This book is about the crucial transition between a europe dominated by Neanderthals to one by anatomically modern humans, the Cro-Magnons, who are essentially identical to us in every respect, at least genetically. The 60,000 years or so that are covered occur for the most part in an extended Ice Age with a few warmer periods, from a catastrophic volcanic eruption that nearly wiped out the human species to the great thaw that has existed until present. Though an extremely long period, with more than one human species covered, it is astonishingly dense, beautifully written, up to date scientifically. This is a masterpiece of popular science writing and consistent pleasure to read.
At the beginning of the period sparse groups of Neanderthals lived all over Europe (perhaps only 20,000 individuals), in a fairly static lifestyle. Though they had to adapt to many different environments successfully for over 200,000 years, their technologies and ability to innovative were strictly limited, perhaps by the structure of their brains. They had evolved in Europe from Homo Heidelbergensis, the last common ancestor with Homo Sapiens.
In contrast to Homo Sapiens, the Neanderthal brain had smaller occipital lobes, where abstract reasoning takes place (e.g. with the ability to entertain many thoughts simultaneously, making connections between abstract concepts). Their bands tended to be extremely small, often a dozen individuals or so, and their toolbox remained unchanged: crudely chipped rocks as cutting instruments, fire-hardened wood spears, and skins wrapped like blankets. With few exceptions, they did not bury their dead, made no art, and experimented little with their methods. Nonetheless, they were masters of their environment for longer than Homo Sapiens has existed.
Homo Sapiens emerged in Africa about 170,000 years ago. They spread all over the continent and even into the Near East, though a draught forced them back. For 100,000 years, they behaved in an almost identical manner to Neanderthals. The great catastrophic event (74K years ago) apparently wiped out their genetic diversity; only a few small communities (perhaps as low as 2000 individuals in all) survived in a severe Ice Age that lasted the next 20,000 years. At the end of that time, when environments became more fertile and animals multiplied, Homo Sapiens was somehow changed, though how this occurred is an unsolved mystery: they lived in larger bands, had hugely enhanced communication skills, and many of their technological experiments were disseminated quickly. Soon, they moved into Europe and Asia, about 40K BCE.
With the sparseness of populations and perhaps because their competition was not violent, Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals lived side by side for 10,000 years. The author argues convincingly that Homo Sapiens did not eliminate their cousins by war, but rather by superior adaptability when a new Ice Age drove both populations to the brink again.
After 30,000 BCE, Homo Sapiens were alone on the European continent. The analysis and evocation of their life style as it evolved until the Neolithic age forms the bulk of the book. They adapted to the cold, in particular with the invention of the threaded needle, enabling them to manufacture warmer, tightly fitting clothes that better conserved their energy. They developed an extraordinary artistic tradition, apparently invented nature-based religions with belief in afterlife (hence they buried their dead), and constantly experimented in refining their stone-based technologies as spear tips, etc. They improved on spears and then invented the bow and arrow, vastly enlarging their hunting abilities in ways far superior to those that the Neanderthals persisted in using. All of this is described in loving detail that never gets excessive in the exhaustive academic style of proofs and controversies between ambitious eggheads.
If I have any criticism, it is that there are many questions left unanswered. I would liked a longer explanation about the mystery of 50K years ago, when Homo Sapiens made a quantum leap of some sort. As there were no ceramic pots, I also wondered how they boiled their animal prey in water. I will have to search for these details and many others elsewhere.
Fagan's style is spare, yet vivid. Rather than use an analytic vocabulary filled with jargon, he chooses to evoke what life was like at each stage of this long development. Analysis is injected between semi-fictional narratives, in my opinion to great effect, though it is perhaps not quite academic enough. His writing style is truly masterful and elegant, in I believe a superior talent. I read this while exploring one of the regions of France (Dordogne) he describes, which was wonderful.
Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.