Tag Archives: social animals

A Sneak Peek

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00)

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. 

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Loneliness Is Just A Word

Lonely: A Memoir by Emily White

“…the lonely were more likely to have died than the nonlonely.”

Emily White’s Lonely succeeds as a survey book, specifically when she examines the surprising lack of research on what would appear to be a nearly essential topic for study – human loneliness.   She finds, for example, one study which demonstrated that post heart surgery patients were twice as likely to die if they experienced the effects of loneliness.   She also describes the  more standard physical impacts that plague the person who is determined to be lonely, and to her credit she had “to find the papers…  myself.”

The book is much less effective when it attempts to serve as a self-proclaimed memoir.   To be explicit, the book would have been far more engaging if it had begun with a review of the research on the matter of loneliness, and then finished with White describing its impact on her own life.   This is because much of what she stated in the opening seems either odd or contradictory.

This reviewer suspects that most readers will approach the topic with an understanding of loneliness as isolation.   We are lonely when we must be away from the people who are close to us; as when, for example, someone leaves the family nest to go to a faraway college.   But such loneliness is temporary and others come in to fill the empty spots in our existence.

White, however, is the person who is lonely in crowds; she states that, “I just feel a lack of connection around people, even when I’m around people.”   Thus, she responds to this by spending more time alone and, “The more time I spent alone, the more difficult I found it to be around others.”   This seems desperately confusing, especially when we read about how she chose to live way across town from friends and relatives:  “…odd…that I should have chosen a place so far removed (to live).”

White also appears to display a knack for making lemons out of lemonade.   Of cherished car drives with her father she complains that they “always ended.”   And although in law school she was surrounded by smart people, it seemed to signal the start of her era of self-isolation.

This reviewer must disclose that my life and the author’s appear to be considerably parallel as to our experiences, and yet, the very ones that she found limiting were for me empowering.   Thus, we may have a clash of perspectives here.   So, I will re-emphasize that White presents some valuable information when one views this work as a review of a little-developed field.   To her credit, she raises some questions that do call out for an answer – such as whether or not loneliness is inherited.

White might have been served by having the assistance of a professional writer who could have toned down her tendency to look at life through somber dark-colored glasses.   A second set of eyes in the person of an editor might have added a bit of needed joy to this look at our lives and the need we have to share it with others.

A review copy was provided by Harper.

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