Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans

Brian Fagan is one of my favorite authors. I was first introduced to his books in college. They were the text books in the prehistory courses I took for my major in archeology. More recently, he has been writing about the effects of climate change on human history. He has a talent for writing about complex subjects like climate change so that they are comprehensible to the lay reader without “dumbing down” the material.

With his most recent book, he has returned to the subject of prehistory with a comprehensive overview of the first anatomically modern humans, who he refers to as “Cro- Magnon” after the rock shelter where the first remains were discovered. Cro-Magnons are best known as the people who created the magnificent cave paintings in Europe.

When Cro-Magnons migrated into Europe from the Near East, it was already inhabited by the Neanderthals, relatives but not direct ancestors. Dr. Fagan refers to the Neanderthals as the “Quiet People” because they lacked fluent speech. They also lacked symbolism, religion, art and innovation. Their way of life was unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years. Unable to compete with their more advanced cousins, the Cro-Magnons, the Neanderthals gradually died out.

The Ice Age was not uniformly cold. There were periods of warmth when vegetation and animal populations changed. The Cro-Magnons were experts at adapting to the changing conditions, hunting large game when it was cold and smaller game when it was warm. The tools they left behind reflect the constant innovations that made them so successful. Their art, musical instruments and burials reveal their rich spiritual life.

The Cro-Magnons spread out all over Europe, hunting, foraging, constantly adapting to changing conditions for tens of thousands of years until the next wave of migration swept into Europe: farmers from the Near East. Did the Cro-Magnons die out like the Neanderthals before them? DNA tells us no. 85% of Europeans are direct descendants of Cro-Magnons.

“Cro-Magnon” offers the latest theories developed from hundreds of years of archeology devoted to European prehistory. The information is presented in a very readable form. No prior knowledge is needed by the reader. All specialized terms are explained. Brian Fagan has done it again, taken a vast and complicated subject and produced a book that is both educational and engaging.

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