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Monday, April 26th, 2010

Time Event
10:03p
The earliest humans ...
As I've no doubt mentioned in this space previously, one of the perks of being a member of LibraryThing is the ability to participate in their “Early Reviewer” program. While the available books each month are heavily weighted towards fiction, I find myself getting review copies of interesting books (of the non-fiction I prefer) every few months. I was rather pleased to have “scored” (via The Algorithm which matches books in your on-line library to the books you've requested) Brian Fagan's Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, as I've not had a chance to read many Archaeology books of late, and certainly not in the pre-historic area.

As one can surmise from the sub-title, this book largely focuses on the Ice Age eras, covering a period from about 130,000 to about 10,000 years ago, and primarily dealing with sites in Europe. It also deals with two main Hominid species, typically called Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons (both of those names arising from dig sites where remains were found). Recent research has suggested that these two lines were different branches arising from a more ancient common ancestral species Homo ergaster which arose from Homo habilis and also spawned Homo erectus, all of these in Africa. The Neanderthals had moved out of Africa and into Europe by 200,000 years ago, which pre-dates the current estimate of the development of the Cro-Magnons, who were Homo sapiens. The first part of the book deals with what we know of the Neanderthals, which is limited by their extinction somewhere around 30,000 years ago. The author presents some interesting speculation as to how the Neanderthals lived, and what their inner and cultural life was like, in that it appears that they did not have much language, or an ability to abstract from the immediate (although they certainly were intelligent to be very effective hunters).

This brings me to a minor caveat about something that kept coming up for me in this book: much of it is comprised of “stories” or imagined scenarios, several borrowed from books of (pre-) historical fiction. While certainly making the end product more appealing than a running catalog of spear points and hearth layers, I found myself frequently asking how do you know that?, and not getting much in terms of solid, statistical, answers. This made the information flow more like walking through a museum's dioramas and taking what was presented as the main data, not unpleasant, not un-informative, but somehow lacking something.

However, this is not to say that Cro-Magnon isn't chock-full of fascinating stuff … it has one of the best descriptions of the “population bottleneck” that Homo sapiens went through 73,500 years ago. One of the amazing data points here is that modern Humans have less genetic diversity than is exhibited in chimpanzee troops in West Africa. How did this happen? The largest volcanic episode in the past twenty-three million years, the explosion of Mount Toba (in what is currently Sumatra), which threw the Earth into a nightmare of ash and cold and death. Homo sapiens had begun to move out of Africa as early as 100,000 years ago into the mid-east and other regions, but these were wiped out in the wake of the Toba eruption. In fact, extrapolating from the DNA evidence, there were perhaps as few as 10,000 humans that survived the aftermath.

It took another 20,000 or so years for human populations to get to the point where they were moving out of Africa again, and the first Cro-Magnons found their way to Europe about 45,000 years ago. Here they spread out in the ice-bound world (which the author constantly parallels with modern Arctic cultures for clues, cultural and technological) in competition with the surviving Neanderthals. There were various “cultural phases” (largely based on assorted tools, and their distribution), from the Neanderthal “Mousterian” which ranged from 100,000 to about 30,000 years ago, to the Cro-Magnon “Aurignacian”, “Gravettian”, “Solutrean”, and the “Magdalenian” phases, which appeared from 40,000 to 11,000 years ago.

Another interesting piece presented here was that, for all that time, the Hominid diet was almost 100% meat-based, with the average individual not consuming “more than a cupful” of plant material in a given year. It wasn't until the post-Glacial era (about 10,000 years ago) that Europe changed from a frozen tundra to a heavily-forested landscape, and that “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle began to take hold. Another major shift happened with the onset of warmer temperatures, in the middle-east, what had been lush grasslands were turning to scrub, and the people there found that if there was going to be grass for their prey, they needed to plant seed, eventually developing into agriculture. From about 10,000 to 7,000 years ago, these farming people (the LBK culture) spread into Europe, existing side-by side with the now hunter-gatherer remnants of Magdalenian Cro-Magnon culture now existing in the forests. Eventually the farming culture absorbed the Cro-Magnon culture, although (through analysis of DNA markers), 85% of European genetic heritage has a Cro-Mangon basis.

One point the author comes back to repeatedly is that the Cro-Mangon peoples were, physically, intellectually, etc. identical to modern humans, and were bringing to bear on their challenges as much brain and will and emotion (and likely a good deal more brawn and agility) than their modern descendants do to ours.

Cro-Magnon is not a technical book, but is quite an evocative look at our long-ago forebearers. This is not likely to end up a college textbook, but is a very interesting window into the history of our species, in that period where our ancestors were becoming human. As the book is brand new, it's a good bet that your local brick-and-mortar book seller will have it, although Amazon is featuring it at a rather substantial 34% discount.


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