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good to see some science raise its head in anthropology
on 13 September 2012
How refreshing it was to me to read the story of Ice Age humans set against an ecological background. The dying of forests as the cold advanced, and the new provision of mammoth tusks and bones as building material, are just two parts of the everyday life of the humans surviving climate change.
As a professional in this field, I wish there had been more reference points about this: actual dates and locations where the temperature went up and down by 5-10 degrees during the main span of the last ice age, covering the critical period of human movements. Say 70000 to 20000 years ago.
He writes so eloquently about climate change that I could visualise the dying of the conifer forest and appearance of tundra. I wonder for how many years there was dead timber lying around that could have been used for fires. And the coming and going of woodland - I know from my own research that when the temperature climbed to that of the present day, trees didn't necessarily appear. Because they were too far away, and because the dispersal of fruits and seeds by birds would only be fast in landscapes with perches or reasons for the birds to venture outside the trees.
With good radiocarbon dating now available, I can see a detailed map of vegetation, human activity and climate over the planet is ready to be worked in detail. The book inspired me to think about this; about the Denisovan humans in Siberia; about the yeti (which I believe to be a very old folk memory of ice age humans, much as the myth of a great flood turned out to be real despite the thousands of years of the story being passed down generations).
I was also fascinated by the descriptions of major migrations of humans across Asia, and having myself wandered around much of the previously-glaciated Asian landscape and seen the effect of lack of iodine here: did cretinism have a significant effect on migrations and settlement and success?
Every book I have read on ice age humans on the steppe and tundra thinks they were just like us with added skills in crafts and construction, and unless they lived by a cliff over which to drive big game, they stalked their prey until they could get some arrows into it. OK, that was doubtless done. But archaeologists should spend time out in the steppe with people who still have skills not mentioned in any text book. They are not like us physically. They are more like our Olympian medallists, but stronger. It would not be a great effort to move around summer to winter, or to cover hundreds of miles on foot. Exercise was normal. I've seen people in Mongolia in small groups run down wild animals and even corner and restrain half-wild yaks bare-handed. Lassoos made of vegetable cord or animal sinews are used on big animals at a safer distance than spears, and cord traps and drop traps can be set. Marmots can be captured by putting on a white mask (deer face bones)and creeping right up to an animal.
Today, Mongolians use horses to carry them in order to save calories. I wonder whether 50000 years ago, before horses were tamed, if people deliberately took time out from physical activity when food was not abundant, perhaps in winter, and that arts and crafts were done by hunters and trackers, not just specialist individuals, because they needed to rest to stop using up calories. And mothers are not restricted by young babies even today in rural Asia - the baby is simply tied on to the mother's back and life goes on.
So - a verdict? Dunno, but I'm glad I read it and it inspired me, and was fairly easy to read. Like all such books it gets skewered by the next discovery, and it does go on a bit without pinning down dates and places - why keep digging a potential hole when you've covered what you wanted to say? Having said all that, I wish there were more books with a different slant on the past to counter the Out of Africa 'we-know-it-all' consensus.