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Thu Jun 25, 2020, 03:30 AM

Ancient yet cosmopolitan

Art, adornment and sophisticated hunting technologies flourished not only in prehistoric Europe but across the globe

Gaia Vince
is a freelance science journalist, broadcaster and nonfiction author. Her work has appeared in the BBC, The Guardian, New Scientist, Australian Geographic and Science, among others. She is the author of Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made (2014) and Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time (2019).

3,400 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

In 1868, workmen near the hamlet of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in southwestern France opened up a rock shelter and found animal bones, flints and, most intriguingly, human skulls. Work on the road was paused while a geologist, Louis Lartet, was called to excavate the site. What he discovered would transform our understanding of the origins of humanity.

Lartet unearthed the partial skeletons of four adults and an infant at the Cro-Magnon rock shelter, as well as perforated shells and animal teeth fashioned into necklaces, flint tools, a worked reindeer antler and an object crafted from ivory. The human remains were eagerly compared with fossils of an archaic species, called Neanderthal Man, found 12 years earlier in Germany. However, the 30,000-year-old skeletons of what became known as the ‘Cro-Magnon Men’ (at least one of them was a woman) were different to Neanderthals’, being more slender and having the same rounded skull with a high, vertical forehead as us, Homo sapiens.

Cro-Magnons lived at the same time as Neanderthals in Europe, during the last Ice Age, but they had a more advanced culture. They were identified as a prehistoric subspecies or race of humans that emerged in Europe and went extinct when our own ancestors arrived.

In the 150 years since their discovery, Cro-Magnon remains and artifacts have been found across Eurasia and beyond. This was a people capable of extraordinary creativity, who made stunning artworks depicting their natural world. Such works include a piece of mammoth tusk engraved with two beautifully observed reindeer crossing a river, carved at least 13,000 years ago and discovered near Toulouse in the 1860s, and the extraordinary Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave, made 40,000 years ago and discovered in the Lone valley in Germany in 1939. These works took great skill, patience and time: the Lion Man – a 30 cm sculpture with a man’s body and a lion’s head – is carved from tough mammoth ivory, which researchers calculated would have taken about 400 hours. Cro-Magnons lived in societies that were successful enough to support craftsmanship – able to look after their artists with food and other resources, even during the harsh climate of the Pleistocene, when much of the landscape was covered in ice.


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