The Human World of the Upper Paleolithic
26 October 2015
Between the advent of cognitive modernity, perhaps seventy thousand years ago (more or less), and the advent of settled agricultural civilization, about ten thousand years ago, there is a period of fifty thousand years or more of human history — an order of magnitude of history beyond the historical period, sensu stricto, i.e., the period of written records formerly presumed coextensive with civilization — that we have only recently begun to recover by the methods of scientific historiography. This pre-Holocene world was a world of the “ice age” and of “cave men.” These ideas have become so confused in popular culture that I must put them in scare quotes, but in some senses they are accurate, if occasionally misleading.
One way in which the idea of an “Ice Age” is misleading is that it implies that our warmer climate today is the norm and an ice age is a passing exception to that norm. This is the reverse of the case. For the past two and a half million years the planet has been passing through the Quaternary Period, which mostly consists of long (about 100,000 year) periods of glaciation punctuated by shorter (about 10,000 year) interglacial periods (also called warming periods) during which the global climate warms and the polar ice sheets retreat. I have pointed out elsewhere that, although human ancestors have been present throughout the entire Quaternary, and so have therefore experienced several cycles of glaciation and interglacials, the present interglacial (the Holocene) is the first warming period since cognitive modernity, and we find the beginnings of civilization as soon as this present warming period begins. Thus the Holocene Epoch is dominated, from an anthropocentric perspective, by civilization; the Quaternary Period before the Holocene Epoch is, again from an anthropocentric perspective, human history before civilization: history before history.
We should remind ourselves that this very alien world and its inhabitants is the precursor to our world and the inhabitants are our direct ancestors. In other words, this is us. This is our history, even if we have only recently become accustomed to thinking of prehistory as history no less than the historical period sensu stricto. The Upper Paleolithic, with its ice age, cave bears, cave men, painted animals seen in flickering torchlight, and thousands upon thousands of years of a winter that does not end was a human world — the human world of the Upper Paleolithic — that we can only with effort recover as our own and come to feel its formative power to shape what we have become. The technical term is that his human world of the Upper Paleolithic was our environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). It is this world that made us what we are today.
One website has this very evocative passage describing the world of the Upper Paleolithic:
“The longest war ever fought by humans was not fought against other humans, but against another species — Ursus spelaeus, the Cave Bear. For several hundred thousand years our stone age ancestors fought pitched and bloody battles with these denizens of the most precious commodity on earth — habitable caves. Without these shelters homo sapiens would have had little chance of surviving the Ice Ages, the winter storms, and the myriad of predators that lurked in the dark.”
While there isn’t direct scientific evidence for this compellingly dramatic way of thinking about the Upper Paleolithic (though I was very tempted to title this post “The 100,000 Year War”), it can accurately be said that human/cave bear interactions did occur during the most recent glacial maximum, that both human beings and cave bears are warm-blooded mammals and caves would have provided a measure of protection and warmth that would have endured literally for thousands or tens of thousands of years during this climatological “bottleneck” for mammals, whereas no human-built shelter could have survived these conditions for this period of time. Another species as ill-suited for cold weather as homo sapiens would have simply moved on or gone extinct, but we had our big brains by this time, and this made it possible for early man to fight tenaciously for keep a grip on life even in an environment in which they have to fight cave bears for the few available shelters.
Human beings would have survived elsewhere on the planet in any event, because the equatorial belt was still plenty warm at the time, but the fact that some human beings survived in caves in glaciated Europe is a testament both to their cognitive modernity and their stubbornness. It becomes a little easier to understand how and why early human beings squeezed into caves by passages that cause contemporary archaeologists to experience not a little claustrophobia, when we understand that human beings were routinely inhabiting caves, and probably had to explore them in some depth to make sure they wouldn’t have any unpleasant surprises when a cave bear woke up from its hibernation in the spring.
Unlike human beings, cave bears probably could not have survived elsewhere — they were a species endemic to a particular climate and a particular range and did not have the powers of behavioral adaptation possessed by human beings. The caves of ice age Eurasia were their world, and they spent enough time in these shelters that the walls of caves have a distinctive sheen that is called “Bärenschliffe”:
The “Bärenschliffe” are smooth, polished and often shining surfaces, thought to be caused by passing bears, rubbing their fur along the walls. These surfaces do not only occur in narrow passages, where the bear would come into contact with the walls, but also at corners or rocks in wider passages.
“Trace fossils from bears in caves of Germany and Austria” by Wilfried Rosendahl and Doris Döppes, Scientific Annals, School of Geology Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Special volume 98, p. 241-249, Thessaloniki, 2006.
Some of these caves are said to be polished “like marble” (I haven’t visited any of these caves myself, so I am reporting what I have read in the literature), so that one must imagine cave bears passing through the narrow passages of their caves for thousands of years, brushing against the wall with their fur until the rough stone is made smooth. The human beings who later took over these caves would have run their hand along these smooth walls, noted the niches where the bears hibernated, and wondered if another bear would come to claim the cave they had claimed.
There is a particularly interesting cave in Switzerland, Drachenloch (which means “dragon’s lair,” as cave bear skulls were once thought to have been the skulls of dragons), in which early human beings seem to have stacked cave bear skulls in a stone “vault” in the floor of the cave. Certainly these two mammal species — ursus spelaeus and homo sapiens — would have known each other by all their shared signs of cave habitation. Indeed, they would have smelled each other.
Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell many times pointed out the fundamental mythological differences between hunter-gatherer peoples and settled agricultural peoples; in the case of the Upper Paleolithic, we have hunter-gatherers and only hunter-gatherers — that is to say, tens of thousands of years of a belief system emergent from a hunting culture with virtually no alternatives. Given the tendency of hunting peoples to animism, and of viewing other species as spiritually significant — metaphysical peers, as it were — one would expect that hunters who fought and killed cave bears in order to take over their shelters would have revered these animals in a religious sense, and this religious reverence for the slain foe (of any species) could explain the prevalence of apparent cave bear altars in caves inhabited by human beings during the Upper Paleolithic.
The human world of the Upper Paleolithic would also have been a world shared with other hominid species — an experience we do not have today, being the sole surviving hominid (perhaps as the result of being a genocidal species) — and most especially shared with Neanderthals. Recent genetic research has demonstrated that there was limited interbreeding between homo sapiens and Neanderthals (cf., e.g., Neanderthals had outsize effect on human biology), but it is likely that these communities were mostly separate. If we reflect on the still powerful effect of in-group bias in our cosmopolitan world, how much stronger must in-group bias have been among these small communities of homo sapiens, homo neanderthalensis, and Denisova hominins? One suspects that strong taboos were associated with other species, and rivals in hunting.
It is likely that Neanderthals evolved in the Levant or Europe from human ancestors who left Africa prior to the speciation of Homo sapiens. The Neanderthal were specifically adapted to life in the cold climates of Eurasia during the last glacial maximum. However, such is the power of intelligence as an adaptive tool that the modern human beings who left Africa were able displace Neanderthals in their own environment, much as homo sapiens displaced a great many other species (and much as they displaced cave bears from their caves). While Neanderthals had larger brains than Homo sapiens, they made tools and they wore clothing after a fashion, Neanderthals did not pass through a selective filter that (would have) resulted in the Neanderthal equivalent of cognitive modernity.
Homo sapiens made better tools and better clothing, and, in the depths of the last glacial maximum, better tools and better clothing constituted the margin between survival and extinction. Perhaps the most significant invention in hominid history after the control of fire was the bone needle, that allowed for the sewing of form-fitting clothing. With form-fitting clothing our prehistoric ancestors were able to make their way through the world of the last glacial maximum and the occupy every biome and every continent on the planet (with the exception of Antarctica).
While “lost worlds” and inexplicable mysteries are a favorite feature of historical popularization, the lost human world of the Upper Paleolithic is being recovered for us by scientific historiography. We are, as a result, reclaiming a part of our identity lost for the ten thousand years of civilization since the advent of the Holocene. The mystery of human origins is gradually becoming less mysterious, and will become less more, the more that we learn.
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