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Last Updated on November 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909

The Inheritors by William Golding follows a small band of Neanderthals—known as “the people”—as they attempt to travel to a forest to spend the summer there. The people have clearly spent past summers there, so they know where to find shelter and collect food. The group lives day-to-day, scavenging for food but not actively hunting animals, as they view animals as being on an equal plane with humans. Instead, they seek meat from animals that have already been slaughtered, if they eat meat at all.

The band is made up of eight people, including Lok—an adult man and the narrator of the novel—and an unnamed older woman, who may be Lok’s mother. The older woman is entrusted with carrying a sacred flame from place to place for the people. Although the people are not capable of producing fire, they understand its importance and significance, and so entrust its care to an elder. Ha, another adult man, is also among the band’s members, along with Mal, an elder and the repository of the clan’s knowledge and lore. Fa and Nil are two adult woman characters in the story, and children in the band include a young girl named Liku and Nil’s infant child.

The people, who are incapable of fashioning or utilizing tools, are unable to reason in a sophisticated manner, though they are able to communicate with each other on a basic level. They have also devised ways to learn and use pictures to exchange information without language. In addition to these rudimentary skills, they seem to have a semblance of social structure, including a basic understanding of a higher power.

As the people arrive in the forest and prepare to ford a stream to reach their destination, they discover that the log that spans the water, which they normally use to cross the river, is missing. The clan members are unable to understand what has happened or how the problem might be remedied. Mal finally determines that they must find a replacement log and use that instead. Once they have positioned the log and are crossing, Mal falls into the river. He is rescued, but because he is elderly and the water is very cold, he soon becomes ill. Mal is transported to a secluded cave where he can be cared for as his health declines. When Mal passes away, one of the women offers a simple prayer to an entity referred to as Oa, who is an earth goddess, perhaps related to fertility. The other members of the clan take part in a burial ritual for Mal.

The central conflict of the tale involves the arrival of the “new people,” Homo sapiens, whose appearance spells doom for the Neanderthals. Because these new people have the ability to plan ahead and think abstractly, they are much better equipped to survive. For instance, the new people understand that it is crucial to gather and store food when the opportunity presents itself; the Neanderthals simply do not possess the intellectual ability to think beyond their present needs. Instead, they focus only on daily needs, making them susceptible to severe hunger when food is scarce.

The Neanderthals find the Homo sapiens’ language, scent, method of travel, and weaponry mind-boggling. In fact, the mere fact that the new people exist at all is staggering, as the Neanderthals believed they were the only non-animal beings alive. In addition to the new people’s more advanced reasoning skills, they also have access to technology with which the Neanderthals simply cannot compete. The Neanderthals are warily intrigued by the Homo sapiens and gamely try to keep pace with them, but are simply unable to do so without the sophisticated brains that the new beings possess. Since the Neanderthals have no real concept of war or strife, they also do not immediately comprehend how vulnerable they are.

The Homo sapiens, for their part, are intrigued, though they recognize the Neanderthals as weaker and easily dominated. When Liku meets a young Homo sapiens girl named Tanakil, they take an instant liking to each other. Tanakil is friendly toward Liku, and Liku reciprocates, but when Tanakil tries to lure Liku near the water to show her the canoes, Liku’s fear of water holds her back. Tanakil doesn’t understand Liku’s reluctance and becomes frustrated with her, beating Liku until she howls in fear. This is only one instance in which the Homo sapiens attempt to dominate the Neanderthals.

Because the Neanderthals are so naive and unprotected, the situation devolves; before long, the Homo sapiens murder the Neanderthal elders and kidnap the children. Some of the old people, like Ha, simply vanish, only to be found dead later. Only two Neanderthals, Lok and Fa, survive, and they attempt to free the Neanderthal children from the thieves. Fa is killed, and Lok understands that he is completely alone and that his predicament is hopeless. The grief-stricken Lok dies near the end of the story, devastated by incomprehensible loss.

Once all of the Neanderthals (save one infant) die, the novel shifts to the perspective of the Homo sapiens—in particular, a man called Tuami. Tuami is a member of a large clan, but he is planning to murder Marlan, the chief and shaman of his group, in order to assert his power and take control. The new people—for better or for worse—have become the true inheritors of the land.

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