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How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans
By Brian Fagan
Copyright © 2010 Brian Fagan
All right reserved.
Preface Four dots move along a riverbank in a black and gray Ice Age landscape of forty thousand years ago, the only signs of life on a cold, late-autumn day. Dense morning mist swirls gently over the slow-moving water, stirring fitfully in an icy breeze. Pine trees crowd the riverbank, close to a large clearing where aurochs and bison paw through the snow for fodder. The fur-clad Cro-Magnon family moves slowly—a hunter with a handful of spears, his wife carrying a leather bag of dried meat, a son and a daughter. The five-year-old boy dashes to and fro brandishing a small spear. His older sister stays by her mother, also carrying a skin bag. A sudden gust lifts the clinging gloom on the far side of the stream. Suddenly, the boy shouts and points, then runs in terror to his mother. The children burst into tears and cling to her. A weathered, hirsute face with heavy brows stares out quietly from the undergrowth on the other bank. Expressionless, yet watchful, its Neanderthal owner stands motionless, seemingly oblivious to the cold. The father looks across, waves his spear, and shrugs. The face vanishes as silently as it appeared.
As light snow falls, the family resumes its journey, the father always watchful, eyes never still. During the climb to the rock shelter, he tells his children about their elusive, quiet neighbors, rarely seen and almost never encountered face-to-face. There were more of them in his father's and grandfather's day, when he saw them for the first time. Now sightings are unusual, especially in the cold months. They are people different from us, he explains. They do not speak like we do; we cannot understand them, but they never do us any harm. We just ignore them ...
Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals: this most classic of historical confrontations, sometimes couched in terms of brutish savagery versus human sophistication, has fascinated archaeologists for generations. On the one side stand primordial humans, endowed with great strength and courage, possessed of the simplest of clothing and weaponry. We speculate that they were incapable of fully articulate speech and had relatively limited intellectual powers. On the other are the Cro-Magnons, the first anatomically modern Europeans, with fully modern brains and linguistic abilities, a penchant for innovation, and all the impressive cognitive skills of Homo sapiens. They harvested game large and small effortlessly with highly efficient weapons and enjoyed a complex, refined relationship with their environment, their prey, and the forces of the supernatural world. We know that the confrontation ended with the extinction of the Neanderthals, perhaps about thirty thousand years ago. But how it unfolded remains one of the most challenging and intriguing of all Ice Age mysteries.
The Neanderthals appeared on the academic stage with the discovery of the browridged skull of what seemed to be a primitive human in Germany's Neander Valley in 1856. Seven years later, Thomas Henry Huxley's brilliant study of the cranium in his Man's Place in Nature compared the Neanderthal fossil with the skulls of humankind's primate relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas. The thought of a human ancestry among the apes horrified many Victorians. Public opinion carved out a vast chasm between archaic humanity, epitomized by the Neander Valley skull, and the modern humans discovered in the Cro-Magnon rock shelter at Les Eyzies, in southwestern France, in 1868. The Neanderthals became primitive cave people armed with clubs, dragging their mates around by their long hair. Unfortunately, the stereo type persists to this day.
Cutting-edge science paints a very different portrait of the Neanderthals. They were strong, agile people who thrived in a harsh, often extremely cold Europe, from the shores of the Atlantic deep into Eurasia, from the edges of the steppe to warmer, drier environments in the Near East. Neanderthal hunters stalked large, dangerous animals like bison, then killed them with heavy thrusting spears. They didn't have the luxury of standing off at a distance and launching light spears at their prey. But, for all their strength and skill, they were no matches for the Cro-Magnon newcomers, who, science tells us, spread rapidly across Europe around forty-five thousand years ago. Their hunting territories were small; they were thin on the ground; the routine of their lives changed infinitesimally from one year to the next.
When they arrived in their new homeland, the Cro-Magnons were us, members of a species with a completely unprecedented relationship with the world around them. Every Cro-Magnon family, every band, was drenched in symbolism, expressed in numerous ways. Well before thirty thousand years ago, Cro-Magnons were creating engravings and paintings on the walls of caves and rock shelters. They crafted subtle and beautiful carvings on bone and antler and kept records by incising intricate notations on bone plaques. We know that they used bone flutes at least thirty-five thousand years ago, and if they did this, they surely sang and danced in deep caves by firelight on winter evenings and at summer gatherings. Cro-Magnons ornamented their bodies and buried their dead with elaborate grave goods for use in an afterlife. No one doubts that Cro-Magnon symbolic expression somehow reflects their notion of their place in the natural world. But their perceived relationship to nature was poles apart from our own—they were hunter-gatherers and lived in a world that was unimaginably different from today's Europe. And their perceptions of the world, of existence, were radically different from, and infinitely more sophisticated than, those of the Neanderthals.
Cro-Magnon briefly explores the ancestry of the Neanderthals and the world in which they lived, then tries to answer the question of questions: What did happen when Cro-Magnon confronted Neanderthal? Did the moderns slaughter the primordial humans on sight, or did they simply annex prime hunting territories and push their ancient occupants onto marginal lands, where they slowly perished? Or did the superior mental abilities, hunting weapons, and other artifacts of the Cro-Magnons give them the decisive advantage in an increasingly cold late Ice Age world? Do we know what kinds of contacts took place between Neanderthal and newcomer? Did the two populations intermarry occasionally, trade with one another, even borrow hunting methods, technologies, and ideas from each other?
The answers to these questions revolve as much around the Cro-Magnons as they do the Neanderthals. Despite a century and a half of increasingly sophisticated research, the first modern inhabitants of Europe remain a shadowy presence, defined more by their remarkable art traditions and thousands of stone artifacts than by the nature of their lives as hunters and foragers, defined by the Ice Age world in which they flourished. Cro-Magnon paints a portrait of these remarkable people fashioned on a far wider canvas than that of artifacts and cave paintings.
I decided to write this book in the galleries of the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies, the small village in France's Vézère Valley that prides itself on being the "capital of prehistory." The upper gallery is a quiet place nestled against the great cliff that houses the huge Cro-Magnon rock shelters that once flourished nearby. I gazed at the rows of flint, bone, and antler tools against one long wall, neatly laid out in series, each with its correct archaeological labels and subdivisions. The history of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons unfolded like an orderly ladder of artifacts, ever smaller, ever more refined over time. I stared, confused, despite having had formal training in these very tool kits many years ago. Minute variations in one scraper form compared with another; small chisels with different working edges; antler and bone points that once armed lethal spears: the display seemed endless. After a few minutes, I realized that the casual viewer would learn almost nothing about the anonymous makers of these museum-perfect objects beyond the fact that they were able to make artifacts of all kinds. Many questions remained unanswered. Who were the Cro-Magnons? Where did they come from? How did they survive the dramatic changes of the late Ice Age climate tens of thousands of years ago? And how did they behave toward the beetle-browed Neanderthals who were living along the Vézère River when they arrived? The museum displays commemorated a past peopled not by human beings but by artifacts. For all intents and purposes, a rich and vibrant history of some of our remote forebears was dead to all but a small handful of specialists.
Everyone has heard of the artistic glories of Lascaux and Altamira, Font-de-Gaume, and Grotte de Chauvet. Books on Cro-Magnon art of all kinds abound, many of them illustrated with magnificent color pictures of carved antlers, woolly rhinoceroses, aurochs, and Ice Age bison. The authors write of gifted artists, speculate about the motives for the engravings and paintings, sometimes imagine shamans with supernatural powers conducting ceremonies far from daylight. Beyond this, if the people of the period are mentioned at all, it is as big-game hunters pitting themselves against a formidable bestiary. Few of these volumes explore the most fascinating questions about the first modern Europeans—the complex dynamics of their societies, the ancient rhythms of their annual round. And few of them examine the most fundamental questions of ancestry and cognitive skills. Art defines the Cro-Magnons in the public eye when, in fact, it was an integral part of a much larger existence.
Cro-Magnon is a story of hunters and gatherers who lived a unique adventure, whose earliest ancestors almost became extinct in the face of a huge natural catastrophe over seventy thousand years ago. It is a tale of ordinary men and women going about the business of survival in unpredictable, often bitterly cold environments that required them to adapt constantly and opportunistically to short-and long-term climate changed. These people were like us in so many ways: they had the same powerful intelligence and imagination, the ability to innovate and improvise that is common to everyone now living on earth. But they dwelled in a very different world from ours, one where premodern people still lived the same way they had hunted and gathered for hundreds of thousands of years. The history of the Cro-Magnons is the story of a great journey that began over fifty thousand years ago in tropical Africa and continued after the end of the Ice Age some fifteen thousand years ago. Above all, it's a story of endless ingenuity and adaptability.
When I was researching Cro-Magnon, I walked along the bank of the Vézère near Les Eyzies on a gray summer's day. The great cliffs with their rock shelters loomed high above, lapped by the deep green of meadow and thick woodland. The river itself ran brown and swift, swelled by the heavy rain of recent weeks. I imagined the same landscape eighteen thousand years ago—much of it treeless, covered with stunted grass and shrubs, a world alive not with bustling humans and their automobiles but with browsing reindeer and red deer with great horns, with chunky wild horses in small herds. There would have been black aurochs with lyre-shaped horns, perhaps arctic foxes in their brown summer fur feeding off a kill, perhaps a pride of lions resting under the trees. If you'd been patient enough, you'd have seen the occasional humans, too. But you would have known they weren't far away—informed by the smell of burning wood, trails of white smoke from rock-shelter hearths, the cries of children at play. Then I imagined this world changing rapidly, soon becoming one of forest and water meadow, devoid of reindeer and wild horses, much of the game lurking in the trees. I marveled at the ability of our forebears to adapt so readily to such dramatic environmental changes.
Few humans have ever lived in a world of such extreme climatic and environmental change. Years ago, I sailed a small yacht through the narrow channels of the Danish archipelago. The deeper water passages twisted and turned, marked by tall poles, nothing else. A gentle breeze from astern carried us through the sinuous defiles at little more than walking speed, which was just as well, as we grounded in the mud several times. I thought of Stone Age hunters fishing and fowling among the nearby reeds; some of them perhaps once camped on the then-dry ground now beneath our keel, in the midst of a dynamic landscape now buried by higher sea levels that changed from one month to the next. These were people without metals, with the simplest of canoes, and with fishing gear and weaponry created from the few suitable materials close to hand. The adaptability and ingenuity of Homo sapiens lay before my eyes and was a comforting thought when I contemplated the huge climatic and environmental challenges that lay ahead in the twenty-first century.
Thanks to multidisciplinary science, we now know a great deal more about late Ice Age climate than we did a generation ago. Much of the raw material for this narrative does indeed come from artifacts and food remains, from abandoned hunting camps and the stratified layers of caves and rock shelters. New generations of rock-art studies not only in western Europe but all over the world have added new perceptions about the meaning of Cro-Magnon art on artifacts and cave walls. However, compared with even twenty years ago, our knowledge of Europe's first moderns has changed beyond recognition thanks to technology and the now well-known revolution in paleoclimatology—the study of ancient climate. Another revolution, in molecular biology, has added mitochondrial DNA (passed down through the female line) and the Y chromosome (roughly the equivalent in men) to the researcher's armory. We now possess far more nuanced insights into Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon life, especially into the environments in which they lived.
Humans have always lived in unpredictable environments, in a state of flux from year to year. Until recently, we thought of the last glaciation of the Ice Age as a continual deep freeze that locked Europe into a refrigerator-like state for over one hundred thousand years, until about fifteen thousand years ago. Thanks to ice cores, pollen grains, cave stalagmites, and other newly discovered indicators of ancient climate, we now know that the glaciation was far from a monolithic event. Rather, Europe's climate shifted dramatically from one millennium to the next, in a constant seesaw of colder and warmer events that often brought near-modern climatic conditions to some areas. Old models assumed that Scandinavia was buried under huge ice sheets for all of the last glaciation. Now we know that this was the case only during the Last Glacial Maximum, about 21,500 to 18,000 years ago, when much of Eu rope was a polar desert. Much of the time Eu rope was far warmer, indeed near temperate. What is fascinating about the world of the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons is that we now have just enough climatological information to look behind the scenes, as it were, to examine the undercurrents of climate that caused hunting bands to advance and retreat and that perhaps helped drive some Neanderthal groups into extinction.
Cro-Magnon explores Ice Age societies both historically obscure and well known, not just within the narrow confines of Europe, but on a far wider canvas. The Cro-Magnons may have been Europeans, but they were comparative newcomers who arrived from elsewhere. We cannot understand them without journeying far from the familiar confines of Les Eyzies and the Cro-Magnon rock shelter. Thanks to mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes, we know that they were ultimately Africans. Rather startlingly, we also believe that humanity almost became extinct in the aftermath of a colossal explosion, when Mount Toba, on Sumatra, erupted into space about 73,500 years ago. Connecting the dots between dozens of archaeological sites is one of the exciting challenges facing the archaeologist of the future. Many of them are little more than scatters of stone artifacts, which we have to link to ash falls, to climate records wrested from cave stalagmites, to the fluctuations of the Sahara Desert, and to the harsh realities of a life lived in often arid or cold landscapes. All we have at the moment is a tentative framework, based on frequently inadequate data. But it is enough to allow us to peer at the late Ice Age world not from the outside, but from within, for the fundamental routines of hunting and foraging in arctic and tropical, semiarid environments remain much the same today as they were over twenty thousand years ago. There are only a few options for, say, hunting reindeer with spears, driving rabbits into nets, or trapping arctic foxes. We know of them from historic as well as still-living hunter-gatherer societies, whose basic subsistence activities have changed little over the millennia.
Excerpted from Cro-Magnon by Brian Fagan Copyright © 2010 by Brian Fagan. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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