Everyday Life in the Ice Age

Review by Paul Pettitt

Archaeologists tend to reserve the term ‘civilisation’ for the settled villages and towns of the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Many of the innovations that we think are characteristic of human civilisation were, however, the inventions of Ice Age hunter-gatherers. Just think of eyed-needles and tailored clothing, drawing, painting and sculpture, jewellery, living structures, and the burial of the dead; all part of Ice Age life, and innovations of small, highly mobile groups of hunter-gatherers who patchily occupied the steppe tundras of Eurasia from the time of their first dispersals up into northern latitudes between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago.

These and many more Ice Age innovations are brought strikingly to life in Clifford and Bahn’s excellent introduction to Ice Age life. Production quality is superb: Archaeopress have done justice to a highly readable text by producing a lavishly illustrated and colourful book, which should have a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in studying the Palaeolithic, either out of general interest or for university-level study. Despite the broad title, its focus is the European Upper Palaeolithic: the archaeological record of its earliest Homo sapiens inhabitants, some 1,200 generations of women and men between around 40,000 years ago and the end of the Ice Age a little after 12,000 years ago. As the authors hope, the book does fill a gap: as they observe, a number of popular science books on Neanderthals exist, but until now ones on our own species have been very rare.

The story begins with our ancestors’ biology; from growth, wear-and-tear, and health ‘from womb to tomb’, to Clifford’s close interest in gender roles, pregnancy, and childhood, which are of particular use given modern concerns with equality and diversity. After having set the biology up, the book sets up the wider background of Ice Age climate and environments, and the campsites that provided shelter in them. Following that, the thematic arrangement treats tools and crafts, subsistence and survival, and social life, fleshing out a comprehensive treatment of the archaeological data with pertinent examples from ethnography (social lives) and animal behaviour (how to hunt), but retains a blessedly cautious approach throughout, avoiding over-interpretation and sensationalism. I always enjoy reading Bahn’s critiques of the way that it became popular in the 1990s to interpret cave art as deriving from altered states of consciousness in shamanic activity, or ‘shamania’ as he refers to it, and it takes another deserved pummelling here.

The book dispels a number of myths, in fact: Ice Age Homo sapiens were neither short in stature nor lived short lives; neither did these ‘cave men’ (and women) live in caves, at least beyond the daylit zones of their entrances, which they improved the comfort of by long-disappeared soft furnishings (you’ll have to read it to find out what these were!). They did explore the depths of caves, however, and with its erudite coverage of artistic and ritual activities in these dark and mysterious places the book brings Bahn’s expertise in Palaeolithic art to the fore. What emerges is a picture of a highly inventive, resilient, creative, and artistic social ancestor, coping successfully with wild, dangerous environments, in which they displayed an intimate knowledge of a diverse set of resources from large megafauna such as horses, bison, and reindeer, through small trappable animals such as terrestrial fur-bearers, fish, and birds, to gatherable plants. All of these appeared and disappeared as the annual cycle changed, requiring considerable information retention, something we should admire from the perspective of our attention-poor ‘clickbait’ minds.

As an Upper Palaeolithic specialist, I’m delighted that Clifford and Bahn have done such justice to our distant ancestors. I hope the book will go far to convince amateurs and specialists alike that if we are to use such general terms as ‘civilisation’, it is in desperate need of backdating several tens of thousands of years. Better still, just ignore the term, sit back, and enjoy this jauntily written, up-to-date excursion around Ice Age Europe. It’s a terrific resource for students and an unparalleled introduction to the achievements of our Ice Age ancestors. When you’re done, you can even cook the Ice Age recipe that Clifford and Bahn include. I won’t spoil the surprise, but get your plaquette heated up ready.

Everyday Life in the Ice Age
Elle Clifford and Paul Bahn
Archaeopress, £24.99
ISBN 978-1803272580