on 24 February 2012
I always sit up and take notice when a non-fiction book is enjoyable and a pleasure to read; having to read through so many of them as part of what I do, finding those rare few that are enjoyable reads into the bargain are something of a treat. I expected Brian Fagan's work to be authoritative - his name has been mentioned many times in the academic circles I move in as an established, solid professional - but the delight of the read was something unexpected; a real bonus. Cro-Magnon is a smooth, easy read, with fluid prose and clearly presented concepts and information.
Cro-Magnon is pretty solid and accurate in terms of its factual grounding, though new discoveries have been made since its publication, which Fagan does take the time to discuss in his prelude to the paperback edition - that said, the book itself is not that old, having been published in 2010, so much of it is still relevant. However, on the down side, occasionally Fagan carries on the style of writing he uses for his story-telling interludes and begins stating certain matters as fact in the information-delivering sections of the book, when in fact they're very much up for discussion - a key example of this is the question that revolves around whether or not Neanderthals were capable of speech and language. Fagan only touches briefly on the alternative views surrounding this issue, but then appears to whole-heartedly lump for the notion that the Neanderthals existed largely without speech, relying on a limited range of sounds and otherwise physical gestures - the "quiet people" he describes in his story-telling. Fagan's interpretation is a possibility, but in the face of evidence that Neanderthals were certainly physically capable of speech it's not the interpretation I would go with, and it would have been preferrable if there had been more discussion around the controversies.
That said, Fagan does take the time, through handy boxes scattered throughout the text, to explain some of the technical and scientific background behind the archaeology and expain why this places some of the archaeology in question - a very handy device for any non-archaeologists out there. However, I did disagree with yet a couple more of Fagan's interpretations. Cro-Magnon appears to assume a rough date for the "Out of Africa" migration of Homo sapiens at around c. 55,000 BCE. This seems strange to me as the artefacts on the ground clearly tell a different tale - for example, artefacts demonstrating continued occupation at sites in India both before and after the Toba eruption between 67,000 and 75,000 BCE - and having read geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer's Out of Eden the DNA evidence is fairly convincing for an Out of Africa event c. 85,000 BCE. Fagan also appears to suggest that Homo sapiens left Africa in anatomically modern form but later underwent some form of mental revolution - resulting in the explosion of culture and art that one finds in Cro-Magnon societies in Europe c. 40,000 BCE... but the "mental revolution" theory is disputed, and close examination of the evidence rather suggests to me that the Homo sapiens that migrated out of Africa did so with all the mental faculties and agility that we possess today. But essentially what all that boils down to is that I would advice fellow readers to beware not to take Fagan at his word and support their reading with other works on the subject.
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.
on 14 July 2011
Brian Fagan is a prolific and fluent author on archaeology and ancient climate and I always enjoy his books. So is this one - which might be titled Neanderthals & Cro Magnons - as good as the others?
Yes if you like a good read, no if you want historical truth.
Modern man and Neanderthals coexisted in Europe for some 15,000 years. Yet the laws of nature state that only one species can occupy an ecological niche at a time. How come two managed for so long?
The answer is we just don't know. For evidence we have about 500 partial skeletons and a lot of flints. This is just too little to bear the weight of speculation about Neanderthals. Elsewhere, a whole book has been written about Neanderthal language (they sang but did not talk, apparently). What is the actual physical evidence for this? One single hyoid bone.
Did the two groups interbreed? Who knows? Perhaps they did but if the hybrid offspring had even a slightly lower fertility than "pure breds" then the Neanderthal DNA would be obliterated in time. Perhaps interbreeding went with warfare: rape and warfare go together like bacon and eggs. Did they cooperate? Possibly. Since man is a wolf to man the presence of a out-group as a buffer between neighbouring tribes might be considered an advantage. Did they fight? Fagan writes of "occasional fisticuffs" but this seems to me far too kind. They were living in a rough and changeable environment, where unpredictable cycles of feast and famine might occasionally lead to sudden and temporary declines in infant mortality... and later a surfeit of young males, which is the usual recipe for conflict. Neanderthals appear to have reached maturity slightly earlier than modern humans so the demographics may have favoured them in wars. Did they trade? Possibly, but the Neanderhals appear to have learnt nothing from it, while the Cro Magnons were far more innovative and traded over far greater distances. In the end the Neanderthals had nothing to offer.
The Neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago. Could this be because of climate change? Hardly, they'd survived much worse before. So it must be the fault of our ancestors, then. Should we feel guilty? No. For all the intriguing mysteries they were a pretty boring bunch, with no progress to show for 100,000 years in Europe. Like the Bourbons, they learnt nothing and forgot nothing. For all Fagan's occasional novelettish descriptions, I don't miss them. There are examples of genocides much nearer our times (ask a Carib or a Tasman, if you can find one) so Fagan's notion that the Neanderthals died out from being gently urged into ever more marginal habitat is not exculpatory.
The Cro Magnons (our ancestors) are a much more interesting case. But here again we are faced with a limited archaeological record. Nearly no organic matter has survived, and this must have weighed most of their worldly goods. Did they have language? Undoubtedly. But grammar, a notion of symbolic action, a rudimentary calendar, religion, hierarchy, division of labour? The debate can rage because even the magnificent cave art which has come down to us comes by accident of avalanches blocking the cave mouths and we will never know what has been lost.
Fagan does his best, but the dearth of evidence is an unacknowledged handicap to this book. Why should I believe a word of it? Because he's a distinguished professor, and I'm not. So what?
on 21 April 2013
Brian Fagan is consistently entertaining and informative even though for some of his conclusions/speculations there is little hard evidence. I am reading his book on my Kindle currently but have now ordered a print copy. My reason is that the many diagrams in Fagan's text are too small on the Kindle to be of much use or even readable without a magnifier. Also the author often references diagrams/illustrations located some pages away - back or forward - which can be irritating on the Kindle.
For speed of reading the text, I would still opt for the Kindle version saving some £19 on the print copy but for serious study the print copy would be essential. As the Kindle version is under £2, buying both is a viable alternative.
As other reviewers have indicated, however, for serious study it is essential to read around the subject in some of the many recent texts available so as to be able to separate the speculations from the hard facts or reliable theories. One could do worse, indeed, than read the other reviews of this book on Amazon as a starting point for that study.