Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan

Cro-Magnon by Brian Fagan

Climate change is not just a modern issue for humans.  Thus is the main statement of Brian Fagan’s Cro-Magnon.  Modern humans owe a lot of their cultural development to adjustments we were forced to make to adapt to fluctuating temperatures and precipitation levels, and our ability to adapt quickly is what made us survive and Neanderthals fade away.

Fagan presents Cro-Magnons to the reader with an astonishing amount of thoroughness.  He discusses tool and weapon development, hunting techniques, clothing and shelter creation, art, and possible religious beliefs in detail.  But first he talks about Neanderthals.

Neanderthals, Fagan argues, had an essentially static and conservative culture that did not develop its own adaptations to the environment quickly.  They were cognitively challenged compared to Cro-Magnons, and could not communicate like we do.  I found this interesting, since he does talk about Neanderthals possessing some of the same technological abilities as Cro-Magnons at about the same time Cro-Magnons developed them.  He claims that they were mimicking what Cro-Magnons had already figured out, and that they lacked the ability to actually think out new ways of handling environmental change.  But hasn’t he argued against himself here?  Isn’t the ability to take someone else’s innovation and use it to your advantage rather clever, actually?  And where did they get their technology from before Cro-Magnon appeared on the scene?  I find the dismissal of Neanderthals’ mental abilities and capabilities a little disingenuous — they were competent and smart creatures.

The rest of the book, though, has a very scholarly feel to it.  The information contained within is detailed beyond imagining.  So much so that it took me back to my physical anthropology class in college, in which I had to read a lot of academic articles on things like prehistoric middens and the earliest known hominid.  Fagan says that the more interested reader should take a look at the articles in his bibliography, but I can’t imagine any but the most die-hard anthropology enthusiast will need to look someplace else for comprehensive information on general Cro-Magnon culture and its changes over time.

And changes are what Fagan concentrates on.  He examines the culture at specific points in time, and discusses how the climate shaped the ways Cro-Magnons went about living life.  For example, reindeer were at one time much more common in Europe because of the lower temperatures.  Because they were more abundant, quite a few Cro-Magnon settlements depended on the annual reindeer migrations as their major source of meat, fat and skins for the winter.  I found this fascinating, since I was vaguely aware that, yes, climate dictated some adaptations, but Fagan masterfully shows how the outside world really has shaped human cultural development since our beginnings.

This is quite an impressive book.  I’d recommend it to those who are interested in the development of humans in Europe.  For both the lay reader and those who are coming to the topic in a more formal setting, Fagan has assembled a fine work that will satisfy.

Rating: 4/5.

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Filed under 4/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

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