Cro-Magnons were the first fully modern Europeans--not only the creators of the stunning cave paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere, but the most adaptable and technologically inventive people that had yet lived on earth. The prolonged encounter between the Cro-Magnons and the archaic Neanderthals, between 45,000 and 30,000 years ago, was one of the defining moments of history. The Neanderthals survived for some 15,000 years in the face of the newcomers, but were finally pushed aside by the Cro-Magnons' vastly superior intellectual abilities and cutting-edge technologies. What do we know about this remarkable takeover? Who were these first modern Europeans and what were they like? How did they manage to thrive in such an extreme environment? And what legacy did they leave behind them after the cold millennia? This is the story of a little known, yet seminal, chapter of human experience.--From publisher description.
However, although I would have preferred it if the writing were a bit livelier and more concise, I did find this worth reading. The subject is interesting, and Fagan does offer interesting information about it. If nothing else, he successfully dispels some popular misconceptions, such as the stereotype of Neanderthals as ugly, clumsily brutish cavemen, and the notion of the Ice Age as one long, unbroken, icy winter. He also repeatedly invites the reader to imagine what it might have been like to live in those distant times and to walk among these vanished people. I found that mental exercise both exciting and rewarding, and it's Fagan's ability to evoke that response that is the book's real strength.
In Cro-Magnon, Brian Fagan, a veteran archeologist and climate historian, offers a straightforward narrative of the expansion of homo sapiens into Europe during what is conventionally called the "Ice Age", from about 115,000 to 12,000 years before the present. Unlike many other writers in this field, he spends little space on theorizing, technical discussions or the details of scholarly disputes. Thus, for instance, he refers to the findings of analyses of mitochondrial DNA without expatiating on what it is or how it is used to trace anatomically modern humans back to their African origins. Similarly, he does not argue at length for some of his more controversial views, e. g., that the Neanderthals were incapable of fully articulate speech and differed cognitively from our own species.
The scanting of explanation and argumentation will disappoint some readers. It is often unclear whether Dr. Fagan is presenting well-established facts or tenuous conjecture. As compensation, there is more room for a rounded picture of how the first Europeans lived and, especially, how they adapted over time to constantly changing climatic conditions. Anyone whose image of "cave men" still bears traces of Alley Oop will be surprised. Cro-Magnon painting and ivory carving can hold their own with the finest products of civilization. It is not unreasonable to extrapolate that their intellectual and spiritual life was likewise sophisticated. There is even (see p. 245) slender evidence of proto-writing 11,000 years ago in Provence.
What the classic Cro-Magnon way of life lacked was the ability to sustain a large population. When agriculture arrived from western Asia, around 6,000 B.C., it rapidly pushed the hunter-gatherer economy to the margins of the continent. The old artistic and cultural traditions faded, too. The descendants of cave painters and reindeer hunters kept chickens and tilled the soil.
It is easy to romanticize the pre-agricultural era. The vignettes that Dr. Fagan scatters through his text are in that vein: Living in harmony with nature, the Cro-Magnons hunt abundant game, fish in rivers stocked with dense schools of salmon and sturgeon, decorate their gear with paint and incisions, experience a rich spirituality, exchange songs and stories, and generally enjoy what look like perpetual vacations. Missing from these scenes, though acknowledged to exist, are cold, hunger, disease, violence and early death. The lives of our forebears may not have been solitary, nasty and brutish; they were unquestionably poor and short.
He then moves to the African savanna, 2.5 million year, to examine the earlier human evolution which led to both. Homo habilis, homo ergaster, homo erectus and homo heidelbergensis bring us -- by way of brief discussions of their fossils, weapons, and probable diet -- to the Europe and Asia of 600,00 years ago, and eventually, sometime between then and 100,000 years ago, to the first true Neanderthals. Along the way they acquired fire, a facility for making stone tools and wooden spears, and a primitive hunting and gathering culture.
Two chapters on the Neanderthals and their world follows, with occasional side trips into the history of archaeology and climatology. Fagan paints vivid portraits of the Neanderthals themselves, who were much more agile and clever than the popular stereotype, making good use of their challenging and varied habitats.
Fagan then drops back to Africa about 150,000 years ago, as interpreted by mitochondrial DNA studies, and the origins of anatomically modern homo sapiens. Some of these people moved north and east to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where they and most of their stay-at-home African relatives were almost wiped out by the eruption of Mount Toba 73,500 years ago -- the greatest volcanic event of the last 23 million years. Perhaps as few as 10,000 people worldwide survived the ash clouds and the ensuing climatic effects. Some time during the next 20,000 years their descendants evolved the cooperative and cognitive skills which we have today, probably including articulate speech; moved back into the Near East, Eurasia, and Europe; and became the Cro-Magnons.
Fagan follows these people as they move up from Africa and into Europe, working his way slowly through the various cultural and archeological stages. The Campanian ash fall event of 39,000 years ago forms a useful reference horizon relative to the scattered remains of the settlements. The narration is sometimes somewhat repetitive, enlivened only by brief but well-drawn scenes of daily life in the different periods. Ice ages come and go, art and artifacts evolve, and the Neanderthal neighbors fade away. Finally the ice withdraws, and with the discovery and spread of agriculture the Cro-Magnons' hunting culture disappears, but their genetic lineages are still here in most modern Europeans.
This book took me a while to read; I laid it down in the middle and had difficulty returning to it. I have an undergraduate minor in anthropology and a life-long interest in archeaology, so the material was interesting to me, and Fagan does a good job of blending modern cultural studies with physical remains to bring the past to life. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and his enthusiasm for his subject is contagious, but the layout of the book -- mostly text with some occasional sidebar material; a scattering of line drawings, maps, and black and white illustrations; and eight pages of small but stunningly beautiful color illustrations in the middle -- lets him down. A more graphic presentation in a larger format could had made this a wonderful book. As it is, despite the author's expertise, it misses the mark for me.
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 as tool maker, 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.
It was a fast read (for me) - about a week, with most of it going by on two airplanes. The content is fascinating, looking at the big picture was done well, and the story was well told in terms of bringing together the changes in climate/ice ages with the archaeology, anthropology, stone age technology and society.
Its written for a general audience as a narrative of what we know and can surmise about Cro-Magnon evolution, migration/geography, contact with and domination over Neanderthals, and general way of life/culture/art etc. This book does a great job of not getting bogged down in minutiae, classifications, or jargon, all of which abound in the technical fields. It also does a great job of sticking to the big picture and broad sweeps of human pre-history. There's a lot we don't know and that's stated up front. There's a lot we can infer and that's stated up front. And there's a lot we can imagine things being like and that's stated up front.
But there was also a lot that was stated that was overstated. There were a lot of "must have been"s when really it's "could have been". Climate changes and shifts in glaciers and temperatures would very likely have an impact on animal and human migration and settlement patterns, but I'm not yet convinced to make the leap that climate change would directly influence the human human evolution or the propensity for culture, religion, art, etc.
I'm also fairly skeptical that life was quite as static over the millenia as is repeatedly stated -- while I can't think of a way to prove it, it just doesn't seem quite right that there weren't social changes that just may not be reflected in the archaeological artifacts. There were many comparisons made to current hunter/gatherer societies - but I have to imagine there were some pretty substantial differences there as well. Finally, throughout the book there were fluffy imaginary scenes meant to illustrate these peoples and make them 'real' which I felt were superfluous and made the book feel more like historical fiction. There were also many side bars that two 2-3 pages each that disrupted the flow of reading. Often figures didn't appear anywhere near where they were being discussed which resulted in a lot of page flipping. And there was a lot of poor quality foreshadowing that sounded sort of like "well this is a really cool topic, but we won't talk about it until Chapter 6".
Overall, the book was really good at piquing my interest and at pointing out all the things that we really *don't* know about life for the first anatomically modern humans. There just isn't the evidence or archaeological record to say much at all with confidence. Ultimately, this remains a book that says much and means little in a generally interesting way.
Cautiously recommended - go ahead if you're looking for something intriguing and big picture but take it with a grain of salt. 3.5 stars.
So what's new with the old? For starters, better dating techniques and mitochondrial DNA analysis has improved our understanding of the timeline. The Cro-Magnon (and focus of this book) are the ancestors of modern Europeans, and the book begins with their co-habitation with the neanderthal before moving into a series of eras defining differences in Cro-Magnon cultures. Fagan intersperses analysis of the current evidence with tales describing what he imagines daily life to be in a certain place and time. Much of this is speculation, and on problem with the book is that historic record is very fragmented and only very durable (ie, stone) artifacts remain. Make no mistake, the author does make some very good educated guesses that fit with the evidence at hand, but still, there is an awful lot of conjecture, and parts of the story are bound to change over time. In the end, I was less interested in the speculation and more interested in the significance of actual evidence.
There were a few editorial problems with the book worthy of note -- most having to do with captions of illustrations and references to them in the text. Some compound illustrations, for example, were lettered but the caption neither explained all of the letters, nor were always in sync with what the letter actually represented.
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.
The story itself is both sparse and vast. Sparse in the sense that there's very little evidence to go on, and vast in the sense that we have to extrapolate such meager pickings to tell the story of hundreds of thousands of years of human activity across three continents.
It's a very tough task, and Fagan gamely makes the best of it, assembling a few vivid scenes -- verbal dioramas -- that evoke a reasonable sense of authenticity. More valuable, perhaps, are the descriptions of how specific kinds of research have provided new knowledge and shed some faint light from different angles.
Unfortunately, Fagan easily gets bogged down when there's not enough material. Several times you find yourself re-reading descriptions of the same things described with the same adverbs. I think the book would benefit greatly from stripping out the fluff and providing more description of specific sites, the evidence they have provided, and the manner in which that evidence has been unearthed and analyzed. Where he does go into that kind of detail, the writing feels more sure and spare. Where he tries to develop the bigger picture, the misty gaps become too apparent.
Lastly, there are several annoyances I found with my copy, which was marked "advanced reading copy" and carries the disclaimer that it is printed from uncorrected proofs. The final publication will benefit greatly from careful editing. In particular, there were problems with redundancy, spelling, grammar, and botched references to illustrations. (And I missed having the color plates to enjoy)
Fagan starts with neanderthals, breathing life into our late evolutionary cousins. The 'scenes' Fagan depicts in this opening theme of the book are some of the funnest to think about, but seem the least plausible given the paucity of findings from that time.
This, in a way, is a theme of the book- as Fagan progresses chronologically he has more evidence to work with, making his re-enactments more believable but necessarilly less fantastic. As the book is finishing up the content feels a little drier since there are more findings to describe, but none-the-less Fagan provides some teasing glimpses of the first breaths of more complex civilization.
In the end I think Cro-Magnon is a blend of predominantly non-fiction with a sprinkling of fiction that mostly works.
It's not that he doesn't write evocative passages about what life for Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons must have been like. And his science is as details-rich and thorough as one would hope.
It's an organization problem. Because there are so many gaps in the science, what we don't know is a huge problem for the best writer, and he is certainly one of those. He is left to repetition. I think a sequence and visual re-organization would fix this.
Every time he gets going on imagining scenes from 9,000, 15,000, 40,000 years ago, he veers abruptly back to facts and methods, artifacts and details. understand, not a bit of it is wrong or out of place. And I love both. It's just that I was left with a feeling of being in a '67 Jaguar E type chained to a rock. Revving, revving, then engine off.
See why I feel guilty? This book more than satisfies as time-travel and science. Brian knows this material, and there is no other book like it. I just wanted him to let 'er rip more. Perhaps every other chapter should have been "let me take you back".
While reading I found myself asking questions and wanting to learn more. The Chapter Notes provided the opportunity to seek more information. I found several references that I would like to read further.
Overall I found the book easy to read and understand. It was a good starting place to discover what other information I might be interested in reading about.