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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Know Your Prehistory (2) --
The Emergence of Homo-Sapien.
by Joy Saynor.

This article will be concerned with a period of some twenty-eight thousand years, compared with the immense span of more than 500,000 years considered in the previous article. Somewhere in Eurasia, most probably in Western Asia, modern man -- homo sapiens -- emerged between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, differing little in intellectual capacity and physique from today. He was aided by the more favourable climatic conditions during the temporary retreat of the ice-sheets in the last of the great Ice Ages (Würm I/II, Interstadial), in the geological Late Pleistocene period. The main flow of creative change moved, from the global standpoint, away from Africa, India and South-East Asia (although advances of importance to the populations of these areas took place) to the more northerly parts of the Old World.

The shifting backwards and forwards of climatic zones with each major expansion or contraction of the ice and the accompanying effect upon vegetation, herbivorous animals and consequently man, should be appreciated. He was a specialised hunter of cave bears and woodland game as well as of mammoth and other grass-eaters, with a variety of weapons, utilising an advanced technique of flint-knapping, and using bone, antler and ivory for industrial purposes. Blades or flakes were produced which were narrow in proportion to their length, with fairly regular flake-scars and were made into knife-blades, scrapers and burins the latter of great importance for engraving and for working antler and bone, which in their turn were used for needles, awls, lance and harpoon-heads.

The first two Advanced Palaeolithic cultures based on these blade and burin industries have been identified in the caves and rock-shelters of South-West France. (By culture is understood the grouping together of similar pots, burials, adornments, house-plans, found at different sites within a limited region, embodying the way of life of the society which produced them.) The earliest, the Chatelperroniary (32,000-28,500 approximate radiocarbon date BC), was limited to South-West France, but the succeeding Aurignacian (28,000-22,000 rc, BC), has also been recognised in Afghanistan, Northern Iraq, the Crimea, Israel, Roumania, Hungary, Lower Austria, South Germany and Cantabrian Spain and was possibly ultimately Asiatic rather than European in origin. Not only did these peoples hunt the game of the steppes and woodlands, but also they were the first Europeans to fish the rivers of the continent. (Their stone tools and weapons including projectile heads of bone, flint scrapers with steep secondary flaking, and flint burins of beaked form.) It was in France that they began to develop two-dimensional representational art which was to lead to the outstanding cave paintings and drawings of the Magdalenian culture.

With the return of the ice for the last time (Wüm II), steppes and tundras replaced the woodlands of Western Europe, thus the Gravettians, first appearing in Austria at about 28,000 rc BC, occupied a very different zone from their Aurignacian predecessors: from Southern Russia to Central Europe, and through South Germany and Italy to France and Spain. In South Russia, they lived in artificial shelters, in skin tents supported on sticks above a hollowed floor. These are the earliest man-made homes for which we have definite evidence. and seem to have been intended for larger groups as well as for single family units. Perhaps the team-work involved in mammoth hunting (the chief foodsource together with bison and wild horse), extended to living as a group rather than as an isolated one-family unit. The Gravettians had adapted themselves to the changed climatic conditions. In Southern Russia, France and Italy, small magico-religious figurines (so-called Venus figurines), were carved from mammoth, ivory, stone or fired clay having featureless faces and emphasised sexual characteristics, perhaps indicating rituals to increase the fertility of nature. More or less naturalistic wild animals, from the mammoth to the wolf, were also carved or modelled. The hunters' basic need for a continuous supply of game explains the engravings and paintings in the rockshelters and caves of South-West France and Cantabria. Tools were characterised by flint knives, projectile tips and barbs with a steep retouch, and ornaments of bone and ivory were engraved with criss-cross or chevron patterns. The Gravettians practised ceremonial burial rites, covering their dead with red ochre to symbolise the lost colour of life, and adorning them with headdresses and anklets, girdles, engraved bracelets and necklaces made of ivory, animal teeth and shells.

During this last glacial phase, new methods of thinning flint flakes resulted in the production of superior spear- and missile-tips. These new cultures spread briefly through Eastern and Western Europe, (the Solutrean) and for a much longer period in Central Europe (the Szeletian).

As the long and discontinuous retreat of the ice-sheets and glaciers proceeded, "the richest and most brilliant culture ever created by food-gatherers in any part of the world" See reference [2.] -- the Magdalenian -- arose and flourished in Northern Spain, France, Southern Germany and Bohemia, (15,000-8,000 rc BC), derived from earlier Gravettian roots. In part this distinction rests upon the high quality of the renowned cave-paintings and engravings in the Dordogne region in France See reference [3.] and at Altamira in Spain. The mammoth, bison, reindeer and horse portrayed by artist-magicians, working in places some two miles under the earth, were not mere shorthand symbols, but "reflect minute and deliberate observation of real models" -- (Gordon Childe). Equally remarkable was the production and decoration of tools and weapons in bone and antler, (notably antler spear-throwers, with animal carvings in full or partial relief); as well as barbed harpoon-heads and fine-eyed needles unsurpassed by any other pre-historic peoples.

These reindeer hunters colonised the North European plain as far as northern Holland and southern Britain, (the North Sea basin was still dry land), and on to Denmark. Siberia was first occupied at this time and possibly it was from this region that the prehistoric settlers in North America came. The Siberians seem to have lived in semi-subterranean houses and to have worn clothing of skins sewed together. About 10,000 years ago, the glaciers began to retreat for the last time towards the high mountains; the mammoth and the reindeer departed and were replaced by more solitary game requiring new weapons and tactics. See reference [4.] The cultures of the Upper Palaeolithic hunters were doomed and new cultures, based on hunting, fishing and collecting-the Mesolithic cultures-slowly emerged.


Reference [1.] Grahame Clark -- World Prehistory. (C.U.P. 1961).
Reference [2.] Gordon Childe -- The Prehistory of European Society. (Pelican 1958).
Reference [3.] A Laming- - Lascaux, Paintings and Engravings. (Pelican 1959).
Reference [4.] H Breuil -- 400 Centuries of Cave Art. (Montignac 1952).
Reference [4.] F E Zeuner -- The Pleistocene Period, its Climate, Chronology and Faunal Successions. (London 1959).
Other articles in this series.
Issue (year) KAR number Article number Title
Winter 1971 #26 8 Iron Age Progressions
Summer 1971 #24 7 Bronze Age Beginnings
Winter 1970 #22 6 Bronze Age Beginnings
Autumn 1970 #21 5 The Neolithic Period
Spring 1970 #19 4 The Neolithic Revolution
Winter 1970 #18 3 Mesolithic Progress
Autumn 1969 #17 2 The Emergence of Homo Sapiens
Summer 1969 #16 1 The Dawn of Man
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