Book Review: Moctu and the Mammoth People by Neil Bockoven

Waldorf Publishing, 2019

3.5 Stars

Perhaps one of the most fascinating periods in human history is its earliest days. A better word may be ‘mysterious,’ because we know so little about how and where our species emerged. Fortunately, we are learning more and more every day thanks to the diligent work of contemporary paleo-anthropologists. Many of our assumptions about the deep past have had to be revised. Perhaps one of the most the recent and impactful discoveries (or, rather, fresh consensus) is that our imagining of Neanderthals must be revised. Gone are the lumbering oafs, the cartoonish Ice Age caveman. Instead, what we know now is this species of human was more similar to ourselves than we had previously guess and that modern humans (you & I) have most likely some genetic heritage from them.

To truly wrap our minds around this change to our conceptions, we need a new narrative–a story giving us more than mere facts and details, one that attempts to capture the emotions of our early ancestors. Here is where Neil Bockoven’s novel Moctu and the Mammoth People comes in as it gives us a plausible glimpse into the everyday life of not just our direct human ancestors but those now extinct other human species.

It’s difficult to imagine a world filled with other species of humans. In fact, I doubt many of us can truly wrap our minds around the idea without falling into socially constructed concepts like race. But the fact is, for a geologically brief period of time, Early Modern Humans (ourselves), Neanderthals, and a human species called Denisovans all lived concurrently and not only knew of each other’s existence but may have interbred. Bockoven’s novel asks what ‘first contact’ between the cultures of Early Modern Humans and Neanderthals may have looked like nearly 50,000 years ago in what is now northern Italy.

Having done a good deal of research based on how Early Modern Humans and Neanderthals lived–how they constructed their settlements, how the built their tools, and how they may have set up their social order–Bockoven deftly creates a Coming of Age story. Moctu is a teenage boy who has come into manhood with his tribe. On a hunting party excursion, Moctu comes face-to-face with a rival hunting party made up of the mysterious Pale Ones (Neanderthals) whose language, custom, and even physical appearance is different enough from his own to be unnervingly foreign. For the first half of the novel, the Pale Ones (also called People eaters) exist as a sort of bogeyman, a shadow the tribe doesn’t understand nor wants to. In fact, the initial reaction of most of Moctu’s tribe is violence rooted in fear.

This sets the tension of the novel. Throughout there are two personalities vying for control of this story–Moctu and his rival Jabil. A hateful and aggressive boy, Jabil goes down a dark path early in the story and along the way makes sure to bring his and Moctu’s tribe with him. Jabil is vicious, insecure and hateful, while also being a highly skilled hunter and deft proto-politician. Moctu is not only his immediate rival but the individual Jabil focuses all his rage upon making life for Moctu and his loved ones a trail.

There is a constant internal war within the tribe between Moctu and Jabil. It is one Jabil eventually wins when he takes over as tribal leader after secretly murdering elders and blaming the Pale Ones. Once in this position of power, Jabil sends Moctu off on a ritual hunting trip certain he will die in the wild. Moctu nearly does but is saved when he is discovered unconscious by the Pale Ones. Awakening in a strange new land surrounded by strange people, Moctu is guarded but weak. As he gains strength, he discovers just who these new people are and in doing so slowly becomes one of them. As the bridge between the two peoples, Moctu learns of Jabil’s crime and dedicates himself to bringing down the murder. To do so, he must not only confront Jabil and win, he must show his former tribe that the Pale Ones are not their enemies.

Bockoven gives readers easily digestible chapters whose prose moves fluidly from a character’s internal struggle to their involvement in the external action. We understand each character’s motivations, their fear, anger, hatred, joy, hope, and desires. Mixed with Bockoven’s knack for showing how these ancient humans went about their days, readers are given a full blooded, believable, and compelling depiction of what life must have been like for Early Modern Humans and Neanderthals. And while the story takes place nearly 50,000 years ago, at no point to readers feel disconnected from the story–it is one we have known for just as long if not longer. Moctu and the Mammoth People is an excellent blend of science and storytelling.


About the Author


Neil Bockoven is an award-winning PhD geologist and journalist with 35 years of experience in industry. He has been featured in: Geological Society of America Bulletin, Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, Virginia Journal of Science and many other scientific journals. He is a repeat guest on some of the largest radio talk shows in the country, where he’s discussed a variety of science-based subjects as well as his books. Neil is a member of the Archaeological Institute of America, the Archaeological Conservancy, and is an Impact Member of the Center for Study of the First Americans. 
Neil worked as a geologist for Exxon/ExxonMobil in Denver, Midland, Houston, New Orleans and Albuquerque. He coordinated dozens of joint ventures with oil and gas companies, including rights to the entire King Ranch in Texas. 

Neil attended The College of William and Mary, where he was a member of the state champion swim team, and received a Bachelor of Arts. He went on to The University of Texas at Austin, earning a masters and doctorate. He has published articles on topics as diverse as the geology of huge volcanic calderas of the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of Mexico to sexual dimorphism in Astarte clams. 

His current interests center on the interaction between Early Modern Humans and Neanderthals during the Paleolithic Age, and the amazing related discoveries being made through archaeology and genetics. In addition to Moctu and the Mammoth People, Neil has also published a related children’s book titled When We Met Neanderthals.

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