Humankind is confronted with an enormous and perplexing riddle. We’ve developed a way of life that is ecologically super-idiotic (but look at our awesome phones!), and pounding the vitality of the natural world (and soon we’ll have self-driving cars!). The great riddle is how did we get into this mess? Can we get out of it? Who are we? Where did we come from?
Many books reveal important clues. Bonobo described our closest living relatives, a species that has remained sustainable for millions of years. The Art of Tracking revealed our ancient roots as bipedal hunters and scavengers, which kept our ancestors alive for several million years. Hunters of the Recent Past examined the communal hunting practiced by Homo sapiens who struggled to adapt to living in temperate and subarctic climates, during the last 15,000 years or so.
Now, I want to peek at life from 40,000 to 20,000 years ago. This peek looks at the Homo sapiens who had recently moved into Europe — the ancestors of many white skinned folks who are reading my words in English. In those days, Europe enjoyed an astonishing abundance of wildlife. Peek at the fantastic cave paintings of Chauvet or Lascaux.
For my tropical primate ancestors to survive in a challenging non-tropical climate, they had to live like moon explorers, with weatherproof shelters, warm clothing, blazing hearths, and a well-stocked food locker for the deep freeze months. The giant hyenas, cave bears, cave lions, and saber-tooth cats refused to join PETA, and took great delight in brutally killing the delicious primates in fur coats. Eventually, groups that were clever and lucky figured out ways to exist for a while, riding a scary climate change roller coaster.
Roche de Solutré
At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists have found the remains of up to 100,000 horses. Prior to 1866, when experts realized the bones were prehistoric, local farmers had been hauling them away for many years, using them for fertilizer. In some places, the surface of the ground was paved with ancient horse bones. The valley was a common route for the migrations of animal herds. In the summer months, herds grazed at higher elevations to avoid heat and insects. Winter months were spent grazing on the warmer floodplain of the Saône River.
The bone beds were located fairly close to the bottom of a steep limestone cliff. For years, folks theorized that the horses had been killed by driving them over the edge. At this site, a more likely scenario was that hunters drove the animals into natural rock corrals, or box canyons, where they were trapped. Once cut off from escape, they were killed, butchered, dried, and smoked. Wild horses were extremely dangerous prey. Big strong stallions would aggressively attack hunters, and stomp them to bloody bits.
The oldest bones are 55,000 years old, horses killed by Neanderthals. They were covered by six feet (1.8 m) of sterile soil. The next layer is deep, containing the remains of animals killed by Homo sapiens between 37,000 and 10,000 years ago. Prior to 22,000 years ago, the majority of bones were horses. After that, reindeer bones were dominant. This was an era of climate shifts.
Předmostí is near the city of Přerov, in the Czech Republic. It is located at the southern end of the Moravian Gate, a narrow corridor that passes between the Carpathian Mountains to the east, and the Sudeten range in the west, linking southern Poland and Moravia. It has long been a strategic trade and communications route. Naturally, it was also a route for the seasonal migrations of game animals in the Pleistocene, including mammoths.
Předmostí has the largest mammoth bone accumulations in central Europe. The skeletons of more than a thousand have been uncovered so far. Mammoth bones were used in the construction of their huts. Excavations have found hearths, a cemetery, stone and bone tools, and carvings made from mammoth ivory. One carving has been named the Venus of Předmostí.
Folks inhabited Předmostí between 27,000 and 25,000 years ago, and again later, about 20,000 years ago. During this time period, at many locations in central Europe, numerous Venus figurines have been found. HERE are some examples. The figurines inspired archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to imagine a paradise of goddess worshipping people that preceded the dark arrival of patriarchy and bloody warfare… a pleasant dream.
Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov are small neighboring villages north of Mikulov, in the Czech Republic. In the twentieth century, when a villager decided to dig a cellar, he discovered the remains of a large dwelling built with mammoth bones and tusks. Multiple excavation sites in these villages have revealed fascinating details about Pleistocene hunters, who lived there from 29,000 to 24,500 years ago. They lived on terraces overlooking the river, where they had an excellent view of the vast treeless steppe below. These huts were common in central Europe. HERE is a map of them, and HERE are many images of mammoth bone huts.
At one camp, four huts were located close together, and the small settlement was surrounded by a low wall made of mammoth bones and rocks, covered with brush and turf. The huts were something like teepees, covered with animal skins. They had a circular foundation made of rocks and heavy bones. Between the huts was a large outdoor fire pit. Up the hill was a small hut containing a kiln for baking clay. This is the earliest evidence of making ceramics (they did not make pottery). They created a variety of figurines, including the heads of bears, foxes, and lions, and female figurines with bulging breasts and buttocks. These may be the earliest art.
At a nearby location, the largest lodge was 50 feet long (15 m) by 20 feet wide (7 m), and had five hearths. At one hearth, two long mammoth bones were stuck in the ground, to support a roasting spit. Southeast of the lodge were piles of bones, including about 100 mammoths, mostly young. There were also bones of horses, reindeer, hares, wolves, and foxes. At one dig, they found the remains of a child wearing a necklace with 27 fox teeth. The skull was covered with red ochre, and the body was covered with the shoulder blades of mammoths.
Artists have studied the skulls found in the area, and made paintings of what the people would have looked like in life. When exhibited in Prague, the portrait of a prehistoric wild woman embarrassed the public — because she looked too modern, not like a dirty primitive beast — she looked like the proper and dignified ladies in the gallery (gulp!). Many awesome paintings can be found HERE.
Great Leap Forward
The sites mentioned above existed prior to the Last Glacial Maximum (20,000 to 15,000 years ago), an era of intense cold that froze out many species of flora and fauna. Some human supremacists see these mammoth hunters as a glorious breakthrough in the human saga, when we finally ceased being ordinary animals — dumb brutes unable to sing, speak, reason, make ornaments, paint caves, invent deities, or become entranced by smart phones. They call this transition the Great Leap Forward — a miraculous advance as important as the Industrial Revolution. (Of course, this could only take place in Europe, home of the most brilliant humans of all.)
The Pleistocene epoch spanned from 2.6 million years ago, to 11,700 years ago, and it included many intense ice ages. At the end of the Pleistocene, there was a surge of extinctions; a large number of megafauna species vanished in North America, mostly between 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. Some experts blame humans for overhunting, others blame climate change, and many blame a combination.
In Europe, fewer extinctions occurred, and they took place over a longer period of time. Many of the species that went extinct were giant-sized, compared to their modern relatives. Cave bears and European hippos vanished around 24,000 years ago — both species had been around for over a million years. Homotherium, a genus of saber-tooth cats, existed for five million years before vanishing 28,000 years ago. European cave lions vanished 10,000 years ago, after 1.9 million years. Cave hyenas were gone by 11,000 years ago, after 3.5 million years. Irish elk were gone by 8,000 years ago, after 400,000 years in Europe. Woolly mammoths were gone by 14,000 years ago, after 400,000 years. Woolly rhinoceros vanished 10,000 years ago, after 3.6 million years in Eurasia.
Was the Great Leap Forward a great booboo? Did overhunting encourage the emergence of agriculture and civilization? Should we have stayed in tropical Africa, and skipped our nightmarish experiment in technological innovation? Why don’t bonobos need psych meds? Good luck with the riddle! Have a nice day!
Image at top by Libor Balák.
Fagan, Brian, Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010.
Kurtén, Björn, Pleistocene Mammals of Europe, Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago, 1968.
Svoboda, Jiri, and Vojen Lozek, Hunters Between East and West: The Paleolithic of Moravia, Springer Science, New York, 1996.
Stringer, Chris, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Times Books, New York, 2012.
Ward, Peter D., The Call of Distant Mammoths, Copernicus, New York, 1997.
HERE are paintings of life in central Europe from 20,000 to 12,500 years ago.
HERE is a large collection of photos and random notes describing the Kostenki sites along the Don River in Russia. Kostenki is notable for the mammoth bone huts found there.
HERE is a large collection of interesting photos, maps, and random notes describing the Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov sites in the Czech Republic.