Review: Neanderthal: The Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman by Bernard Heuvelmans

In Neanderthal: The Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman, Bernard Heuvelmans introduces us to a carnival attraction with a mysterious provenance that may be even stranger than advertised.

Heuvelmans, along with friend and fellow cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson, are tipped off to an allegedly authentic “Iceman” on display at a midwestern carnival. Initially suspecting a ruse, both parties soon find themselves shocked by the apparent genuineness of the exhibit. Of course, it wouldn’t be a mystery if everything were so straightforward, and the two soon find their investigation obstructed by the attraction’s owner. His convoluted and inconsistent story telling, refusal of physical examinations, and general aversion to letting the truth see the light of day all hamper further efforts at getting to the bottom of who or what the Minnesota Iceman really was.

Despite having a first rate curiosity at its center, the book has its ups and downs. Heuvelmans is constantly on the defensive, going on repeatedly and at length about the superiority of his approach to the investigation, the closed-mindedness of his peers and the media, and every other perceived flaw which ultimately permitted the iceman to slip through the investigative cracks. The author was clearly hurt by this episode in his life, both with regard to its affect on his professional image, as well as the toll it took on some of his personal relationships (with Sanderson being the most obvious collateral damage). Regardless of the potential accuracy of his gripes though, the defensiveness of the discussion at times borders on melodrama, and eventually becomes a drag on the reader. The admonishment may have been an necessary exercise in catharsis for the author, but quickly surpasses the point where it adds meaningfully to the story.

Heuvelmans also treads too deeply into speculation. The presentation of the facts of the case (the viewing of the iceman exhibit, its movements over the span of a few years, and the activities of the owner, the investigators, and the other bit players) is only about half the full length of the text. As suggested by the title, the author comes to believe that the iceman was in fact a Neanderthal, surviving to modern day. He details, at length, his theories for specifically how such a creature could have been captured and transported to America, ultimately arriving in its final state as carnival attraction. This is followed by a full fledged argument for the general survival and continued evolution of Neanderthals as a species.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat obvious why Heuvelmans wades so deeply into conjecture: it’s another manifestation of defensiveness. He feels he must justify the sheer plausibility of the outlandish claims he’s making. He must convince the world that not only has he discovered a hominid hitherto undescribed by science, but that it is in reality a species thought to be extinct for thousands of years.

These theories are certainly interesting, and to some degree they do present the reader with an avenue to coming to terms with the more basic conclusions of the investigation. The problem with bare speculation is that it poses a double edged sword: rather than the unassailable facts of raw, scientific observation, we now have a long and contrived chain of suppositions, any or all of which are prone to being mistaken. The longer the chain gets, the more likely a weak link will invalidate the entire thing. Basing the viability of his case on the plausibility of a long and convoluted theory risks the opposite of the desired effect: discrediting the author and the more sound aspects of his research by pairing it with inaccurate guesswork. He almost simultaneously decries the closed-mindedness of his peers in the scientific community, while offering as his thesis half fact and half blatantly unprovable speculation.

In hindsight, the years have not been kind to the suggestion that the iceman was a member of the Neanderthal species. As Loren Coleman discusses in the afterwords, advances in research and technology, including DNA analysis, have only served to further diverge the standard image of Neanderthal from the traits observed in the iceman. It seems more unlikely than ever that this classification was correct, and that’s a shame, because it in no way invalidates the fantastic mystery that underlies the story. It simply serves to show how basing an argument on complex speculation can inadvertently detract from the case it was initially intended to support.

In the end, Neanderthal: The Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman is still a decent book with a highly satisfying, if frustrating, curiosity at its center. I would still highly recommend it to any armchair cryptozoologists out there, with the caveat that some chapters have definitely aged better than others.

Rating: 4/5

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