Readers have been captivated by stories of prehistoric humans for eons — well, at least since Jean Auel’s phenomenal 1980 best seller The Clan of the Cave Bear. Claire Cameron’s arresting new novel The Last Neanderthal investigates the same time period with significantly more literary skill.

“If you happened on one in the woods — say, a female named Girl with a shock of red hair — it would not be by accident,” Cameron writes. “She would have sensed you coming long before, felt curious about another upright primate, and allowed you to approach.”

The opening section of The Last Neanderthal (Little, Brown, 272 pp., *** out of four stars) imagines this theoretical moment of connection between two species, one long extinct.

The story then follows Girl and her family group — Big Mother, Him and Runt — as they struggle to survive in a world that has changed without their knowing it. Weakened by illness and a bad winter, the family prepares to make a difficult trek to the place of “the fish run,” where other groups gather annually to find mates and food. But a sudden death forces Girl and Runt into the rocky forest terrain on their own, to search in vain for others. Why has everyone disappeared?

Cameron interweaves the story of Girl’s gripping quest with sections set in present-day France, where archaeologist Rosamund Gale has discovered a game-changing pair of ancient skeletons that appear to be the remains of a Neanderthal and a modern human (homo sapiens) entwined in an embrace. This narrative structure, reminiscent of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, allows the author to explore both sides of the timeline: researchers tracking clues to learn about a vanished people as well as the adventures of those living in the earlier epoch.

The back-and-forth rhythm, first Girl’s story and then…