There’s no confusing Ludovic Slimak for just another hotel guest. It’s a sweltering Sunday afternoon in late August and we’ve arranged to meet in the car park of a guesthouse on the outskirts of Montélimar, southeastern France. The lawn sprinklers are in full swing; a couple of kids play in the fenced-off poolside area. Hiding from the heat in my rental car, I’d been concerned we’d struggle to find each other: Slimak’s email and WhatsApp communication until now have been at best irregular; the phone signal is patchy in this rural French corner. As soon as he pulls up in a dust-covered Volkswagen minivan, however, I realise there’d been no need to worry. Amid the trickle of blissed-out holidaymakers, Slimak seriously sticks out: he has wild, long hair and an overgrown, grey-flecked beard; there’s dirt deep beneath his fingernails. It’s 43C, according to the screen on my dashboard. In shorts and a T-shirt, I’m sweating. Meanwhile, the man now waving in my direction is dressed in a herringbone waistcoat, stained linen trousers, denim shirt and Indiana Jones panama hat. There’s no need for introductions to confirm he’s the man I’m here to visit. Ludovic Slimak looks a picture-perfect archeological adventurer; a self-described Neanderthal hunter.
He suggests we drive in convoy to our final destination, the Grotte Mandrin, a hillside cave hidden deep in Rhône Valley woodland. “It’s almost impossible to find the place unless you’ve been there many times,” Slimak explains in fluent English with a French accent. “And it’s better that way: we don’t want any random people to – accidentally or otherwise – come across all the treasures we’re finding.” One of the world’s leading experts on Neanderthals, Slimak has spent decades travelling across continents in search of insights into this mysterious, extinct prehistoric species. Just a short drive away, he assures me, is one the most significant archaeological sites he’s ever spent time working at. “I started digging there 33 years ago,” he says, “and for the past 20 years I’ve spent a lot of time in this cave, trying to understand Neanderthals better. It’s here we’re making discoveries that are radically reshaping our understanding of the history of both Neanderthals and humans, too.” His book, The Naked Neanderthal, is the result of this research. In 2022, it was published in France to great acclaim. Now, it’s been translated into English. That’s why I’m here.
For 15 minutes, we drive in convoy further into the countryside. From a deserted road, we turn on to an unassuming dirt track. I park up, as instructed, and get into his VW. We make a bumpy climb a few hundred metres uphill, before we jump out. I follow him down an overgrown footpath I’d never have noticed. “This cave can be seen for miles around,” Slimak says, a few steps in front of me. “Locally, it’s known as ‘The rock of the guide’. The oldest occupation here, we think, is at least 115,000 years ago. We know there were 500 phases of occupation in this cave. It’s a hyper-strategic location.”
Sandwiched between Marseille and Lyon, it feels as if we’re in the middle of nowhere, save the regular rumble of high-speed trains a hundred or so metres below. “The national highway and railway lines here represent 70% of European movement along the north/south axis: a path through the mountains. It’s why this has historically been very significant.” We turn a final corner. Ahead of us, an archaeological dig is in full swing. Slimak guides me to the top of the cave area, where we sit and observe. Seven or eight experts are at work: brushing, noting, photographing, sorting. His wife – fellow Neanderthal-expert Sonia Harmand – is one of those present. Their two sons, nine and six, are back at the 12th-century castle they rent while on site. Others here are PhD students and researchers drawn to the dig from all over.
“By all accounts,” Slimak says, “as a species, Neanderthals are our closest relatives. And we have parallel histories; common ancestors, I believe, between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. But then there’s a great divergence.” A separation of the two creatures. “Home Sapiens – our ancestors – were mostly in Africa, although we can see early traces of them in the Near East and Eurasia. There’s an anomaly, however, with Europe, where we believe Sapiens didn’t really travel to, home to the largest Neanderthal populations.” The first Neanderthal skull was discovered in a Belgian cave in 1829; the first bones were found near Düsseldorf in the 1850s. For millennia, these creatures coexisted on the planet in different places. “More recently,” Slimak continues, “we have started to discover there were, in fact, moments where these species met. And here in this very cave, we’ve made an exciting new discovery.”
At the age of four, Slimak was asked by his father what he’d like to do when he grew up. “I said I wanted to make holes in the ground to find old things. I didn’t know it was a job, until he told me about archaeology.” He’s been at it ever since. Slimak was born in 1953; his father was a forester. His early years were spent surrounded by trees, as the family moved across France. “My grandfather lived in the Pyrenees. He was born in 1918, but really, he was a man from the 19th century. I spent so much time with him that I also feel like a man from another era, lost in the modern world.”
By 10, Slimak had talked his way into various archeological digs he’d come across near their home. At 14, he was already something of an expert. “By 18, I was working on a dig here in the Rhône Valley, at a Neanderthal site maybe 70km north.” These Neanderthals were cannibals. “From then on, I knew I wanted to dedicate my entire life to these creatures.” At first, university didn’t feel a fit for this born outdoor explorer. In his 20s, he realised a degree would help him carve out a career, so enrolled in a course at Aix-Marseille University. To help pay his way, Slimak learned to play the bagpipes after writing to Glasgow’s College of Piping, and through busking and playing in Marseille’s premier late-90s Celtic band earned enough to keep his research afloat. In 2004, he completed his PhD and was soon recruited by Stanford University, before being hired by France’s prestigious Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he’s worked ever since.
His Neanderthal hunting has seen him direct digs everywhere from the Horn of Africa to the Arctic Circle. “It’s an exploration,” he says. “On this planet now, there is no longer any exploring to do horizontally in space, but there’s so much to do in time. Neanderthals offer a huge unknown; still, it’s the greatest exploration.”
What happened to the Neanderthals – their extinction – is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries. About 40,000 years ago, they vanished. It’s a topic that has consumed both academic research and fiction. Much effort has been spent trying to ascertain what led to their demise. But the way Slimak sees it, this might no longer be the most prescient question. “Normally, archaeologists find that if Sapiens come into Neanderthal territory, that’s the end of the Neanderthals. But here we’ve made a unique discovery.” He jumps down in the dig itself, pointing between various layers of rock and sediment. “We are finding thousands of things at every level: this is a flint, a flint, a flint, a bone, a flint, tooth, flint, rib…” The team here can date every bone, tool or rock they discover while digging. “Neanderthals first occupied this site more than 100,00 years ago. Then, we now know that 54,000 years ago, the first Homo Sapiens lived here. After that, there were at least five further phases of Neanderthal inhabitants over a 12,000 year period.”
It sounds complex, but Slimak is keen to make clear the takeaway is short and simple. “Finding Homo Sapiens sandwiched between Neanderthal occupants in these caves? It totally reshapes our understanding of our origins and rewrites what we’ve believed previously. If both species brushed up against each other over this long period of time, far more important than what happened to Neanderthals, we should be asking: what did these two species do together? Did they communicate? And most importantly, how did they interact? Because Neanderthals experienced and existed in the world differently to our ancestors. Not just by culture, but by their very nature.”
He points to the way prehistoric Homo Sapien and Neanderthal crafts are vastly different. “We might not know much about Neanderthals,” he goes on, “but through what they created, we can see something incredible. When you take Home Sapien tools made of flint, spanning tens of thousands of years, in different parts of the world, they’re always the same. Standardised. It can’t be cultural.” There was likely little contact between these different settlements. “There’s something innate within the behaviour of Homo Sapiens – within our behaviour – to act and think in a certain way. It’s in our nature.” Neanderthal crafts, though, don’t share this pattern of standardisation. “Look carefully at Neanderthal tools and weapons. They’re all unique. Study thousands and you’ll find each is completely different. My colleagues never realised that. But when I did, I saw there was a deep divergence in the way Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals each understand the world.”
Historically, he believes humanity has had a problem. “To truly understand something, you need to be able to compare it to something else. But us as Sapiens? We’ve never had a species to compare ourselves to.” Yes, there are other animals: great apes, chimps, gorillas. “But we diverged from these creatures maybe 10m years ago. Of course, compared to a gorilla we have more creativity and skills. It gives us a certain image of ourselves– one of superiority. But what happens if we compare ourselves to something far closer – something far more like humanity, although different, that only disappeared 40,000 years ago?” Imagine, he suggests, how differently we’d see ourselves if confronted by hyper-intelligent aliens.
Slimak feels this comparison can and should be made with Neanderthals. “Their tools and weapons are more unique than ours. As creatures, they were far more creative than us. Sapiens are efficient. Collective. We think the same, and don’t like divergence. And I don’t just mean western culture. Go to any Aboriginal society: there are clear rules and customs, and shared styles of clothing. Expectation to act in a certain manner; to follow regulations.” Our ancestors, he says, lived like this instinctively. “You don’t see that with Neanderthals.” By seeing Neanderthals as a reference point against which we can measure ourselves, Slimak reckons humanity is offered a gift: “We have an opportunity to look in a mirror and see ourselves for what we truly are. To help us redefine, which we must do urgently.”
The way he sees it, this isn’t just an interesting philosophical theory. “Neanderthals vanished, I think, because of high human efficiency. And this efficiency now threatens to destroy us, too. That’s what’s killing the planet’s biodiversity.” For Slimak, The Naked Neanderthal isn’t a history book. “It’s about us in the present. Urging humanity to see itself for what it is by comparing us to something else, in the hope of changing the course of our future. Because by understanding our nature – and the risk this efficiency poses – we can save ourselves from a similar fate.” Over millennia, humankind has also developed an advanced, impressive technology and culture, of a type Neanderthals could never have imagined. “So while there is something dangerous in our nature, as a collective we can control and reshape it. Understanding this is the key to humanity’s future. Because if we don’t think carefully, next time it won’t be Neanderthals that our efficiency destroys, it’ll be humankind itself that’s the victim.”
The Naked Neanderthal is out on 21 September (£20, Allen Lane). Buy it for £17.60 at guardianbookshop.com