a gappy block about 15 feet high across the ravine’s floor. This prevented the Neanderthals from reaching their water supply, a spring tumbling out of the cliff face at the far end of the ravine, perhaps half a mile away from where I stood.

My job was to watch the tribe, see how they responded. At first, they were stunned, but within 15 minutes, the practical necessity of how to acquire water took over. I looked for the Neanderthal couple I’d noticed yesterday. I found them through my binoculars, the mother cradling her child on the palm leaves, the male touching her tenderly before he left to join the other males in finding a way through the fallen tree-trunks.

That afternoon, we were all supposed to meet with Holz to discuss the results of this tasteless “experiment.” But I feigned illness and returned to my tent to listen to the BBC. The news from home goes from bad to worse. Apparently, the police surrounded a bunch of climate change protesters in an alleyway in London and blocked their exit, then arrested them for affray and breach of the peace. It’s just a wonder they didn’t get arrested for dissent or something. Of course, every member of that group would have been followed and analysed on social media. Social media: the modern panopticon, where everything you do and say can be observed and assessed. Why people willingly surrender to that prison is beyond me.

3 April 2024

Today—and not without protest on my part—Holz, our glorious leader, decided to increase the amplitude of his experiments. First, they undertook a “controlled burning” of the trees they dropped into the ravine yesterday using a flamethrower and cans of diesel. The petrol rained down on the tree trunks, which lit up with thick red flame, a wall of black smoke quilting the ravine until it became hard to see the tribespeople. Pure barbarism, like something out of the Vietnam War.

The Neanderthals panicked and ran to the shallow end of the ravine, away from the fire and their only source of water. They could have climbed out of there: we’d already seen them use vines and outcropping rocks on the more gentle slopes to climb up and forage in the jungle. But in their panic, they forgot about this option, planted to the spot where the ground rose at the end of their fissure in Mount Hagen’s side.

When it became apparent the fire was dying down, rather than spreading, they returned to their camp and addressed the problem of how to get water. As the Neanderthals argued among themselves about how to get through the burning trees, Holz and his team began blasting them with loud rock music from speakers. The Neanderthals ran amok, trying to climb the vertical stone walls either side of their camp, forgetting that escape was only a couple of hundred yards behind them.

Seeing them in distress, I contacted Holz on our messenger system and told him to stop the music and douse the flames. This he did, and by nightfall, all was peaceful, though the Neanderthals appear agitated. At first, we thought some of the males had gone missing. However, it now seems they were out foraging and returned before nightfall to consult with the elders in grunting, rhythmical voices before settling down to sleep on the palm fronds with the rest of the tribe.

4 April 2024: Day Off

I’m so disgusted at the way we treat these people I can barely talk to my colleagues. I stayed in my tent all day to avoid seeing anyone, reading an Australian study about the effect of screen time on children’s development and behaviour. Apparently, more than five hours’ of screens a day causes patterning in the central cortex similar to that found in patients with early-stage dementia. Yet we persist in encouraging children to use screens everywhere from the classroom to the home, almost as if we sought to create a race of button-pushing morons to be controlled like dogs with simple messages focused on the baser instincts: fear, desire, the rest. God! I want to be away from here. Not to escape the Neanderthals or the rainforest; quite the reverse. Modernity is the nightmare from which I’m trying to escape.

5 April 2024

Holz’s latest piece of madness is to venture down into the ravine and speak to them. I am opposed for all sorts of reasons, mostly anthropological: any undergraduate could tell you what murderous consequences followed after we first made contact with the Chagos Islanders 150 years ago. To this day, there are indigenous Chagos bands who’ll kill anyone that gets too close to them. And no wonder.

During the course of my debate with Holz, it became apparent he’d received communications from Washington looking for “results.” It seems these “results” will justify his request for an increased budget. As scientists, we are both the creators and subjects of a world enmired in gross materialism; whatever happened to observation? To consideration, to sensitivity?

Needless to say, Holz wouldn’t listen to my objections. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m getting out on the next transport in three days’ time—he can publish, write and appear on TV all he likes. I will not be associated with him, or with this travesty.

Afternoon: I watched as Holz’s Zeppelin-shaped form struggled down the soft slopes at the near end of the ravine, accompanied by four doctoral researchers and two guides. Through my binoculars, the seven shapes seemed to take forever to descend the slopes half a mile away. During their descent, I kept shifting the binoculars to the Neanderthal camp, wondering when they would notice the approaching researchers.

When the Neanderthals spotted our party, their reaction was swift and violent. As Holz approached within a couple of hundred yards, the males grabbed sticks and stones and hid themselves in foliage either side of the pathway leading from their camp to the slopes at the upper end of the ravine.

Some other observer up here must have warned Holz by radio. His team paused, then debated how to escape. As they talked, I saw the Neanderthals shift position, moving out of the foliage, and I shouted at the guy on the radio to get Holz out.

He repeated my instruction into the radio. Holz’s portly form turned and began shambling up the slope followed by the students and guides. The male Neanderthals jumped from the bushes and ran towards Holz’s party. The research students and guides, all younger and fitter than Holz, sprinted for their lives, leaving Holz struggling his way up through ferns and rocks, the unfamiliar terrain hampering his balloon figure’s progress up the slope.

Then the inevitable: Holz was caught. The rest of his party scrambled up to safety while the males surrounded Holz and pulled him back to their encampment, where they beat him senseless. Then they used their sticks and stones to sever his head, bright blood on the stones and mud. They skewered the head on a tree branch and stuck it in the earth at the edge of their camp.

The researchers returned to the cliffs overlooking the ravine a few minutes later, only without our local guides, who’d disappeared into the forest as soon as they’d escaped from the ravine. Three days until the next transport arrives from Port Moresby, PNG’s capital. No question of an airlift; the jungle is too thick, the terrain too mountainous.

6 April 2024

Two days left. We have been unable to retrieve Holz’s body and his head now perches on that stick 200 metres below us on the ravine, like some rotting fruit from a parallel universe. Yet which world—ours or theirs—is more honest, which more real?

The head honchos in Washington know about Holz’s death. They recommend immediate evacuation. I’m now expedition leader, so I put the decision to a vote. A unanimous yes: most of our team couldn’t sleep last night. I repeat that the ban on communications via our satellite internet is still in place and more important than ever. I’ve promised them we will be out of here in 48 hours and that a specialist U.S. Army team will collect Holz’s body.

At least the guides who ran away left some weaponry. I order shifts of guards to be set up around our camp and 24-hour observation on the Neanderthals with binoculars and night-vision equipment. I know we could all be killed, but I cannot get the team out any faster than the day after tomorrow. And a dead body is only a secondary priority to the U.S. military, who have to chopper in from their base at Glyde Point in Australia.

Down in the ravine, the Neanderthals look like they’re returning to the patterns of behaviour we’d first observed: foraging for food, trips up to the spring through the charred tree trunks to fetch water. Again, I was struck by their conviviality; the children playing with the palm leaves and fronds they sleep on; the way they slept, worked and rested together. And not a screen or phone in sight. Not even a lightbulb—or a knife, or a wheel. Existence in pure nature. What we’d named, centuries ago, a “life brutal, nasty, and short.” Now our lives were long, and pleasant—allegedly.

Or is life more brutal now? The way we sanitise death, “process” our feelings, compartmentalise our emotions. Our belief that somehow our knowledge is superior to any Man has ever held, and that we will always overcome nature—impossible as that dream is. Man was born to die.

When the males leave their encampment to forage outside the ravine, our guards go on high alert. I don’t want to cause panic, but I know most of the team were down there when Holz got it, so they’ll be nervous. It’s my job to make sure we all escape.

7 April 2024

Last night was the most extraordinary in my life.

I placed the guards on watch and retired to my tent armed with a machine pistol, ready for whatever came. Judging by what happened next, I must have been comatose, despite thinking I was awake all night.

At some point, I awoke to scratching outside my tent. Thinking it to be a monkey or Orang-Utan, I ignored it and buried my head in my sleeping bag.  It soon became apparent the scratching was general around the outside of my tent, so I unzipped first the tent’s inner lining, then the outer.

I waited a couple of seconds before opening the flap and shining my phone torch out into the darkness, the other hand on the machine pistol I’d taken to bed with me. I saw a ring of Neanderthal males surrounding my tent with sticks in their hands. Realising I was outnumbered, I scrambled out of my tent to face them still holding my weapon, though unwilling to use it—yet.

They surrounded me in a square like some Roman phalanx. The two either side of me laid hands on me, gripping the flimsy T-shirt I’d worn to bed. They led me from our camp to the lip of the ravine where the slope began its slow descent littered with rocks and bushes. Then they made me sit facing away from the ravine so that I looked east, looking down away from the ravine into the valley and the lower slopes of Mount Hagen beneath us. They sat either side of me, still sporting the long, sharpened sticks that served them as weapons.

After some time, the sun began to rise, its first rays kissing the straggling clouds, then raw sunlight cutting through the smoky air, the edge of its orb rising from the mist. I had never watched a full sunrise before; a pleasure, a spiritual experience that my ambition, my anxiety, my modernity had wrested from me.

When the sun was fully above the horizon, the Neanderthals released me and headed back down the slope towards their village. I made my way blearily back to our camp, the unused machine pistol limp in my hand.

When I arrived at our camp, I found my colleagues slaughtered and the equipment destroyed. I fell down and wept like some character from the Bible, lost and alone by the rivers of Babylon, as the shadows of eight heads skewered on poles lengthened over my filthy, prostrate form.

8 April 2024

As I write this, I may be just two hours away from rescue by the transports or the U.S. military, whichever gets here first. But I no longer wish to be “rescued.” If this diary is found, I ask that my wife remember my love for her and for our children. I further ask her to sell our house and car, liquidate our investments, and for her and David and Sally to live as freely as they are able, and as far away from civilisation as they can.

Do not look for me. Do not hope to hear from me. I am leaving now: just pretend I was never there, that I never existed—in the same way as I now wish our so-called civilisation had never been created, and that we all still lived as we were meant to: vital, brutal, rich lives close to Nature and her awful beauty, as true in dealing death as she is in giving life. Farewell and good luck: you’re going to need it.