Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to Modern Humans
by Brian Fagan



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'I picked up the dark-covered book with the bent corner and opened it carefully. Cream colored pages filled my eyes, their subtle grain visible against the solid blackness of the typed text. "Cro-Magnon", it read, and I thoughtfully pondered the meaning while my hungry gaze devoured the words, feeling the presence of my own mysterious Cro-Magnon ancestors in the deepest part of myself...'

.......Are you rolling your eyes yet? I was too. This is how the majority of Cro-Magnon is written, and Brian Fagan's lurid, overly descriptive prose was often even worse than mine.

This book attempts to describe the rise of the early Homo sapiens (called Cro-Magnon for the place where the first fossils of this species were found in the 1800's) and how/why they became 'modern' during the Ice Age. This is explored in the context of climatology and the changing environmental conditions, although this ultimately takes a backseat to Fagan's imagination, which seems to be the driving force behind this book. Several times each chapter there is a descent into fictitious stories about these people, which are not even based on specific archaeological facts or finds, but on the most generic descriptions of human behavior and poetic fancy (I was reading this book to learn, and I really couldn't care less about how the river was running brown and swift or how there were "great flocks of birds gyrating above the shallow blue water"). I know that Fagan was just trying to bring the past to life and make people captivated by it, but he went WAY too far into adjective-heavy creative writing and ended up with something that should not be called history.

Even in the non-fiction parts of Cro-Magnon there was much less information than I was hoping for. At times it seemed like there was one actual study/artifact/site described for every five pages of rambling about symbolism and intangible suppositions about peoples' thoughts. Fagan haphazardly covers changing weapon technology, clothing, food consumption, and art during the changing climate of the Ice Age, eventually coming to an analysis of cave paintings and other artistic creations (my favorite was when he described the Venus statuettes as Cro-Magnon porn). However, most of the information he related was not new to me and it was, in my opinion, grossly oversimplified to try to reach a 'popular' audience. This 'popular archaeology' is what Fagan is known for, and I really wanted to like his book because I deeply support making archaeology accessible to non-academic scholars, but to my disappointment his fictitious poetry and unsupported (and unsupportable) facts made this impossible.

Despite the title, the first third of the book actually focuses on Neanderthals and, later, their interactions with Homo sapiens. Fagan talks so much about symbolism and ritual that it becomes almost supernatural, he talks about Cro-Magnon 'wives' (which I'm almost positive is anachronistic), and he describes the Cro-Magnons as possessing 'ingenuity' and 'adaptability' about 500,000 times. I used my ingenuity to guess that number, by the way. This may just be me, but this book was insanely irritating to me and was by far the least scholarly/informative book I have reviewed yet. If this is what 'popular archaeology' is, I'll take the unpopular textbooks any day.

Some of the worst offenders:

Neanderthals "would have known birdcalls and aurochs bellows, which they would have imitated flawlessly" (51).

This is an absurd statement of fact, presuming to know how Neanderthals hunted and what their vocal capacity was (it is still not known whether they could speak or not). Even if they COULD speak, that doesn't mean they could flawlessly imitate animal noises. I live next door to a rooster (Gary) and hear him crowing all day every day, but I still can't come close to imitating him.

The Cro-Magnons "are under the spell of the dance, oblivious to the small group of Neanderthals, who are watching silently and invisibly just outside the circle of tents and firelight. When the dance ends, they will slip away without a sound, yet subconsciously the Cro-Magnons know they are there" (16).

Yeah. This was probably because the Cro-Magnons had supernatural powers and could telepathically sense the Neanderthals' presence. Hey, it's a useful skill to have if the Neanderthals keep peeping on you while you're dancing naked in the firelight!

Neanderthals were "the quiet people...they went softly about their business, cautiously, watchfully. For all their bulky strength, they moved almost without a sound, mere shadows among the trees and scrub of the late Ice Age landscape" (64).

This one blew my mind. How on EARTH could you possibly even pretend to support this? What facts could you possibly base this description on? Oh wait, you can't. This is pure poetic fantasy pretending to be a statement of fact, and it is inexcusable.

Cro-Magnons "would have assessed the risks behind every activity and would never have taken the kinds of chances that people do today for the excitement of it" (172).

Again, this idea is a wild supposition and is not supported by any evidence. And I'd venture a guess that people (especially teenage boys) would still have taken risks or done stupid things to show off or to prove themselves. People can't have changed THAT much!

Reindeer "dislike both heat and mosquitos" (202).

But they love long walks in the rain, mojitos, and romantic comedy movies.

Immediately after disemboweling their kill, "People grab hunks of fresh meat and fat, wolfing them down as the blood spills over their chins and clothes" (198).

Ok, first of all, people had been using fire for thousands upon thousands of years by this point...why would they be eating the meat raw? Second, even if they WERE eating raw meat, why would they have been so messy?

Reindeer rush the camp but "the people around the fire are completely unfazed, for they think of the reindeer as friends, living beings just like themselves" (199).

Oh sure. I'll remember that next time I'm in the middle of a stampede.

At one point Fagan says, "The complex relationship between Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal has fascinated scholars for generations, as if it were the subject of an epic paleoanthropological novel" (2). Ah, so the truth comes out. I think that's the book he wishes he was writing. Sorry to break it to you buddy, but Jean Auel already wrote it (The Clan of the Cave Bear series), just with a lot more sex.

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About The Author

Brian Fagan

Brian Fagan

Brian Fagan is a British scholar who received his PhD in Archaeology and Anthropology from Cambridge in England. He excavated several sites in Africa and served as the Keeper of Prehistory in the Livingstone Museum in Zambia for some years, before becoming a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Read more...