Atlantis Enigma - Chapter 7
F A C T
THE EVIDENCE INDICATES A WELL-FED, FIT AND HEALTHY PEOPLE WHO HAD NO DIFFICULTY KEEPING WARM DURING THE BIG FREEZE ...
Science offers us a clear and detailed picture of the last Ice Age. It began 2.5 million years ago and ended (hopefully) about 8000 BC.(19) As you might imagine, it was a time of extreme cold. Almost a third of the planetary land surface (17 million square miles) was covered by vast sheets of ice. Huge stretches of the oceans froze.
The largest of the land-based ice sheets was the Laurentide, in North America. There were times when it grew to such monstrous proportions that it stretched all the way from southern Illinois right up to the Canadian Arctic. It was so broad it reached from the Rockies to Newfoundland. This was only one sheet. There were others. The Cordilleran formed in western Alaska and stretched to northern Washington. There were glaciers and ice caps throughout the highlands of the western United States, Mexico, Central America, and Alaska. On the other side of the partly frozen Atlantic, the Scandinavian ice sheet at times covered most of Britain, central Germany, Poland and northern Russia to the Arctic Ocean. There were smaller ice caps in the highlands of northern Siberia and Arctic Eurasia. Glaciers formed in the Alps and elsewhere in the various European and Asian mountain ranges.
Although the northern hemisphere was worst hit, the southern hemisphere was not left unscathed. Ice caps and glaciers developed throughout the Andes. Glaciers formed in New Zealand, Africa and Tasmania. There were even great rivers of ice flowing from mountains standing on the equator.
In those areas of the world not actually covered by ice, conditions were generally grim. Temperatures were much lower than they are today. A 125-mile zone of permafrost clung to the southern border of the North American ice sheet. Europe and Russia fared even worse. Here, permafrost extended many hundreds of miles south. With the coming of the ice, temperatures plummeted. They remained around zero even at the southernmost reaches of the permafrost, while closer to the ice sheets they dropped to minus 6º C or lower. Air temperature was anything up to 20º C colder than it is today.
With so much water locked up in ice, sea levels fell dramatically. In 18 ,000 BP, for example, it is calculated that the drop was more than 300 feet. This gave rise to a world map somewhat different from what it is today. Every continent was larger. What are now submarine continental shelves were then exposed. There was a land bridge connecting Alaska with Siberia. The British Isles were part of mainland Europe. Even those areas far from the actual glaciers were influenced by their icy grip. With lowered sea levels and colder oceans, there were fewer tropical cyclones. The result was decreased rainfall. In a far-reaching domino effect, sand dunes became more active and arid zones increased in Australia, Africa, India and the Near East. As glaciation peaked, the world's deserts expanded by a factor of five.
Despite the extreme brutality of the climate, life survived. Indeed, there is clear evidence that both plants and animals of the Ice Age were much the same as those living today, although they were differently distributed and included several species now extinct. According to the orthodox scientific scenario, it was during the Ice Age that humanity evolved.
The oldest example of our evolutionary line, Homo habilis ('Handy Man) appeared in Africa about 2 million years ago. Habilis (probably) evolved into Homo erectus, who spread out of Africa during the early Ice Age. Our own species Homo sapiens, appeared about 400,000 years ago.
It is easy to imagine how these people must have lived in the frozen northern hemisphere. They would have wrapped themselves in furs as a protection against the extreme cold, just as the old-style Eskimo lived under layers of caribou fur. But the analogy with the Eskimo is limited. At the height of the Ice Age there was little precipitation, hence there were extensive areas in which igloo building would have been impossible - for lack of snow - even if primitive humanity had stumbled on the technique. Nor could Ice Age humanity have constructed the driftwood cabins of the Eskimo. The first action of the ice sheets is to raze forests and ensure a scarcity of wood.
In summer, many Eskimo traditionally moved into animal-skin tents. Ice Age 'summers' were too chilled to permit this without the aid of the oil-lamp heaters eventually adopted by the Eskimo technology far too sophisticated for evolving humanity. Indeed, for most of the Ice Age, humanity had to survive without the most basic technology of all - the ability to make fire.
Against this background, it is logical to assume our fur-coated Ice Age ancestors huddled in the depths of caves and expended their short, brutal lives in a constant battle for survival. But logical or not, this picture is wrong.
Archaeological investigation has shown that 'cavemen' didn't live in caves. Most of our Ice Age ancestors made their homes beneath rock shelters, or in huts or tents. When they went near caves at all ' it was to camp out in the cave mouth. This is peculiar. The deep interiors of natural caverns maintain a fairly constant temperature which, while still bitterly cold during an ice age, would be warmer than the murderous chill outside. It's easy to see why our ancestors would seek the shelter of a cave mouth. Why they didn't move more deeply in is harder to explain.
Two possibilities spring to mind. One is that they were afraid of predators, such as bear or lion, which themselves sometimes inhabited deep caves. The other is that they were afraid of spirits; that, in other words, they had a superstitious awe of the subterranean darkness.
The first of these possibilities is superficially appealing. We have become so accustomed to the myth of 'man the hunter' that we forget for most of our evolution, humanity was prey. But whether at the prey or hunter stage, humanity was never stupid. We would not have survived had we not learned to read the signs. It would have been simple enough to determine whether your proposed new home was already occupied. It would even have been possible for a determined human group to drive out the occupant. Besides, you are in just as much danger from bear if you camp in the mouth of a cave as you are if you make your home deep inside. Whatever the dangers, it would appear the people of the Ice Age could hold their own against the local predators. But were they superstitious? Did unreasonable fear of spirits , so prevalent in primitive communities, keep them out of the caverns? Here again, the answer seems to be no. For while it is quite clear that Ice Age humanity as a whole did not live in deep caves, there is considerable evidence that such caves were often visited. A few - a very few - show signs of brief stays. The reason they were visited is extraordinary: our ancestors decided to decorate their walls.
In 1876, when Don Marcelino de Sautuola raised a torch to examine the interior of a deep cavern on his Spanish estate at Altamira, he discovered the first examples of prehistoric cave art to be seen in modern times. But the art was so sophisticated in its execution, so technically advanced in style, that experts of his day were universal in their condemnation of the whole find as a fake. Their continuing attacks almost certainly contributed to de Sautuola's early death in 1888.
The position of de Sautuola's critics was logical. The creation of art requires sophistication and sensitivity. It also requires an environment that can support leisure activity. It's difficult to see how such an environment could have existed in the Ice Age.
Yet Ice Age art is not confined to a single site in Spain. There were subsequent discoveries of artworks in Arabia, Australia, Brazil, China, France, India, Japan, Korea, Kwazulu, Mexico, Namibia, North America, Patagonia, Peru, Portugal, Sicily, Zaire and Zimbabwe. Some are as old as 30,000 years, and may even be 10,000 years older than that. There is even evidence for the use of pigment dating back 125,000 years.
Such widespread distribution is utterly astonishing. Bear in mind the global environment. The whole of Scandinavia lay beneath a single ice sheet, like much of today's Arctic. Almost all of northern Europe was devoid of woodland, chill wastes of tundra broken only rarely in the most sheltered spots by a straggle of pinewood. The Baltic Sea was cut off from the North Sea and existed as little more than a deep, brackish lake. The Gulf Stream was diverted south. The area where London now stands was a open steppe.
It costs more energy to survive in a cold climate than a hot one. Archaeological excavation shows the prehistoric people of Europe lived on venison, fish and eggs. They were few in number. Tribal communities were small. Nature was unforgiving. If the hunting and the foraging were poor, they starved. In an Ice Age, every waking moment should have been devoted to the necessities of survival - the search for fuel, shelter, food and clothing. There should have been no time left over for frivolities like art.
Yet not only was there time left over, but skeletal remains show no sign of malnourishment. Despite the ice sheets and the permafrost, despite the perpetual cold, despite the harshest conditions our planet has ever known since the time of its creation, there is little indication of starvation or injury. There is no indication at all of illness. What the evidence indicates is a well-fed, fit and healthy people who had no difficulty keeping warm during the big freeze, and had sufficient leisure time to express their creativity in painting.
To date, about 275 decorated sites have been found in Europe alone, along with many more pieces of 'portable art' - statuettes, figurines, incised stones, and items of that sort. While the majority of these artworks are devoted to animal representations, a number show human figures. Almost without exception, the people appear to be lightly clad or naked.
Human figures in prehistoric art are generally far less well executed than animal paintings. Many are little more that matchstick people. But even matchstick people have a tale to tell. A scene painted in a shaft at the Lascaux caverns in France features, among other things, a man with an erection. There is no tenting or drapery of clothing around the prominent part, suggesting its owner was naked, at least from the waist down.
In the Los Casares cave, in the Spanish province of Guadalajara, is a depiction of a couple apparently preparing for intercourse. The man is dressed in a kilt open at the front. The women seems to be naked. Another couple, etched on a plaque recovered from excavations at Enlene, in France, are both naked.
It could, of course, be argued that our distant ancestors just found it convenient to undress for sex. But an ivory statuette from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany shows a standing figure in a tunic that leaves his arms and legs bare. Even more telling are the so-called 'Venus' figurines found across Europe. Typical of these females is the Venus of Lespugue, from the Haute Garonne region in France. This 5.7-inch-tall statuette shows a well-endowed woman wearing nothing but a loincloth.
Two stylized females engraved face to face on a plaque from G6nnersxxdorf In Switzerland are both obviously naked. 'Venus pebbles' from Kamikuroiwa in Japan are engraved with female torsos dressed in nothing more substantial than fringes over breasts and genitals. In one of them, the fringe - reminiscent of the Hawaiian grass skirt - is so sparse that the pubic triangle is visible.
The rock paintings of the Spanish Levant are exceptions to the rule that our ancestors concentrated on animal paintings. In rock shelters from the Pyrenees to the Sierra Nevada, human figures predominate. These artworks show women dancing, men hunting and warriors in battle.
Archaeologist Mary Settegast describes their clothing:
The head-dress ... includes horns, animal masks and feathered headbands; numerous body ornaments and suggestions of body painting have been detected as well. Fringed waistbands are common; animal skins are occasionally shown around the waist with tails hanging down; and while some of the warriors appear to be wearing 'knee-breeches' or loincloths, others wear nothing at all.(20)
The dating of these paintings is uncertain - one problem is that their style is unlike anything seen elsewhere - but a best-guess scenario places them no later than the beginning of the Middle Stone Age, and very possibly earlier. This means the figures were painted while the Ice Age still maintained its chilling grip.
The Levanzo cave on a small island off Sicily's western coast has a series of engravings which include a naked human grouping. The artwork has been dated between 8000 and 8500 BC.
Experts in the field routinely sex prehistoric rock art figures on the basis of whether or not they have visible breasts, vulvae or penises without stopping to ask why, in an era of hideous cold, any body part at all should be depicted as exposed. It is possible that cave paintings of humans were not supposed to be representational - even though depictions of animals certainly were.(21)
Michelangelo's magnificent nudes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are not, after all, an indication that sixteenth century Italians strolled about naked. But there is some evidence that the prehistoric artists were painting what they saw.
Prehistoric rock art is not limited to Europe, and in some areas there is a continuity of the tradition carried through to relatively modern times. Any study of the continuity clearly indicates that the art was meant to be representational - the artists depicted what was important to them, what most influenced their lives.
At Tassili N'Ajjer, in the Algerian Sahara, for example, there are scenes that include hunters and herdspeople, while paintings of charioteers and horses dating to 500 BC, may indicate the influence of dynastic Egypt.
The nomadic San people of Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and south-west Africa have a Pleistocene art tradition that has actually been carried through, uninterrupted, well into modern times. Among their more recent paintings are those which show European traders with stovepipe hats.
In view of this evidence, it is tempting to consider rock art as a sort of pictorial history of the tribe, a representation for posterity of life as it used to be, with highlights like the appearance of Victorian tradesmen faithfully recorded. But if this is so, humanity appears to have been under-dressed for an Ice Age.
There is a cave in Fontanet, France, which preserves fossil footprints of a child. These prints, along with a knee-print and hand-prints, are so numerous it is possible to deduce what the youngster was doing. She, or he, seems to have been chasing a puppy or young fox around the cave. There are similar footprints of both children and adults in caverns at Aldene, Tuc d'Audoubert and several other sites. All have one thing in common. They show the people of the Ice Age went around barefoot.
Notes for chapter 7
(19) Some scientists are not convinced it's over. They believe we are living in a brief inter-glacial and the ice will come again - perhaps even in our lifetime.
(20) In "Plato Prehistorian", Lindisfarne Press, New York, 1990.
(21) So representational that it had to await the invention of the high-speed camera for us to realize the accuracy with which the prehistoric artists had depicted the legs of a galloping horse.
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