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Zijian Yan’s Sloan Foundation-supported short film, Cain, imagines the meeting of Neanderthals and early humans. The movie, which recently premiered at the Columbia University Film Festival in New York, makes use of evolved scientific understanding that believes Neanderthals were more than cave-dwelling clods. It is, in essence, a classic alien story, two cultures clashing as they interact for the first time. As Yan says, “Something like Lord of the Rings, where you have elves and dwarves and humans…That actually existed—right here—and I thought people should know that.”

Below are edited excerpts from Sloan Science and Film’s conversation with Mr. Yan.

SSF: What inspired you to make a film about Neanderthals?
ZY: I think two things kind of blew my mind. One was that, in my totally simpleton understanding of evolution before, I thought Neanderthals were predecessors of homo sapiens. I thought we came from them. I had no idea they were actually a separate species that coexisted with them. In addition to that, I didn’t realize that they were possibly very intelligent, and maybe as intelligent as we were. It boggled my mind that they didn’t exist anymore, that they went extinct, and I wondered, why was that? What separated us from Neanderthals? Why did we luck out?

SSF: What kind of research did you have to do to feel comfortable with your subject matter?
ZY: My film is a narrative short; it’s an adventure film, basically. We had to kind of create the world ourselves; “we” meaning me and the other department heads (the makeup team, the production design team, costume team). We asked around but we really had nothing to base our visuals on except museum recreations. Scientists we had spoken with gave us big disclaimers like, ‘We have no idea.’ For every scientist that said, ‘Yes, Neanderthals probably had fully developed language’ there’d be others that said, ‘Yeah, they probably didn’t.’
The nature of archeology is that we only find fossilized bones and stone tools, but everything else has decayed. So we have no idea what the soft materials were for things they had like clothing. We don’t know if it was carefully sewn; you have to really speculate on all of that. But the biggest concern for us was makeup. We wanted to make sure the Neanderthals were as accurate as we could get them.
We talked to a professor at Columbia. He’s a professor in the anthropology department but he’s a professor of evolutionary biology; his name is Ralph Holloway. He has this amazing display of skulls in his his lab. He specializes in making endocastings. Basically he takes fragments of a Neanderthal skull, or any prehistoric human skull, and he puts a clay putty on the inside of the skull to create the imprint of what the brain may have looked like. It’s cool, because once you get the imprint of the brain you know what the folds of the brain were and you can compare that to a human brain. There’s this one fold called Broca’s area, which is central to language. When people suffer trauma to that area they lose the ability to form words or whatnot. But Neanderthals also had that fold in their brains.
It’s not like they were these hunched over, grunting cavemen. It’s possible they had fully developed language, which is crazy.

SSF: Do you feel like you had to re-educate yourself on the science to get a feel for what you were doing? How difficult was it for you to interact with that world?
ZY: I come from a more artistic background, so I did have to sort of dig in. But I’m a bit of a nerd as well, so I loved doing all the research. I think the most important thing was, we were given a grant by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, so I felt a responsibility to make sure this was not just some weird sci-fi film I was making with their money. I had to make something that’s potentially true, as much as I could within the framework of something narrative and fun. So to answer your question, the goal was to find the most exciting story that was viable based on what we know. I took the most dramatic possibility, that yes, Neanderthals could speak language, and maybe they did come face-to-face with pre-historic humans, and then tried to create a story.

SSF: So many scientists I’ve spoken with were inspired to start their careers by science fiction. Do you think that there is an extra responsibility among people who work in science fiction, or do you think you shouldn’t restrict yourself artistically?
ZY: I don’t think it’s a filmmaker’s responsibility, but I think it comes out naturally if someone is in tune with the times, that whatever a society is fearing or concerned about will come out through the art that society makes.

SSF: Did you feel you were taking liberties that were necessary to tell your story, or did you feel pretty solid about your decisions by the end?
ZY: I felt pretty solid knowing that Neanderthals could have been just as human as we were. I felt confident that I didn’t have to dumb down the emotional range of the characters. Whatever they felt as a human being, the actors could act out. Whenever there was a fork in the road, when some scientists said yes but some scientists said no, I generally took the yes route. For example, there are bow and arrows in the movie. Some people say there were no bows and arrows yet, others say yes because they’ve found arrow heads from that era, so I took the yes option because it worked better dramatically.

SSF: The human characters are portrayed by black actors and the Neanderthals by white ones. Is there a historical basis for that?
ZY: I don’t think I would have chosen that just on a whim! There’s a lot of consensus that Neanderthals had lighter skin. They contain genes in their DNA that point toward lighter skin. It’s because they were living in the Northern hemisphere, where generally different types of humans had developed lighter skin to soak in more sunlight, because you get less sun the farther you get from the equator. Human beings, who were still in Africa, generally had darker skin and migrated into Europe and Asia.

SSF: What are the languages that the actors are speaking based on?
ZY: This is one place where I took an artistic liberty. Some scientists say that Neanderthals actually had very high-pitched voices. Because of their skeleton structure, it compressed vocal cords. But I felt like people would laugh at the movie, so I had the actors use their normal voices.
With the language, I wanted to make a clear distinction between the two species, yet I wanted them to feel like actual developed languages. And here’s where scientists really don’t know anything about what language it was. I asked the actors to listen to some guttural languages for the Neanderthals—I picked Mongolian, which had a really interesting sound—and for the humans, I picked some languages from the Baltics. I tried to pick languages that, at least to American culture, wouldn’t be immediately recognizable. I wanted the Neanderthals to sound more guttural, which is playing around with a trope, and I wanted the humans to sound a little more staccato.

SSF: Did making this film change the way you think about science in popular culture?
ZY: I always loved science before making movies, and I was really happy to get to combine the two, really. It’s easy to think of them as separate but so much of art is just filling in the gaps of science. Science provides the facts or starting point—‘Look at this thing we found, we know this one thing’—and artists can look at that and dream of what it could mean. Imagine finding that one fact, like, ‘Oh my God, Neanderthals had this fold in their brain,’ and thinking, ‘Wow, what if they sang songs to each other with words?’ and you begin to imagine them around a fire.

SSF: It’s interesting to think of science fiction set in the past. Do you consider this a science fiction movie?
ZY: On the surface it’s an adventure movie, but at its core it’s a science fiction film, as it is based on science. It struck me that alien movies—E.T. and Alien and whatever—are about finding someone else out there. We live in such an empty universe. We’re this little oasis, this little island of Earth, and we’ve seen nothing else, forever. And so we make so many stories about, ‘Oh man, what if we found someone out there, some other intelligent life?’ And you see all these stories on Facebook, ‘Did you know dogs are super smart?’ or chimpanzees, etc. It’s like we wish animals were actually smarter than they are so we had more company. It seems in science fiction there’s an urge to find other intelligent species, and it struck me that those were here.

SSF: Is there anything you learned about Neanderthals that stood out to you besides the language capability?
ZY: It’s not in the film but there’s this book called The Singing Neanderthals that argues that Neanderthals might have been musical. That was fascinating to me, the idea that they might have had a sense of culture, even though there are many fewer remnants of art from them. That really struck me. There’s art featured in the film, paintings and things like that. The oldest art we have—in caves in France and Spain—people have always thought those were done by prehistoric humans. I wondered if Neanderthals started doing that as well. Maybe not, maybe it’s just us, which is also fascinating and goes back to that question: why did we survive when all these other types of humans did not? What made us different? We all had similar stone tools, we all ate the same food. The only difference is that we had art.