Interactive Fiction

Shanidar, Safe Return

Timeline: 40,000 years BCE. In Shanidar, Safe Return, a band of Neanderthal and their Cro-Magnon companions, Haizea, Esti, Oihana, Eneko and Uda, make an epic journey from what is now southern France to a place called Shanidar, a large cave in Iraqi Kurdistan, situated along tributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Along the way they learn that humanity is blessed by its heritage of mixing and sharing everything, including genes. Like everything – like food, shelter, and love – it’s a matter of survival. Their lion guide keeps them on the right path.

     Lion Guide, conte crayon on paper, after drawings from Chauvet Cave in France.
    From the original series of my drawings for Shanidar, Safe Return

While writing Shanidar, I did extensive research into Paleolithic Eurasia, the human species that lived there, their probable habits, foods and methods of travel, as well as their music and art. Many of the graphics are my versions of specific Paleolithic artworks, some of which I have seen in person, but most of which I have copied from the drawings of André Leroi-Gourhan’s book Gesture and Speech, and other sources including photos and drawings in works by Jean Clottes, Marjia Gimbutas, and Max Rafael. I composed the music and recorded effects for the soundtrack, as well as borrowing, with credits, sound effects and music from other sources. 

There are 138 passages to this story – you can follow it linearly, but the best way to read it is to wander through it, criss-crossing backwards and forwards until you’ve read the whole story.

Shanidar, Safe Return is speculative fiction. I’ve taken many liberties with the science in imagining the temperaments, relationships, joys, sorrows, fears, spirituality, and essential humanity of people living in the deep past.

Time Before Memory, a prehistoric tale

Time Before Memory (TBM) is an interactive story set 40,000 years ago in northern Spain and southern France during the Paleolithic Period. Visitors TBM play the story by choosing which branch of the story to explore next. Time Before Memory imagines what life was like for the people who painted the cave walls. 

The image at the top of the page is of one of the entrances to Las Monedas cave in the El Castillo cave system near Puente Viesgo in northeastern Spain. Some of the paintings  – especially images of hands – are 40,000 years old. There were Neanderthal communities in the region 40,000 years ago. But were there Homo sapiens communities there as well? We’re not sure if “anatomically modern humans” (us) were in that part of the world yet, but I’m speculating that the hands were painted by Neanderthal artists.  The site is about 15 kilometers from Altamira.

skulls representing the species homo family tree, The Museum of Natural History

Time Before Memory is about the end of human evolution, not a natural or gradual ending. Things will not have run their course, but rather we will become extinct.

There is no such thing as the Anthropocene Epoch. Let me just say that this is only a clever turn of phrase that keeps humanity at the center of earthly creation, just as Ptolemy once did by insisting that the Earth is the center of the Universe. The Holocene began as the Paleolithic ended. We are in the Holocene and this is where we shall remain. This is the epoch in which we destroy everything around us.

Let’s go back to the Paleolithic and explore the origins of our relationship to each other and to our fellow Homo Sapiens, including our sisters and brothers, the Neanderthals. Let’s look at the idea of species and the idea of territory and the idea of home. Look at the rocks, the animals, the earth. Look at settlement and look at migration. Ask yourself what has changed.

The art of 40,000 – 15,000 years ago is largely indecipherable. We can’t say for sure what the images mean, but we can make informed guesses. We look at the work and catch glimpses, for example, of how societies understood the relationship of humans to animals, and of the human-to-animal spectrum that was the foundation for survival. We may glimpse both differences and similarities in how humans and animals are depicted.

We can also study the practice itself of the artists. The materials they used are still in use – mineral pigments, ochre and charcoal, engraving and carving, foundation and depiction, outlines, shading, molding forms with strokes, coloring, abstraction, repetition, and animation. It’s the timeline of the images that contains a singular unknown message. The same type of image is drawn over the same type of image, but it is drawn a few thousand years later. The mystery is compelling and it’s through this mystery that the spiritual element emerges.

As societies developed, as people settled, land became possession, spirits became gods and we went to war over both land and gods. We started out by destroying anyone who was not ‘us.’

This is the story behind Time Before Memory. Remember, it is speculative fiction and is not science, mixing artworks, eras, human species, and real events. Play it as a game. The more choices one makes as a player, the more of the story one reveals.


Most of the background images are from photographs I took near the caves. I was not allowed to photograph inside the caves but the grounds and the cave sites themselves were rich in suggestive detail. Two images of the village of Cabrerets, which is at the foot of the Pech Merle cave system, are by Nancy Mackowsky. Other images are from the Amédéé Lemozi Museum at Pech Merle, the visitor’s center at the Monte del Castillo in Puente Viesgo, Spain, the Catalan Museum of Archaeology in Barcelona, and the Museum of Natural History in New York. A few are from UNESCO, which has provided an image of the lions panel at Chauvet under Creative Commons licensing. See the story for full credits. The software is Twine. The story is by Cecilia Dougherty.

Neanderthal reconstruction at the American Museum of Natural History, New York

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