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Brian M. Fagan – Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans

April 30, 2010

LibraryThing Early Reviewers44. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian M. Fagan (2010)

Length: 296 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; Archaeology

Started: 11 April 2010
Finished: 15 April 2010

Where did it come from? From the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.
Why do I have it? I read a book on cave art (Amir D. Aczel’s The Cave and the Cathedral) not that long ago, and was looking for another perspective.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 22 March 2010.

Summary: The world was a very different place 45,000 years ago: Europe was colder and drier, with mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and huge herds of reindeer wandering across France, and not one but two species of humans. However, one of these species – the Neanderthals – was declining, while the other – the Cro-Magnons, the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens – was expanding. Fagan argues that the Cro-Magnon’s adaptability and innovative thinking allowed them to persist and thrive as the climate cooled and the challenges of Ice Age set in, and that their legacy persists today, not only in the cave paintings and stone tools they left behind, but also in every one of their descendants.

Review: Some degree of story-telling is inevitable in the study of early human history, mainly because the questions we most want answers to are the ones that are least likely to leave traces in the archeological record. We can know what Cro-Magnons were like as tool makers, we can extrapolate what they were like as hunters, but questions about what they were like as a culture are forever going to remain guesswork at best. To that end, Fagan does engage in quite a bit of storytelling, as well as extensive extrapolation from Inuit and other cold-weather traditional hunter-gatherers. To some extent, that’s unavoidable in writing a book like this one, especially for a popular audience. However, I thought that Fagan wasn’t always as clear as he could have been which parts of his storytelling was speculation, and which parts were supported by archaeological or comparative evidence.

The other problem with this book’s extensive storytelling is that it allows Fagan’s biases to shine through. During the section on the invention of the eyed needle, his description of sewing animal skins as “women’s work” irked me, but what really bothered me was his treatment of the Neanderthals. Neanderthals are a tricky and fascinating case, at once so like us and yet so very different. Yet Fagan seemed predisposed to treat “different” as “less than” – most tellingly in his descriptions of bestiaries of animal fauna of the time, “of which [the Neanderthals] were a part”, but which only “surrounded” the Cro-Magnons. (I call speciesism!) He was also determined to deny the Neanderthals any hint of a symbolic understanding or spiritual life, since they left behind no permanent trace of such (like cave paintings or carvings.) Given my early exposure to Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, and my (limited) knowledge of the diversity of modern tribal hunter-gatherer religions, this really got my hackles up: it felt like the equivalent of saying that if you don’t build stone churches, not only are you not religious, you can’t even conceive of what religion is. So I guess my problem was not that Fagan’s interpretations are biased towards his perspective – again, that’s unavoidable in a work like this – it’s that his biases didn’t match my own, and he didn’t marshal enough evidence to convince me that his interpretation was right.

So, while I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, I did think the book was put together in a nice way. Fagan is good at describing both archaeological facts and early human life in a way that is accessible to the layperson and that feels very immediate and familiar. There was also a nice section of color plates, as well as quite a few black and white illustrations and photos throughout the text itself. The book did feel like it was a bit rushed into production; the text in a few places could have used another pass by a copy editor to catch typesetting errors and stray commas, but more damningly, there were at least three pictures where the caption did not match the illustration (i.e. the picture showed stone tools labeled A through G, but the caption only described A through D.) Overall, though, I did learn some new things, and thought that Fagan did a nice job of putting all of the fragments of rock and bone back into their environmental and social contexts. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Despite some reservations about Fagan’s interpretations, I thought this was a readable and reasonably complete summation of early human history, and I would recommend it to any layperson with an interest in the subject… as long as they were willing to read with a critical eye.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: For dots move along a riverbank in a black and gray Ice Age landscape of forty thousand years ago, the only signs of life on a cold, late-autumn day.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 16: “There must have been a form of silent modus vivendi between modern and premodern, a tolerance based on incomprehension, yet a realization that the one had something to ofer the other…” – a temporary arrangement between persons or parties pending a settlement of matters in debate.
  • p. 76: “The comminuted pieces lay through some nine feet (three meters) of the deposits, almost all of them displaying exactly the same kinds of butchery marks as those on the red deer bones – multiple cut marks, fractures resulting from hammering to extract marrow and brains, crushing of spongy bone, and peeling.” – broken into small parts.
  • p. 103: “The rapids debouch into a deep pool where the translucent water lingers placidly on its way downstream.” – to emerge from a relatively narrow valley upon an open plain.
  • p. 106: “Most Late Ice Age human settlement in the Near East centered on a narrow strip of oak, terebinth, and pine woodland on the Mediterranean coast and along the flanks of the Jordan River Valley.” – a Mediterranean tree, Pistacia terebinthus, of the cashew family.
  • p. 107: “Speleothems (stalagmites and stalactites) from the two caves in Israel provide direct evidence of rainfall fluctuations in the core area of human settlement in the Near East.” – a secondary mineral deposit formed in a cave.
  • p. 113-4: “Fortunately for science, their tools and food remains occasionally appear above and below the tephra (ash) layers from the explosion, which are like the filling of a chronological layer cake, even as far away as a place named Kostenki, by the Don river valley in the Russian Federation.” – clastic (fragmented) volcanic material, as scoria (a cinderlike basic cellular lava), dust, etc., ejected during an eruption.
  • p. 126: “We are fotunate to have the well-documented Campanian ignimbrite eruption as a chronological marker.” – a fine-grained volcanic rock consisting mainly of welded shards of feldspar and quartz.
  • p. 198: “Reindeer tongues are a delicacy so they avulse them by slicing through the skin under the tongue.” – to pull off or tear away forcibly.
  • p. 221-2: “Those skilled enough to fabricate them had mastered a new stoneworking technology, which involved using an antler billet to squeeze off shallow flakes by applying sharp pressure along the edges of a blade.” – a small chunk or short section.
  • p. 262: “At times, hunter and farmer would meet, at first cautiously, perhaps exchanging honey for grain, emmer meal for elk hides.” – a wheat, Triticum turgidum dicoccon, having a two-grained spikelet, grown as a forage crop in Europe, Asia, and the western U.S.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2010 8:15 am

    I would be totally intimidated by this book, but I’m impressed that you read it!

    • April 30, 2010 9:21 am

      bermudaonion – Well, I’ve always been a bit of an anthropology/archaeology/human evolution buff, so it was right up my alley, but I do think Fagan does a good job of making things clear for the layperson. I see where you’re coming from, though; there are non-fiction books that other people read that, even if they’re designed for the layperson, would probably still go straight over my head.

  2. April 30, 2010 11:01 am

    Stuff I know about Cro-Magnons include: You don’t pronounce the G, and they had a low degree of prognathism. My anthro 101 professor would not be thrilled with my level of recall. :P

    • May 4, 2010 12:28 pm

      Jenny – I’d say that’s pretty good, considering most of the “facts” I knew about the Cro-Magnons come from Ayla and Jondalar. :)

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