“These are our ancestors, and their history is our history. Remember that as surely as we one day swung down out of the trees and walked upright, just as surely, on a far earlier day, did we crawl up out of the sea and achieve our first adventure on land.” — Before Adam
A young boy is plagued by dreams and nightmares of a primordial world he has never known in waking life. Once asleep, wild boars and ferocious saber-tooth cats stalk him as prey. He forages for vegetables and fruit, and sometimes also eats birds and lizards uncooked. In his dreams, he knows starvation and terror of night, fangs and claws, and yet in his dreams, the boy also knows camaraderie and altruism among those who must band together in order to survive. The boy, a city-dweller of early 20th century America, knows these savage things intimately, even though he has never seen a wild boar, nor a saber-tooth cat, nor monkeys, or how they behave in the wild.
He knows these things because the boy, when he rests his head on his pillow at night, is transported back in time to primeval Earth. There, he chatters in caves with strange looking half-human, half-ape people, and flees from ferocious lions, even before he’s old enough to have read about such animals in modern magazines.
As the unnamed narrator of Jack London’s superb speculative tale Before Adam reveals to us, he is a “freak”, a modern man with the uncanny ability to remember the life of one of his prehistoric ancestors. These ‘racial memories’, as the narrator calls them, have been ingrained in his DNA down through the ages, lying dormant until his genes, for whatever bizarre turn of events, activated them when he was brought into being. He is an atavist, as he says; an example of a recurring trait of an ancestral form due to genetic recombination.
For years, the boy was reluctant to share this personal torment with anyone. The few times he did had produced such worried reactions among adults that he felt it was better to remain quiet. Growing up, he even showed signs of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, like the time his father took him to the zoo and upon seeing the caged tigers, the boy screamed and was insensible with fear for hours afterward. It’s not until the boy grows into a young man and goes away to college does he learn the truth of his torment. In college, he learns about evolution and “racial memory” and atavism, and only then does he fully grasp the nature of his uniqueness.
During the day, he is a Modern. At night, he is Big Tooth, a primitive hominid that struggled to survive thousands of generations ago. And what a struggle it was!
Big Tooth is a member of what the narrator calls the Cave People, early hominids who had come down from the trees to live in caves. On the cusp of intelligence, there are faint glimpses of budding human traits among the Cave People. There is a sense of community, a sense of humor, of altruism, but also savagery and tyranny. There are also the Tree People, the beings more monkey than man who have yet to progress on the evolutionary scale. And there are the Fire People, feared by both Cave and Tree People, who are the ancestors of modern humans and who hunt both species for food and land.
As Jack London spins this incredible tale, serialized in 1907-1909, we watch Big Tooth as he falls in love with a fellow hominid named the Swift One, befriends a fellow orphan/outcast called Lop-Ear, stands up to the vicious and tyrannical Red-Eye, and how their home among the caves is under threat by the expansion of the Fire People.
Though Jack London is best known for his naturalistic masterpieces, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, I daresay that Before Adam is quite close to being a masterpiece as well. Throughout the entire story I was enthralled as the life of our primitive ancestors was revealed in all its brutal, unforgiving and yet compassionate struggle. There’s no candy-coating here. The main character, Big Tooth, is a tormentor as well as a compassionate person. Life was harsh and life spans short. There was no mercy, no room for error, and no do-overs. For our ancestors, life was lived purely in the moment. As Jack London captures one memorable scene, a moment of outrage and growing unity to overthrow the tyrannical Red-Eye is quickly replaced by an urge to dance and make merry. These hominids did not have the minds of us Moderns. Instead, they had glimpses of what we would call the forerunners of human thought and emotion. Jack London depicts this superbly.
Jack London would know. The man was a true adventurer. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in poverty and mostly self-educated. When he was old enough, he made a living for a while as an “oyster pirate”. Later he became a seal hunter off the coast of Japan, before spending time after the economic crash of 1893 as a vagrant. He joined the Klondike Gold Rush where he gained inspiration for The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Afterward, after fame and fortune had come to him, he became a war correspondent. Tragically, he died at the age of 40, but only after cementing his name in the pantheon of great American writers.
Before Adam is a prime example of why Jack London’s name is still among the finest of authors.
If you’ve ever gazed up at the stars while huddling over a camp-fire surrounded by forest, and found yourself wondering what it must have been like hundreds of thousands of years ago, Before Adam is the best glimpse into that unknowable past you will probably ever get. It’s a thrilling, heart-warming, fascinating tale. And those primordial memories lie dormant in all of us.