From A. C. Grayling's "THE THINKING READ" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Surely one of the greatest of great stories is mankind's own story, from its remote and far-distant beginnings to the last hundred thousand years or so, during which modern humans emerged from the broiling mists of hominid evolution and began their conquest of earth.
If the story of human origins is epic, so too is the study of them, for it constitutes an amazingly ingenious science in which molecular biology, palaeoclimatology, comparative anatomy, anthropology, geology, and physics combine into a remarkable detective endeavour whose practitioners can read whole books of information in chipped flints, fragments of skeletons, and fossilized faeces. Despite this, it remains true that the history of human origins is a mountain of theory constructed out of a small pile of bones and stones, with the result that everything one reads on the subject is vulnerable to sudden confusions and doubts as soon as new bones and stones -- or genetic data -- come to light.
Just such an overtaking-by-events affects Brian Fagan's otherwise highly entertaining and instructive Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. While his book was in press, discoveries occurred which at least complicate the picture Fagan paints. That picture is the until-lately familiar one in which Europe was, for at least a hundred and thirty thousand years, the home of Neanderthal Man, a human type which vanished around thirty thousand years ago, less than twenty thousand years after the arrival from Africa of modern human beings -- variously known as "anatomically modern humans," "homo sapiens sapiens," and "Cro-Magnon Man" (this latter after an archaeological site where definitive examples of the type were found). There is no conclusive evidence that Cro-Magnons displaced Neanderthals by violent means, and received wisdom has hitherto been that the two populations did not much interact and certainly did not mingle. The puzzling question therefore is why Neanderthals died out so quickly after Cro-Magnons arrived, leaving Cro-Magnons to flourish ever since in unrivalled mastery of the planet.
One of the aims of Fagan's book is to examine this mystery, and his basic thesis is that Cro-Magnons, whose tools and cave art show that they were far smarter and vastly more adaptable than Neanderthals, were able to withstand the Ice Age then engulfing Europe, whereas the developmental stasis of the Neanderthals made them unable to cope.
The very terms of the debate as addressed by Fagan have, however, been changed by the discoveries announced while his pages were in press. One is the finding of a little finger bone in a cave in southern Siberia, whose DNA is that of a female hominid neither Neanderthal nor Cro-Magnon, and whose owner lived between thirty and fifty thousand years ago. That long-ago female of an apparently third human type is now known as X-woman.
An equally significant discovery, made this year by Svante Pääbo's team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, is that between one and four per cent of modern human DNA is Neanderthal. Modern Africans share no DNA with Neanderthals. This is a preliminary result from the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, about sixty per cent of which, at time of this writing, has been described. If the finding is correct it means Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals indulged in a certain amount of interbreeding after the former's arrival in the latter's territory. (Pääbo was among those who earlier showed that Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans diverged genetically about half a million years ago.)
There might be mathematical reasons why the Pääbo observations are incorrect, adding to scepticism about whether they overturn earlier comparisons of mitochondrial DNA apparently confirming that Neanderthals and modern humans kept strictly to themselves. But other bits of evidence are coming to the Pääbo team's aid: for example, the thirty thousand-year-old teeth of a modern human child found at Abrigo do Lagar Velho in Portugal which have Neanderthal characteristics.
Add the discovery made in 2003 of Flores Man, the pygmy humans of Indonesia who seem to have lived until about thirteen thousand years ago, and the picture of human evolution becomes a much more complicated one. It might be that a mere twenty thousand years before the agricultural revolution in the Middle East, at least four types of humans co-existed and occasionally mingled, suggesting an exciting possibility: that the agricultural revolution and the solo inheritance of the earth by modern humans have a related cause. Recent examples of meetings between long-separated human groups -- between Europeans and the populations of America and Africa over the last five centuries -- suggest a further and, to me, very persuasive possibility: that Neanderthals, X-woman people and "homo floresiensis" vanished because they were not immune to diseases carried by modern humans.
Nothing is straightforward in this debate: some studies show that the Neanderthal population of Europe was always tiny, containing a maximum of only 3,500 females in the whole of the continent at any one time between thirty-five thousand and seventy thousand years ago, thus making it a very fragile group already on the brink of extinction. The arrival of modern man might therefore have had little or nothing to do with their disappearance -- or conversely might indeed have been the final straw, if the groups competed for resources or if the disease hypothesis stands. On the other hand, there is suggestive evidence, published in the Journal of Anthropological Science in May 2009, that modern humans butchered Neanderthals and made necklaces from their teeth; modern human flint tool marks on Neanderthal bones provoke chilling speculations.
In essentials the story Fagan tells is the until-lately orthodox one of non-mingling between Neanderthals and moderns, and part of his account of the former's disappearance is premised on the claim that while modern humans had a powerful and flexible symbol-using intelligence, Neanderthals remained culturally inert, scarcely changing their tools or way of life over the hundred thousand years plus of their possession of Europe; and that this inflexibility doomed them when new environmental challenges arose, perhaps including competition from the moderns.
In his graphic and imaginative reconstructions of life in Ice Age Europe around thirty-five thousand years ago, Fagan portrays Neanderthals as quiet, watchful folk observing the more extroverted moderns from afar, encounters between the two populations being at most intermittent and distant. Both this scenario and the book's argument are announced together on the first page: "A weathered, hirsute face with heavy brows stares out quietly from the undergrowth," Fagan writes, imagining a group of moderns sighting a Neanderthal on the other side of a river; "Expressionless, yet watchful, its Neanderthal owner stands motionless, seemingly oblivious to the cold. The [modern] father looks across, waves his spear, and shrugs. The face vanishes as silently as it appeared."
As it happens, the idea that Neanderthals were culturally inert and had little symbolic imagination has been called into question lately, too; in Spanish caves occupied fifty thousand years ago (ten thousand years before modern man arrived in Europe) paleoanthropolgists in a team led by Joao Zilhao found shells and bones symmetrically perforated and painted, implying use as ornaments. But though this enriches speculation about Neanderthals, it does not subvert this aspect of Fagan's thesis, because the distance of Cro-Magnon cultural superiority over painted shells is measurable in light-years. The implication of Fagan's thesis is that Cro-Magnons flourished in climatic conditions that extinguished Neanderthals precisely because of their sophistication, and this remains plausible even if there were encounters between some Cro-Magnons and some Neanderthals that were culinary, sexual, or both.
Though the recent discoveries mentioned complicate matters for Fagan's account, he does an admirable job in bringing vividly to life the Europe of between eighty and ten thousand years ago. His reconstructions are eloquent in their inventiveness:
Western Europe, early summer, seventy thousand years ago. The bison graze peacefully in a forest clearing, knee-deep in the lush grass of the water meadow…Two young Neanderthals watch the solitary bison from close down-wind, hugging the ground under the trees. They carry stout wooden spears with stone points and are naked, so that they can move quickly and in stealth…
Fagan's imaginative leaps on the question of contact and avoidance between moderns and Neanderthals are aided by studies of relations between surviving hunter-gatherer communities such as the San of Southern Africa, and their neighbours the farming Lala. The San and Lala distrust each other, do not understand each other's language, and generally keep to their own ways of life; but they use signs and gestures to trade at times. In Fagan's view this could be a model for occasional Neanderthal-modern encounters. It is just this picture, though, that recent discoveries apparently upset.
What they do not upset is the key to Fagan's thesis about what explains the modern human superiority to the Neanderthals, namely, the "heightened consciousness" that he believes led them to conceive of "supernatural realms." The cave art of Lascaux, the ivory Hohle Fels flutes dating to thirty-five thousand years ago, the voluptuous female figurines from the same place, the beautiful Lion Man sculpture that forms a high point of Aurignacian art, testify to an advanced sensibility, and Fagan is surely right to attribute to it "the fundamental difference between the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals, and one that probably caused [the Cro-Magnons] to perceive their neighbours as inferior, probably as little more than animals." And this superiority lay in the Cro-Magnon's "ability to conjure up mental images and manipulate [them]." Of course for survival -- a matter somewhat more important than snobbery -- the Cro-Magnon's social, organizational, and communicative complexity was surely the truly crucial thing; it is in organisation that a species whose chief adaptation is intelligence rather than fangs and furs finds its best chance of survival.
Fagan follows a distinguished tradition in just assuming that the art and artifacts of the Cro-Magnons imply religion. He talks of Cro-Magnons "conceiving a supernatural realm." I think the unhappy turn in human affairs that involves such conceiving is a late phenomenon. It is far more likely that for the Cro-Magnons, the forces and agencies which need to be engaged with, communicated with, represented, mimicked, feared, or used, were entirely natural -- part of nature, not beyond or above it -- and their view of it was most likely a projection from their own felt capacity as agents, together with anthropomorphizing projections of their own needs and interests. That this is almost certainly so is inferable from the known "religions" of those who predate the supernaturalistic religions of the last three thousand years -- successively Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- with their monarchical and tribal conceptions of deity as something that inhabits realms outside the natural world. The earlier "religion" was animistic, meaning that people saw trees, streams, and rocks as living things like themselves, but of different habits and outlooks, some of whom needed to be cajoled or propitiated -- such cajoling being a form, therefore, of technology -- to get them to (say) yield the rain or avoid the flood, come into fruit, help cure disease, and so usefully on.
Some of the art of Cro-Magnon peoples is indeed breathtaking -- those cave paintings especially -- and the effort of producing them, together with their mysterious location deep in cave systems, makes it easy to imagine that they had highly significant mystical meaning. But perhaps they did not: perhaps caves were secure places safe from the art-eroding action of weather, and were chosen to serve rather as art galleries now do, as places of repository for works worth preserving, to be enjoyed by firelight away from beasts and cold, as visual aids for storytelling perhaps -- the figures seeming to move as the firelight flickers: proto-television. Is that harder to imagine than that our ancestors saw the rock-face as the membrane separating profane and sacred worlds?
In any case, it is hard to see why a propensity to religion would protect the Cro-Magnons against the Ice Age better than it protected the Neanderthals. Complex social organisation, foresight, skill, and language would certainly do this, and the Cro-Magnons had more of all these things than the Neanderthals did. The virtual lack of development in Neanderthal technology over a hundred thousand years suggests poor communication and poor imitation skills; to go extinct rather than to change in the face of new challenges even more potently denotes lack of both imagination and cognitive power. Manifestly, the Cro-Magnons lacked neither; and they are here -- for we are they -- today.
So: Fagan's book has been overtaken by the onward progress of his science -- this happens to lots of such books -- and there are aspects of his case that invite debate. But it is an admirable book nevertheless; the re-imagining of the past is entertainingly done, and a great deal of science, especially climate science, is accessibly introduced on the way. The reconstructions, like the remarks about religion, sometimes smack of retrospective "reading-in," as when we are given a strangely familiar picture of a modern nuclear family in an unexpected place: "Moravia, late winter, twenty-nine thousand years ago. The twelve-year-old boy sits listlessly by the hearth…he has spent the day setting fox traps with his father…the boy's mother takes a practised look at him, and reaches for her precious cache of reindeer fat [which she melts as a treat for him to eat]…" Cue music. But one learns a great deal of pre-history in the process. Fagan takes us from Mount Toba's massive volcanic eruption, which nearly wiped out modern man seventy thousand years ago, to the arrival and spread of agriculture ten thousand years ago, and does it both entertainingly and educatively. I look forward to the updated edition when it appears.
From the Publisher
“Archaeology contributing editor Brian Fagan provides readers with intimate accounts of what he imagines Ice Age life was like for both the vanishing Neanderthals and the invading Homo sapiens who developed the basis of modern culture. He lauds the ‘endless ingenuity and adaptability' of ordinary men and women living in bitterly cold Paleolithic Europe. ‘My DNA tells me that, genetically, I'm one of them,' Fagan concludes, ‘and I'm proud of it.'” Archaeology (Editors' Pick)
“Fagan provides readers with a fascinating discussion of the lifestyle of Neanderthals and early modern humans… In bringing these ancient human societies to life, Fagan combines an engaging narrative style with a well-written and easily understood scholarly discussion…an excellent resource.” National Speleological Society newsletter
“Highly entertaining and instructive…[Fagan] does an admirable job in bringing vividly to life the Europe of between eighty and ten thousand years ago… Fagan's book has been overtaken by the onward progress of his sciencethis happens to lots of such booksand there are aspects of his case that invite debate. But it is an admirable book nevertheless; the re-imagining of the past is entertainingly done, and a great deal of science, especially climate science, is accessibly introduced on the way.” Barnes & Noble Review
“[A] fascinating account…Fagan's narratives of cave-painting and hunting – among other anecdotes – really bring this history-laden book to life.” Green Life
Read an Excerpt
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.