Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Perfect Book to Read in a Blizzard: Cro-Magnon, the Story of Ice Age Humans

With the mid-Atlantic region recovering from one blizzard and bracing for another, we might be forgiven for wondering whether, instead of worrying about global warming, we ought to be learning how to make igloos. Let me call your attention to the perfect book to read after shoveling three feet of snow off your walk: Brian Fagan's Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans.

Cro-Magnon people were the first fully modern Europeans. We know them best for their stunning cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and elsewhere. But the Cro-Magnons were not just artistically gifted; they were ingeniously inventive. In fact they were the most adaptable and technologically creative people that had yet lived on earth. They lived side by side with an older species, Neanderthals, for some 15,000 years. In the end, the Cro-Magnons were better able to cope with the changing climate as the ice age blanketed Europe: they had better tools, better communication, and warmer clothes. They survived and Neanderthals faded away.

I really enjoy working Brian Fagan, an archaeologist who has a gift rare in his profession for bringing the prehistoric past to life. He can evoke the mystery of a cave flickering with torchlight, or the hesitant, wordless encounter of a Cro-Magnon hunting party and a Neanderthal settlement. A few pages later he can explain the cutting-edge techniques scientists use to date and interpret artifacts or tiny fragments of bone. And he can provide illuminating insights into the ingenuity of humans, revealing how what seem like simple innovations could push human history forward. For instance, what tool--probably more important than the wheel--allowed our Cro-Magnon ancestors to make it though the frigid winters of the Ice Age? The needle. With a sliver of bone pierced at one end, it was possible to sew together hides or furs and make real clothes. Imagine shoveling your walk, or chasing a deer, while trying to keep a bear hide draped over your shoulders and you'll see pretty clearly why this is important. 

If you have enjoyed the works of Jared Diamond--or for that matter, Clan of the Cave Bear and its bestselling sequels, I think you'll find Cro-Magnon an absorbing read. Here's a brief interview with Brian about the book. (Someone said he looks "like Indiana Jones's dad." I think she's got a point there.) 

(For more information on Brian Fagan and his other books, including the New York Times bestseller The Great Warming, visit www.brianfagan.com.)