2020 Snapshot: Melissa Ferguson

Australian SF Snapshot Project

When Melissa Ferguson was a kid she wanted to be an author because she loved reading. When she was a preteen she wanted to be a choreographer because she loved dancing, or a zoologist because she loved animals. When she was a teen she wanted to be a dietitian because she loved food. She ended up obtaining qualifications in biology and human nutrition and found herself working with things she didn’t love, like blood, faeces, placentas, cancer cells and flesh-eating bacteria (okay, maybe she loves blood a little bit). She didn’t return to her love of writing until she was in her thirties and her debut science fiction novel, The Shining Wall was published in 2019. She still loves food and animals but doesn’t get to dance as much as she’d like to. You can connect with her on twitter @melissajferg

1. Tell us about your recent publications/projects?

My debut…

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Non-book recommendations and Melissa Ferguson on science fiction and writing about the future

I was thrilled to be included in a line-up of amazing Australian authors on one of my favourite podcasts, The First Time , in April 2020

The First Time podcast

This week the hosts give recommendation for thing that they think are great.

Katherine’s are:

Kate’s are:

  • Taking cuttings of plants
  • The Australian Ballet has a digital season!  i.e. you can watch online.  Hard recommendation for Sleeping Beauty
  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s Instagram – she’s answering writing questions.  One great answer : Write ONE (no more hour per day.
  • Fires (controlled ones in your backyard)
  • Buying delicious and unusual  things locally rather than going to the big stores.

Then Katherine talks to author Melissa Ferguson.

Some links to things they talk about:

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My Year of Writing and Other Writing-Related Activities- 2018 Edition

My Year of Writing and Other Writing-Related Activities- 2018 Edition


The Shining Wall:

Now available for pre-order!

(TL;DR- I signed a publishing contract with Transit Lounge!)


I started the year with a big decision to make. My Australian agent hadn’t been able to sell my manuscript Barely Human (AKA Day of the Neandertals) and thought that my new (and I think much better) manuscript The Shining Wall, which was set in the same world, would receive a similar reception from Australian publishers. Their advice was to put the manuscripts in the drawer and write something new.


But I still believed in this world I’d created and wanted to keep trying. If not in Australia then in the US or the UK or with a small press. I was sure there was a publisher out there for my dystopian, futuristic, cloned Neandertal stories. So I went off on my own and started querying The Shining Wall.


One of the first places I queried was Transit Lounge. Barry Scott from Transit had shown interest in Day of The Neandertals when I’d met him at the HARDCOPY Program at the ACT Writers Centre in 2016. Transit ultimately decided Day of the Neandertals wasn’t for them, but I had come away from my meeting with Barry with the impression that he really understood what I was trying to do with the manuscript.


So I queried Barry and he immediately requested a full manuscript. Within a couple of weeks Barry got back to me concerned about the ending of the story. I had tried to write a stand-alone novel, but the ending I’d initially written had intersected with the ending of Day of the Neandertals. I then spent a month writing another 10K words onto the end of The Shining Wall. Not long after submitting this revised manuscript I was signing a publishing contract for my debut novel to be released in April 2019 with Transit Lounge Publishing in Australia.


Throughout 2018 I was occupied with other The Shining Wall related pre-publication activities such as:

  • An edit with Penelope Goodes. Turned out to be nothing more terrifying or arduous than a line edit, thankfully!
  • A proof read. My mum has informed me that one (easy to miss) typo has made it through the process- see if you can spot it- where’s Wally style.
  • Got blurbs from two of my favourite writers Meg Elison and Marlee Jane Ward (I can’t tell you how terrifying and exhilarating that was!)
  • Discussed back cover copy and cover options with Transit


Other Writing in 2018:

  • I wrote and polished a 30K novella, The Unnaturals, set in the same world as The Shining Wall (currently out on submission).
  • I wrote another 30K novella to second draft stage. Set in a completely new world. Still scifi with apocalyptic themes. The working title is ‘The Vine’ or ‘The Vine of Death’ if I’m feeling dramatic. This may yet become a novel.
  • Wrote a couple of short stories that nobody wants to publish.


Writing related activities that required me to be sociable in the real world:

  • Gave a 20 minute presentation on ‘Bringing Back Extinct Species Through Cloning’ at Continuum 2018 in Melbourne.
  • Recorded a podcast episode about one of my favourite books, ‘The Book of the Unnamed Midwife’ by Meg Elison, with Marlee Jane Ward for her Catastropod podcast (due to be released early 2019).
  • Volunteered at the inaugural Speculate Literary Festival in Melbourne (mostly I showed people to their seats and handed around a microphone).


Goals for 2019:

  • Launch The Shining Wall (around April).
  • Figure out how to promote The Shining Wall.
  • Hopefully attend some festivals and conventions.
  • Finish my novella that may become a novel.
  • Give up on writing short stories because they’re obviously not my strength.
  • Start on something new and exciting (TBA).

My Favourite Books Read in the Last Five Years



My Favourite Books Read in the Last Five Years


If you’re anything like me you’ll just scroll through this waffle at the top to get to the list.



The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

by Claire North 2014

After every death Harry returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of the lives he has already lived. So begins a mind-bending, mind-boggling and truly genius plot that left me considering quitting writing because I could never achieve something so perfect.

wolf road

The Wolf Road

by Beth Lewis 2016

When Elka learns that the solitary hunter who took her in as a child is a murderer she flees into the vast wilderness. Set in a post-apocalyptic world The Wolf Road is dark and gritty with survivalism and a complex female protagonist.



Welcome To Orphancorp

by Marlee Jane Ward  2015

In a near-future dystopia driven by corporate greed Mirii, a defiant and big-hearted teenager, navigates oppression, identity and sexuality in an industrial orphanage. Short and sweet read with a voice that grabs you at the first page and doesn’t let go as you laugh and cry all the way to the end.




By Ilka Tampke 2015

Set in Southwest Britain, AD 43. Skin follows the story of outcast, Ailia, who has been chosen for a spiritual path by tribal ancestors. Part fantasy, part history, part romance and all compelling female protagonist, page-turning storyline and skilful writing.




by Sarai Walker   2015

While Plum Kettle is biding her time until her weight-loss surgery she is drawn into an underground community of women who live life on their own terms. Dietland takes on the beauty industry, gender inequality, and weight loss obsession and opened some new doors in my mind. I’ve also recently heard that Marti Noxon is making a tv series based on this book.



The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

by Meg Elison 2014

In the wake of an illness that killed women and children and made childbirth deadly, the midwife struggles and survives and finds her place in the dangerous new world. Unputdownable and thought provoking.



The Power

by Naomi Alderman 2016

Women, starting with teenage girls, develop the power to cause agonising pain and even death. With the power in their hands the world changes completely. The Power asks difficult and important questions about our contemporary world and the myth of gender essentialism. And, yes, there are apocalyptic themes too.


Tender Morsels

by Margo Lanagan 2007

A dark retelling of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red. Full of Margo Lanagan’s characteristic lush and evocative prose.



Into the Forest

by Jean Hegland 1996

Two teenage sisters, Nell and Eva, struggle to survive alone in their Northern California forest home as society collapses around them. It has an apocalypse, survivalism, a forest and sisters. What more could you want?


Parable of the Sower

by Octavia E. Butler 1993

In 2025 the world is slowly, apocalyptically, crumbling. Lauren Olamina, a hyperempath, is forced from her home into a dangerous world. This book and its sequel Parable of the Talents have attracted renewed interest lately due to their parallels with the Trump presidency. A few years ago I discovered Octavia Butler when I first read her vampire novel Fledgling. I promptly got hold of as much of her work as I could and read it all. I love everything she’s done, but Parable of the Sower is my favourite. Probably because of the survivalism themes (a favourite reading topic of mine for reasons unknown even to me). Her work resonates with me in a unique way. Octavia’s understanding of humanity is so accurate and so beautiful and her prose so clear and precise, yet evocative.

Honourable Mentions

 Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near

 Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

 Written in Red by Anne Bishop

 Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

 Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

 The Road by Cormac McCarthy

 Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

 Among Others by Jo Walton

 The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler (Soon to be brought to the small screen by Ava DuVernay!!!)

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell


Reflections on HARDCOPY 2016- Part 2 Going Public

iters part-2-going-public

Reflections on HARDCOPY 2016- Part 2 Going Public

After the first round of HARDCOPY participants were invited to apply for the Going Public Weekend in November. Only 10 of the 30 writers would get the opportunity to receive industry level feedback from a group of publishers and agents.

I didn’t get through to the Going Public weekend. So I let myself sulk for about a week. I’m no stranger to rejection though and I soon moved forward with a new plan, which involved querying agents until one of them fell in love with Day of the Neandertals.

My plan was in full swing when I got a call from (the wonderful) Nigel Featherstone. One of the (many) rising stars of our group had been offered a publishing contract and was withdrawing from the Going Public weekend. And I was next in line. It took me about 10 seconds to accept the offer and run off to book another flight to Canberra.

Preparing for Going Public was quite different to the other two weekends, in that there was actually some preparation required. I had to know how to talk about my manuscript and I had to know who I was talking to. It was a bit like studying for an exam, lucky for me the other participants had already done some research and I could copy their notes.

The actual weekend was exhausting, exciting, nerve-wracking, exhilarating, sometimes devastating and ultimately wonderful.

These are the things I learned and the feedback I got from HARDCOPY Going Public 2016:

  • HARDCOPY is well regarded in the Australian publishing industry
  • In terms of cover letters and pitches agents want to know your ideas on genre and comparison books, however the publishers wanted to make that decision for themselves and didn’t like being told (this seemed particularly so in the case of whether something is YA or adult).
  • A lot of them don’t like synopses. Two industry professionals told me they thought they would hate my story based on the synopsis, but then ended up loving the extract.
  • Agents and publishers genuinely want to help new writers succeed.
  • Not everyone is going to connect with your work. You need to keep trying until you find someone who does (bearing in mind to act on any advice and criticism that feels true to you along the way).
  • Write what you want to write in the way you want to write it rather than trying to fit into a particular box or market.
  • Don’t implement changes to fit a particular agent/publisher unless they really fit with what you are trying to do
  • The publishing industry is difficult and bleak for debut authors in Australia/ It is a great time to be a debut author in Australia. Still not sure what the take-home message was on this issue.
  • Publishers and agents need writers.
  • Persistence is key
  • Response to your work can be crazy-subjective
  • Examples of wide range of feedback I got for Day of the Neandertals:
    • The prose– perfectly serviceable/ crisp/ accessible/ great just as it is/ needs polishing/ nothing fancy/ evocative/ needs refining
    • The story– seems very plot driven/ seems very character driven/ a page turner/ a wild ride (which in this particular case was euphemistic for ‘WTF did I just read’)/ suspenseful/ needs streamlining
    • Worldbuilding– fantastic/ confusing
    • Structure– Works well/ confusing/ changes between characters too abrupt
    • Exposition– take some out/ put more in
    • Characters– use more introspection/ use less introspection
    • Genre– YA crossover exists/ YA crossover doesn’t exist/ I think this is adult/ have you tried writing it for an even younger audience?
    • Comparisons– Your book comparisons are spot on/ I’m not familiar with any of your book comparisons/ I think it’s like Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things/ I think it’s like Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things/ Hunger Games meets Jurassic Park/ Has anyone ever compared it to Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things?
    • Themes– fresh/ topical/ very dark/ suitable for school reading lists/ I think there is too much dystopian fiction about
    • Most perplexing feedback– Does it have to be about Neandertals?


As a direct result of contacts made during HARDCOPY 2016 I accepted an offer of representation from Danielle Binks of Jacinta di Mase Management just before Christmas 2016 (still waiting for official paperwork, but I think it’s pretty safe to disclose this now).

2016 was a pretty good year for my writing. Meanwhile disturbing trends in world politics could see an increase in interest in dystopian fiction like Day of the Neandertals (always looking for a bright side) and hopefully a resurgence in punk rock music!

Special thanks to Nigel Featherstone, Mary Cunnane, Sarah Mason, Sophie Mannix, the HARDCOPY selection committees and all the industry professionals and writers who participated.

HARDCOPY is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and has been supported by the Australia Council for the Arts


Reflections on HARDCOPY 2016- Part 1




2016 has been a year of ups and down, both personally and globally. All over social media people are welcoming the death of 2016 and while I can see where they are coming from, on the whole 2016 has been a fantastic year for me, mostly because I participated in the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY professional development program.

Weekend One- Manuscript Development Masterclass:

HARDCOPY began with a manuscript development masterclass with editor Nadine Davidoff on an icy May weekend in Canberra.

I must admit once all the participants started talking about their manuscripts (ranging from YA to crime to historical to humour to fantasy and literary and some genres in between) my imposter syndrome set in. Everyone’s work seemed much more grown up and serious than my little story about cloned Neandertals fighting for freedom in a post-apocalyptic world (really that just sounds like a pulpy sci-fi novel or a bad action movie). But then Nadine got us to think about what had compelled us to write our story and the emotions behind the writing.

So let me explain what came out of that exploration-

In 2013 Harvard geneticist George Church claimed that he could clone a Neandertal. This intrigued me. My first thought was Hell yes. Somebody please clone a Neandertal. I wanna see that. So I decided to write about it. In order to write about Neandertal cloning I had to think about why we would clone Neandertals, how they would be treated, what they would be like and also how the science would work. The science part was fairly straight forward (for a biological scientist such as myself) and I learned that George Church was being extremely optimistic, but there is a chance in the future that we will be able to reverse engineer a Neandertal genome from a modern human genome. So to be plausible I set my story in the future. Extrapolating current social and technological trends into a future world brought up interesting themes and possible scenarios. Working out what Neandertals were like required research into the fossil evidence and as a result I became a staunch defender of the reputation of Neandertals. I get quite offended now when someone uses ‘Neandertal’ as an insult. Thinking about how cloned Neandertals would be treated and why we would clone them really took me into sticky ethical areas and brought up issues of prejudice, exploitation and identity. I also chose female main protagonists because I am inspired to improve the representation of women in science fiction. Through all this I came to realise the writing of this seemingly superficial sci-fi adventure was driven by frustration, anger and sadness at the shortcomings of the human race. (Phew- and I thought it was just an exercise in imagination!).

But enough about me and more about HARDCOPY. While the manuscript development class got me thinking about my manuscript in new ways and re-iterated important aspects of craft, one of the most valuable aspects of this weekend was the sense of community I got from meeting the other participants. I think we all felt somewhat validated to have made it into the program and were all excited and happy to be there. Everyone I met was kind and funny and interesting and genuinely easy to get along with. I got a sense, even from that first weekend, that the connections made would be permanent and we’d all be, at the very least, following each other’s careers closely into the future.

I left Canberra, that weekend in May, on a high and full of inspiration and motivation.

Weekend 2- Intro2Industry:

The into2industry weekend in September was a further opportunity to hang out with my cool group of new writer friends. It was also an opportunity to hear from writers, publishers, agents, booksellers and other industry professionals. For me the publishing industry was demystified. Throughout the weekend my emotions ranged from hope to a complete absence of hope and back again (regarding the chances of having a successful career as an Australian author). And I went home each night with a thumping headache from listening so hard. The most salient messages for me were that there is no one path to publication and that getting your first book deal is just the beginning.

After an interesting discussion of social media, I think most participants started a Facebook author page or opened a twitter account (it was twitter for me and I’m still not sure I’m using it correctly).

Then we all went home and applied for Round 2, where 30 would be whittled down to 10 (well actually 11 in this instance). More on that to come…


HARDCOPY is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and has been supported by the Australia Council for the Arts



How to Clone a Neandertal


After hearing the claims of Harvard geneticist George Church that it could be possible to clone a Neandertal I began writing a novel (and short stories set in the world of this novel) exploring the lives of cloned Neandertals. But is Neandertal cloning really a scientific possibility?

What exactly is cloning anyway?

When referring to biological organisms cloning is defined as the process of creating an exact copy of a DNA sequence, cell or organism. So for example the famous Dolly the Sheep was made as an exact copy of an adult sheep through the use of the adult sheep’s genetic material (DNA). The assumption is that any organism whose DNA we have access to can then be cloned using the blueprint encoded on that DNA.

 How do we do clone an animal?

To date the only way cloning has ever occurred is by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). A somatic cell is a bodily cell, say from the skin or muscle, which is not a reproductive cell (the reproductive cells being the sperm and eggs). SCNT involves transferring the nucleus (the region of the cell where DNA resides) of a cell from one organism into the egg cell of a host organism. When the technique is successful, we get an animal that is genetically very similar to the original animal.

 Can we use SCNT to clone a Neandertal?

Even though Svante Pääbo and colleagues completed the first sequence of the Neandertal genome in 2010 we can’t use SCNT for cloning Neandertals (or any other extinct organism such as a mammoth or a dodo). Due to the degradation of cells and DNA after an animal’s death (even if they are frozen in permafrost) it has proven impossible to isolate an intact somatic cell or nucleus from long-dead animals. Only intact somatic cells contain the complete and properly packaged genetic material required to create a viable clone. To produce an organism the genome must be sitting on chromosomes and on the proper number of chromosomes (chromosomes are structures composed of DNA and proteins that organise the genetic material in the nucleus). Without chromosomes cells can’t divide to form a whole organism.

Alternative method for Neandertal cloning

Svante Pääbo and colleagues found Neandertal and modern human genomes are 99.84% identical. Harvard geneticist George Church suggested using gene editing techniques (such as CRISPR/cas9) to transform human embryonic stem cell DNA into Neanderthal-like embryonic stem cell DNA by altering the sections of the genome where modern humans and Neandertals differ. From embryonic stem cells an embryo could be generated and grown into a Neandertal-like baby.

What is CRISPR/Cas9?

CRISPR/Cas9 is a defence mechanism found in a wide range of bacteria. CRISPR is a collection of DNA sequences in the bacterial genome which represent dangerous viruses. The second part of the defence mechanism is a set of enzymes called Cas (CRISPR-associated proteins), which can precisely snip DNA and destroy invading viruses based on RNA molecules (another type of biological molecule) constructed using the CRISPR sequences.

 How can CRISPR/Cas9 assist in transforming modern human cells into Neandertal-like cells?

Biologists have recently co-opted the ingenious CRISPR/Cas9 system for precision genome editing in the laboratory. If they feed Cas9 the right CRISPR-RNA sequence they can cut the DNA wherever they want.

If the desired Neandertal sequences (synthesized in the laboratory by stringing DNA bases together using the Neandertal genome as a template) are added at the same time then cellular repair systems can use these DNA sequences to repair sections of the genome removed by Cas9. The result being a modern human genome edited to closely resemble the Neandertal genome.

This is not a foolproof system, however. Occasionally the Cas9 enzyme cuts in the wrong place and the desired replacement sequence is not always incorporated. Cells need to be tested to determine whether or not the editing process has been successful.

3d render of dna structure, abstract  background
3d render of dna structure, abstract background

Summary of the steps required to clone a Neandertal


  • Assemble the Neandertal genome
  • Compare the genome to modern human genome
  • Identify places where genome differs and requires alteration
  • Synthesize strands of Neandertal DNA matching genomic regions to be changed
  • Design CRISPR-RNAs to represent regions of DNA to be replaced
  • Deliver CRISPR-RNAs, Cas9 enzymes and synthesized strands of Neandertal DNA into modern human embryonic stem cell
  • Measure cell expression to see if it Neandertal genes are incorporated and functioning
  • Push the embryonic stem cell to start developing
  • Implant the embryo into the womb of a surrogate mother for gestation and birth

Possible Complications

It’s likely to require many attempts to achieve Neandertal cloning success. Embryos that are not viable would die early, possibly before implantation. Implantation in the surrogate mother would depend upon compatibility between the embryo and surrogate and even if an embryo was brought to term, there’s a high likelihood that the infant would die soon afterwards or have significant health problems due to errors in the gene-editing process.


While it is theoretically possible to clone a Neandertal, (or more accurately reverse-engineer a modern human cell to produce a Neandertal-like embryo), it’s a complicated and technically difficult process with a large chance of failure (even cloning animals such as Dolly the sheep results in a high percentage of failure and deformity). It is also likely to be a time-consuming and expensive process and without a compelling reason to do so I can’t imagine why anyone would attempt it. Then there is the question of what we would do with a cloned Neandertal once we had succeeded in creating one. For more of my thoughts on this refer to my short story Planet of the Neandertals published in Don’t Open Till Doomsday.

In Defence of Neandertals


neanderthal hipster

Image: MAshable/mambungalon/DrWankalot/Reddit
The wax figure is from an installation at the Espace de l’Homme de Spy in Belgium.


In Defence of Neandertals

Anatomically Modern humans (that’s all of the humans living today) think they’re pretty hot shit. They…I mean we… are pretty certain we are the pinnacle of evolution. No other creature has ever rivalled our complex cognition, linguistic abilities, symbolism, and ability for abstract thought. But what if, sometime in the history of humanity, another species had the ability to hip-and-shoulder us off that pinnacle?


Often when I tell people I’m writing a novel about cloned Neandertals (pronounced nee-and- er- talls) they joke that they know some Neandertals at work or lurking the corridors of their local shopping centre. The word Neandertal is an insult for a modern human. Neandertals are the stereotypical cavemen: brutish, knuckle-dragging, ape-like creatures who communicated with grunts, hit women over the head with clubs and lived short, primitive lives.


However, this widely held view of Neandertals is based on outdated evidence and theories. Our knowledge of them is expanding, but only when/if a Neandertal is cloned will we know for sure the capabilities of the flesh covering the bare bones and DNA sequences we have unearthed.

 Who were the Neandertals?

Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) were hominins (a name for all species of human) who lived in parts of Europe, Central Asia and Middle East between 30,000 and 300,000 years ago. Along with a newly discovered hominin, the Denisovans, they share a common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, with us (Homo sapiens). This split occurred around 500,000 years ago. So in a way they are our species sibling. Which may explain all the sibling rivalry.

They are named after the Neander Valley in Germany where some of the first fossils were found in the 1800s. They lived through a period of changing climatic conditions and were able to adapt to and survive in some of the harshest environments known to humans. Paleontologist Marcellin Boule reconstructed the first skeleton of a Neandertal — who happened to be arthritic — giving rise to their degenerate, stooped representation.


To date the remains of many hundreds of Neandertals, including babies, children and adults, have been recovered.

Svante Pääbo and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany sequenced the Neandertal genome in 2010. They found Neandertal and modern human genomes are 99.84% identical and present-day humans have inherited about 1% to 4% of their DNA from interbreeding events with Neandertals.

Physical Characteristics

Unlike just about everything else about Neandertals the physical characteristics indicated by their skeletons are undisputed. They were thick-necked, barrel chested, had large wide shoulders curved inward, longer torsos and sturdier bones than modern humans. Their limbs were shorter than ours and they had large, stubby fingertips. They had bowed thighs, large knee caps and thick forearms roped with muscle. Their faces had no chin, they had lower foreheads with dual brow ridges, larger eyes, larger nose holes, large square teeth and a muzzle like, projecting mid-face. Their watermelon shaped skulls were broader, flatter and thicker and featured a prominent occipital bun. Their brains were about 10% larger than ours with smaller frontal cortices. Males stood 164–168 cm and females about 152–156 cm tall (shorter than us on average). Their muscular bodies would have required more calories than our own to support basic metabolism.


What happened to them?

Neandertals disappeared from the fossil record around 40,000 years ago, leaving Homo Sapiens as the last remaining human species in the game of Earth domination. Nobody really knows what happened to them and debate abounds. One oft repeated story goes that Neandertals were inferior in a variety of ways and just couldn’t compete with the awesomeness of us.

One disadvantage of Neandertal lifestyle which has been put forward as a reason for their demise is their almost exclusively meaty diet and therefore dietary inflexibility. However evidence is amassing that they may have had a more varied diet that, while heavy on meat, also included vegetables, berries and nuts. Evidence from Gorham’s cave in Gibraltar indicates they also may have caught, butchered and cooked wild pigeons long before modern humans became regular consumers of bird meat.

Evidence for interbreeding corroborates an “assimilation” theory which proposes Neandertals became swamped by modern human genetic material and were bred out. DNA analysis reveals Neandertals were less genetically diverse than modern humans. They must have gone through some sort of population bottleneck (possibly due to harsh climatic conditions) which resulted in smaller and more isolated populations and probably inbreeding. As modern men have no traces of Neandertal DNA on their Y chromosome it’s likely genetic incompatibilities between the two species led to miscarriages or reduced fertility of male hybrid offspring further weakening the survival of the species.

“…the Neandertal archaeological record is not different enough to explain the demise in terms of inferiority in archaeologically visible domains. Instead, current genetic data suggests that complex processes of interbreeding and assimilation may have been responsible for the disappearance of the specific Neandertal morphology from the fossil record.” —Paolo Villa, Wil Roebroeks, Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex, PLOS One, April 2014, Volume 9, Issue 4.

 Evidence against the modern human superiority complex

There are several sources of evidence to support the proposition that Neandertals were advanced humans capable of intelligent thought processes similar to our own. Being a staunch Neandertal advocate I will list these sources of evidence below, but as a scientist I have to qualify this with the statement that some of this evidence is disputed within the paleo-archaeology field or interpreted in alternate ways. For example there are assertions that artefacts can be explained by trading with or copying anatomically modern humans, or the contamination of Neandertal archaeological layers with more recent, modern human artefacts.



The use, design and manufacture of complex tools from a range of materials indicates a high level of cognition and enhanced working memory.

Evidence includes:

  • Early sites show a reasonably advanced tool kit known as Mousterian (carefully chipped stone tools and simple spears) also used by early Homo sapiens.
  • At the end of their long history in Europe, they began manufacturing the more refined Chatelperronian toolkit, similar to the blade tools of Homo sapiens.
  • A multi-purpose bone tool dating from the Neandertal era found at an archaeological site in France.
  • The discovery, at a German site attributed to Neandertals, of pitch (a glue-like substance for hafting spears) distilled from birch bark using a sophisticated and technically difficult process known as dry distillation.
  • Heat treatment of silcrete (a substance used for stone tool manufacture) at least 72 000 years ago.

 Social aspects

Neandertal society was close-knit, caring and complex. Skeletons of older individuals showed signs of injury, indicating the sick and injured were supported by their family members. Remains were found buried in places where the Neandertals lived. More than a third of Neandertal graves found contain children under the age of four, typically showing great care in their burials. Some were buried with objects including flint scrapers and ceremonial animal bones laid out around the body.  A group burial plot in Spain held the remains of six adults and three children. DNA analysis showed they were related.



High-resolution 3D analyses of a fossilized hyoid bone support the hypothesis that the Neandertals communicated with the use of complex language. The internal microstructure of the hyoid bone is similar to that of the hyoid of modern humans. Also the discovery of a version of the FOXP2 gene compatible with language supports the use of complex language.


Forensic analysis of the Neandertal hunting grounds has shown them to be efficient tacticians and selective butchers. These were thought to be traits of Homo sapiens only. It appears that Neandertals manipulated their prey, (reindeer, horses, rhinos and bison), into areas they could easily ambush them.


 Fire, shelter and clothing 

Survival in Ice Age Europe would have been impossible without mechanisms for reducing exposure. Caves were often used as shelters, but open air shelters were also erected.

They built hearths from at least 300,000 years ago (well before contact with modern humans) and were able to control fire for warmth, cooking and protection. They also wore animal hides. However, there is no physical evidence of sewing, and clothing may have instead been wrapped around the body and tied.

Neandertals built one of the world’s oldest constructions — 176,000-year-old semicircular walls of stalagmites in the bowels of a cave in southwest France.



Art has been traditionally considered the sole domain of modern humans and is regarded as a major cognitive step in our evolution. Evidence of Neandertal art (although somewhat flimsier and subject to more dispute than other areas of evidence) suggests complex symbolic thought and abstract expression.

  • A carving of crisscrossing lines incised on a shelf of bedrock in Gorham’s Cave found along with stone tools associated with Neandertal technology.
  • Simple wall paintings (red dots and hand stencils) in Spain’s El Castillo Cave, old enough to have been made by Neandertals. Although it has not been possible to rule out the involvement of anatomically modern humans.
  • Eight 130,000-year-old eagle claws discovered at an archaeological site in present-day Croatia. Purported to have been worn by Neandertals as jewellery long before the appearance of modern humans in Europe.
  • The use of long wing feathers as a means of adornment.
  • A pendant from Arcy-sur-Cure in France, found amongst bone tools and other artefacts that were attributed to a culture known as Chatelperronian (which most researchers consider Neandertal).
  • Naturally-perforated scallop shells painted with orange pigments and a cockleshell with residue of red and black pigments found at two sites in Spain, the latter dating before modern humans arrived in Europe.
  • A yellow pigment found in southern Spain that may have been used for skin decoration.



cave art

“Many have attempted to define a specifically ‘modern human behavior’ as opposed to a specifically ‘Neandertal behavior’ and all have met with a similar result: No such definition exists that does not end up defining some modern humans as behaviorally Neandertal and some Neandertal groups as behaviorally modern.” — João Zilhão, Neandertals and Moderns Mixed, and It Matters, Evolutionary Anthropology, Issue 15, 2006.


So why would a modern human like myself be such an advocate for a species that challenges our claim to ultimate superiority? It all started in 2013 when Harvard scientist George Church claimed it could be technically possible to clone a Neandertal. I wondered what a cloned Neandertal would be like and how they would be treated. To answer the first question I researched and read everything I could and soon realized it was likely they weren’t as primitive and different from us as is commonly believed. To answer the second question I began writing stories about cloned Neandertals in a futuristic environment (when this kind of technology could likely be possible). It became apparent readers were expecting something more simple-minded and animalistic from my characters and I became somewhat defensive about Neandertal intelligence and capability.

If we ever did clone a Neandertal and raised it in a contemporary or futuristic society they wouldn’t wear skins, sleep in caves, hunt with spears and grunt like gorillas. They would be very much like us.

“I’m convinced that if one were to raise a Neandertal in a modern family he would function just like everybody else. I have no reason to doubt he could speak and do all the things that modern humans do.”— Trenton Holliday, a paleoanthropologist at Tulane University.


*There is no evidence of Neandertals playing modern instruments

Further Reading

How to Think Like a Neandertal by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge. Oxford University Press, (2012).

The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story by Dimitra Papagianni, Michael A. Morse. Thames and Hudson, (2013).

 Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex, Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks, PLOS One, Vol 9, Issue 4 (2014).

Chapter 4: Personal Ornaments and Symbolism Among the Neanderthals, João Zilhão. Origins of Human Innovation and Creativity, First Edition (2012).

Neandertals and Moderns Mixed, and It Matters, João Zilhão. Evolutionary Anthropology, Vol 15 (2006).


Post-Apocalyptic Nutrition

zombie supermarket jessica ober

Photo credit: Zombie Supermarket by Jessica Ober

Post-Apocalyptic Nutrition

Feeding ourselves adequately and safely is the most basic of human needs. For many of us food is plentiful and overeating more of an issue than hunger or starvation.


I remember tossing out food — scraping heaps of food from our dinner plates into the compost bucket —simply because it had sat untouched on someone’s plate for the duration of a meal.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland


Post-apocalyptic stories force us to consider situations where the infrastructure supporting our current lifestyles has collapsed and filling our bellies becomes problematic and even hazardous.


Mostly he worried about their shoes. That and food. Always food.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy


Nutritional Needs

But just what do we need, nutritionally, in order to survive the aftermath of an apocalypse?


Adequate nutrition is composed of nutrients and energy (calories/kilojoules). In the short term survivors could get by on carbohydrates and fresh water. In the long term, without access to a varied diet including fresh fruit and vegetables, nutrient stores within the body will become depleted and deficiencies may arise.


Nutrients can be divided into three groups, macronutrients which we require in large quantities, macrominerals which we require in smaller amounts and micronutrients which we require in trace amounts.


Macronutrients include carbohydrates, fats and proteins.


Carbohydrates are required primarily for energy and are the only fuel the brain can use. Only a small amount of carbohydrate is stored in the body as glycogen so a constant dietary source is essential.


Fats are an excellent source of energy and required for fat soluble vitamins, to maintain cell membranes and provide insulation. However, most people have ample bodily fat stores and would survive an extended period without access to dietary fats.


Proteins can also be used for energy but are more important for construction and repair within the body. Children in particular would suffer stunted growth without access to protein.


Macrominerals include calcium, sodium, potassium and phosphorous. These are important for fluid balance, acid-base balance, nerve and muscle function and bone health.


Micronutrients Include both water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins and trace minerals which are essential for myriad chemical processes throughout the body.


Consequences of not meeting nutritional needs

In the beginning the body will call upon its stores of energy and other nutrients. Prolonged dietary deprivation will lead to deficiency symptoms and diseases (see Table below), growth retardation in children, and eventually starvation. Starved adults may lose as much as 50% of their normal body weight. Organs and muscles will shrink and cease to function, blood will lose its ability to deliver oxygen, body temperature will drop, the immune system will malfunction and the brain will slow down. There is no definite number of days that a human can survive without food, but a common estimate is eight to twelve weeks.


Last night Eva wanted to open the final jar of tomatoes to flavour our rice. But ever since I read about limes in the encyclopedia I’ve been worrying about scurvy.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland


Post-apocalyptic sources of nutrition

If you’re not a prepper then you probably haven’t stocked a bunker with canned, bottled, dehydrated, smoked and pickled foods. You also probably haven’t stocked up on guns and ammo to defend your food stores. So how are you going to feed yourself when the apocalypse comes?

 Well firstly it depends upon the nature of the apocalypse. If the majority of the human population succumb quickly to a supervirus or natural disaster (or shift to a diet composed exclusively of human flesh) then presumably there will be plenty of pre-packed food for scavenging for at least the first few months if not years.


While she’s eating, she thinks about how smart it was for God to make meatskins [flesh-eating zombies] not interested in real food so there would be plenty left for regular folk.— from The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell


On the other hand an apocalypse that affects infrastructure without an immediate impact on human populations (such as a gamma-ray burst, electromagnetic pulse or the collapse of the food chain due to environmental pressures) could leave a lot of hungry people competing for dwindling supplies.

Food sources in urban environments

The first stop for urban survivors is the supermarket (also the classic backdrop for a zombie ambush). Three days is often bandied about as the number of days worth of food available in the supermarkets. Rice, grains and flour as well as dried legumes are excellent sources of carbohydrates and protein and keep well as long as they are kept dry. Fresh fruit and vegetables will spoil relatively quickly, especially if there is no electricity supply, but canned fruit and vegetables are still an excellent source of nutrients. Keep in mind that panic-shopping and the concurrent violence will rapidly empty the shelves.


They kicked through the trash in the aisles of a foodmarket. Old packaging and papers and the eternal ash. He scoured the shelves looking for vitamins. He opened the door of a walk-in cooler but the sour rank smell of the dead washed out of the darkness and he quickly closed it again.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy


I would also suggest throwing vitamin and mineral supplements into your cart so that you can be sure you are getting your micronutrients and macrominerals (especially when all you’ve eaten for weeks is dog food and weevil-infested flour).


Institutional kitchens and restaurant kitchens will also be a rich source of stored food in the cities.


Once the supermarkets, kitchens and food-storage warehouses have become depleted, or are appropriated by gangs of gun-toting thugs, survivors will need to get more creative.


…with a full belly, and a good harvest in the barn, and a fire in the hearth, there’s nothing so charming, so generous, no one more decent than a well-fed man. But take away his food, make his future uncertain, let him know that no one’s watching him and he won’t just kill you, he’ll come up with a hundred and one reasons why you deserve it.— from Far North by Marcel Theroux


For those hungry enough to risk confrontation with other survivors, private homes will present another source of foodstuffs.

 Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy


As well as the contents of pantries, larders and bunkers, many homes, especially in older suburbs, have mature fruit trees and veggie patches. These can be an excellent source of fresh food during the growing season. Some fruit trees may bear fruit for years without any attention from a gardener and some veggies may self-seed and produce new crops. This is all assuming environmental conditions are favourable and rainfall is adequate.


Another, hardier, source of nutrients in the urban environment are edible weeds such as dandelion and purslane. Although the average survivor would probably not be confident enough to start eating whatever is growing through the cracks in the footpath.


Food sources in rural/bush environments

Survivors who flee the city or who find themselves in a rural or bush setting when the apocalypse hits, have some additional options.


The Australian bush contains a plentiful supply of edible and nutritious plants and insects. The trick is knowing exactly which species are edible and being able to confidently identify them.


Tonight it came to me, as we sipped our bedtime cups of white tea — surely there is more than just and afternoon’s treat of berries in the woods. Surely the forest is filled with thing to eat.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland


Crops, orchards and farms containing livestock will also be a source of fresh food, just watch out for the farmer pointing a gun at you from the window of the farmhouse.


Those familiar with hunting and fishing will have access to a supply of protein from game such as rabbits, birds, possums, wallabies and even abandoned domestic pets (people are going to become less picky as hunger sets in).


When I could finally stand, I walked over to her, bent to meet the creature whose life I had taken… I threw up until there was nothing left… I wept for this sow and her shoats. I wept from exhaustion and excitement and I wept because I knew that when I stopped, somehow I had to turn that heap of muscle and gristle into meat.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland


If survivors are fortunate enough to find somewhere secure to settle down they may even try their hand at growing their own veggies. But this is a long term plan and it is a lot of work to produce enough food to live on.

 …I passed the garden. It was a mess, and I felt a stab of failure and guilt. We didn’t even finish harvesting last fall. We never pulled plants or saved seeds or mulched. We hadn’t pruned the orchard. We should have started seedlings indoors by the stock back in February. We should have planted the cold weather crops last month. We should be setting our tomato, pepper, cucumber and melon starts now.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland


Lastly you can bet that even if you aren’t yet considering what’s euphemistically known as ‘long pork’ or ‘the other other white meat’, someone out there is already eating it.


Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy


Food Safety

Finding food is one challenge. Being sure that it is safe to eat is perhaps even more important. Eating food contaminated with organisms such as salmonella or Ecoli or choosing the wrong weeds or bush foods could lead to a bout of incapacitating poisoning and for those already compromised by malnutrition, could be deadly. Improper cooking of some foods could result in parasitic infections.


In the pantry were three jars of homecanned tomatoes. He blew the dust from the lids and studied them. Someone before him had not trusted them and in the end neither did he…— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy


Wild plants can kill you, I heard my mother say as Eva poured the berries into my palm.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland


If you take the route of cannibalism you could expose yourself to prion diseases such as kuru. And if you find yourself in a zombie apocalypse make sure any people you decide to eat haven’t already been bitten because no one knows the consequences of eating tainted meat.


From The Walking Dead comics by Robert Kirkman


If you don’t have access to safe drinking water you won’t survive even if you have an abundant supply of food. But that is a whole story in itself.



When the apocalypse comes the unprepared are going to find it challenging to maintain an adequate level of nutrition. We can either turn away and deny that it will ever happen, hope we don’t live to suffer through it or join the ranks of preppers stocking their bunkers for the impending collapse. At the very least I think I’ll get myself a guide to edible weeds and bush foods. Just in case.


In the barn they scavenged a few handfuls of some grain he did not recognize out of the dusty floor of a metal hopper and stood eating it dust and all.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy


Table: Examples of important nutrients, their functions in the body, their dietary sources and the consequences of deficiencies. This is not an exhaustive list.

Nutrient Function Sources Deficiency Diseases and Symptoms
Carbohydrates Provide energy the body needs to work and support other functions. Provide up to 65% of energy needs


Wheat and grain products (such as bread and pasta), rice, sugary foods, fruit, honey, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds Lethargy, wasting, ketosis (nausea, light-headedness and fatigue)
Protein Growth, repair and manufacture of essential biologically active molecules. Also a source of energy when carbohydrates are unavailable. Provide between 10-35% of energy needs Meats, chicken, eggs, beans, nuts, lentils, fish, cheese and milk. Smaller amounts found in grains Protein energy malnutrition, weight loss, muscle wasting , impaired immune function, growth retardation in children
Fats Concentrated source of energy. Source of fat soluble vitamins. Maintain cell membranes and manufacture of some biologically active molecules, provide insulation. Meat, chicken, milk products, avocado, cooking oils and fats, cheese, fish and nuts


Lethargy, fat soluble vitamin deficiency, loss of fat stores in body
Calcium Bone and tooth strength. Proper functioning of cells throughout body, normal blood pressure Milk, cheese and dairy products. Smaller amounts in some nuts and seeds


Osteoporosis (bone loss), stunted growth in children
Sodium Fluid and electrolyte balance, nerve and muscle function Widespread in foods (especially processed foods) Muscle cramps, mental apathy, loss of appetite
Potassium Fluid balance, nerve and muscle function Milk products, fruit and vegetables, mushrooms, pulses, nuts, lean meats Increased blood pressure, kidney stones, bone loss, irregular heartbeat, muscular weakness
Phosphorous Works with calcium to promote the formation of teeth and bones. Maintains acid base balance in the body Milk and milk products, grains, nuts and legumes, lean meats


Muscular weakness, bone pain
Water soluble vitamins
Thiamine B1 Energy metabolism and nerve function Pork, whole-grain or enriched breads and cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds Beriberi, enlarged heart, cardiac failure, muscular weakness, apathy, confusion, irritability, weight loss


Riboflavin B2 Energy metabolism, normal vision and skin health Milk and milk products; leafy green vegetables; whole-grain, enriched breads and cereals Ariboflavinosis, sore throat, cracks in corners of mouth, sore tongue, skin problems
Niacin B3 Energy metabolism, nervous system, digestive system, and skin health Meat, poultry, fish, whole-grain or enriched breads and cereals, vegetables Pellagra, diarrhoea, vomiting, sore tongue, depression, apathy, fatigue, memory loss, headache
Folic acid DNA and new cell synthesis Leafy green vegetables and legumes, seeds, orange juice, and liver; most refined grains are now fortified Anaemia, confusion, weakness, fatigue, irritability, headache, shortness of breath, neural tube defects in unborn child
Vitamin C Antioxidant, protein metabolism, immune system health, aids in iron absorption Fruits and vegetables Scurvy, anaemia, bone fragility, joint pain, poor wound healing, infections, bleeding gums, loose teeth, hysteria, depression
Fat soluble vitamins
Vitamin A Vision, healthy skin and mucous membranes, bone and tooth growth, immune system health Fortified milk products, eggs, liver

The precursor beta-carotene can be found in leafy, dark green vegetables; dark orange fruits and vegetables

Infectious diseases, blindness, keratinisation
Vitamin E Antioxidant, protects cell membranes Polyunsaturated plant oils, leafy green vegetables; wheat germ, whole-grain products, liver, egg yolks, nuts and seeds Nerve damage, red blood cell damage
Iron Formation of haemoglobin to carry oxygen around the body Meat and meat products

Eggs, bread, green leafy vegetables, pulses, fruits

Anaemia, weakness, fatigue, impaired immunity, inability to regulate body temperature
Iodine Normal metabolism of cells Iodised salt, sea vegetables, yogurt, cow’s milk, eggs, and cheese, fish, plants grown in iodine-rich soil Underactive thyroid, goitre, mental and physical retardation in children
Zinc Growth, development and wound healing Fish, meat, beans


Growth retardation in children, impaired immune function, eye and skin lesions, hair loss


Facts about Neandertals

Below are some links to articles about Neanderthals that have informed my writing.

Neanderthals more advanced than previously thought: They innovated, adapted like modern humans, research shows



Talking Neanderthals challenge the origins of speech



Researchers refute idea that Neanderthals drove mammoths over cliff in Jersey



Neanderthals Had Shallow Gene Pool, Study Says


Neanderthals May Not Have Been as Inferior as Suggested


Hot Stew in the Ice Age? Evidence Shows Neanderthals Boiled Food




Cuddly Neanderthals With Parenting Skills


Neanderthals: Facts About Our Extinct Human Relatives


Humans Did Not Wipe Out the Neanderthals, New Research Suggests


Neanderthal home made of mammoth bones discovered in Ukraine


Researchers find evidence that suggests Neanderthals used feathers to adorn themselves


Hyoid bone analysis supports hypothesis of complex language in Neanderthals

New research suggests European Neandertals were almost extinct long before humans showed up


Neanderthals may have faced extinction long before modern humans emerged


Paleo diet didn’t change – the climate did


Fowl play: Neanderthals were first bird eaters (Update)


Study claims cave art made by Neanderthals