Four dots move along a riverbank in a black and gray Ice Age landscape of 40,000 years ago, the only sign of life on a cold, late autumn day. Dense morning mist swirls gently over the slow-moving water, stirring fitfully in an icy breeze. Pine trees crowd on the riverbank, close to a large clearing where aurochs and bison paw through the snow for fodder. The fur-clad family move slowly — a hunter with a handful of spears, his wife carrying a leather bag of dried meat, a son and daughter. The five-year-old boy dashes to and fro brandishing a small spear. His older sister stays by her mother, also carrying a skin bag. A sudden gust lifts the clinging gloom on the far side of the stream.
Suddenly, the boy shouts and points, then runs in terror to his mother. The children burst into tears and cling to her. A weathered, hirsute face with heavy brows stares out quietly from the undergrowth on the other bank. Expressionless, yet watchful, its owner stands motionless, seemingly oblivious to the cold. The father looks across, waves his spear and shrugs. The face vanished as silently as it had appeared.
As light snow falls, the family resume their journey, the father as always watchful, eyes never still. During the climb to the rock shelter, he tells his children about their elusive, quiet neighbors, rarely seen and almost never encountered face to face. There had been more of them in his father’s and grandfather’s day, when he had seen them for the first time. Now sightings are unusual, especially in the cold months. They are people different from us, he explains. They do not speak like we do; we cannot understand them, but they never do us any harm. We just ignore them…
Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals: this most classic of historical confrontations, sometimes couched in terms of brutish savagery versus human sophistication, has fascinated archaeologists for generations. On the side stand primordial humans, endowed with great strength and courage, possessed of the simplest of clothing and weaponry, seemingly incapable of fluent speech, with only limited intellectual powers. On the other are the Cro-Magnons, the first anatomically modern Europeans, with articulate speech, innovation, and all the impressive cognitive abilities of Homo sapiens. They harvest game large and small effortlessly with highly efficient weapons and enjoy a complex, sophisticated relationship with their environment, their prey, and the forces of the supernatural world. We know that the confrontation ended with the extinction of the Neanderthals, perhaps about 30,000 years ago. But how it unfolded remains one of the most challenging and fascinating of all Ice Age mysteries.
This is an excerpt from the book Cro-Magnon, released by Bloomsbury Press on March 2, 2010. Very recent research on ancient DNA samples suggests that some Neanderthals may have interbred with modern humans (Cro- Magnons); a fascinating concept meaning that modern human beings are composed of both the winners and losers of this evolutionary battle of rival creatures. We expect to post a review of Cro-Magnon on this site in the future.