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#Real10000BC : This Is Not The Mesolithic

The new reality TV series 10,000 BC (Channel 5) is obviously, despite claims about 'making history fun', really more about seeing what a mix of people do when placed in harsh physical and social circumstances. However, given all the PR around how it's a 'Stone Age" setting, in a "Mesolithic-style" camp, it seems only fair that archaeologists get to have a say about the Real 10,000 BC- which by the way, isn't even IN the Mesolithic...

So for those interested in more than who starts crying first, here's a bit more info on the archaeology from around this time (and hello if you've come here via the #Real10000BC links!).

After seeing the Flintstones–Blair Witch mashup trailers for 10,000 BC, a lot of people who think and talk about the Stone Age for a living were more than a little skeptical of just how much living history (i.e. accurate conditions based on our knowledge from archaeology) there really was going to be. The PR photos might just be a bit of fun, but the bone clubs, skin bikini tops and bizarrely random choices of fur seem more like a Carry On Caveman fancy dress parade than anything people from the real Stone Age would probably recognise.

Before we get any further, let's start with the basics - 10,000 BC is not technically the Mesolithic, an archaeological period that means 'middle stone age' (although nobody calls it that, as confusingly there is an actual Middle Stone Age period in African archaeology...). The Mesolithic is post-ice age, otherwise known as Holocene, and it starts about 10,000 YEARS ago. BC means 'before christ', and is a frankly weird convention that only later prehistoric (from when farming starts) researchers use - it's kind of irrelevant when things get very old. So when you take into account that BC means adding on two thousand years to the date, we are really talking about human experiences twelve thousand years ago, at the end of the preceding Palaeolithic period (old stone age). Although it’s great to see the term Mesolithic even being used in mass media, it doesn't bode well when there's a clanger in the title of the programme.

OK, so back to the unlikely wardrobe choices. Humans (including Neandertals) have likely been wearing properly tailored clothing for at least 50,000 years- a necessary bit of kit in order to cope with much colder climates than Bulgaria in 2014. And it wasn't just fur and skin parkas:
  • fine bone needles from over 30,000 years ago would have made a difference to thermal properties of clothing through tight seams, and may also have been used for embroidery, including bead-work such as the amazing double burial from Sunghir, Russia (+35,000 years old)
  • around 26,000 years ago people in eastern Europe left impressions of light-duty woven cloth in ceramic fragments (oh yes, they were firing clay too...)
  • back at 30,000 years, from a cave in Georgia (the country, not the state) we've found spun plant fibres, which were actually dyed - pink, black and turquoise. 
We can't know for sure that the woven and spun materials were used for clothing, but there was clearly an ancient tradition of making fabrics in Ice Age Europe, and the use of varied colours would make a lot of sense for the items that people wore (more detail about the origins of clothing here). What there wasn't (probably) was zebra-skin boots...
Even if the PR shots are perhaps predictably over the top, it's pretty clear that people back then would have been considerably better dressed than the participants here are- no wonder there's a lot of focus on how freezing and miserable they are.

So- the clothing is pants (or maybe furry leggings?). What about the overall setting? The producers of course want ratings, and have claimed it will be ‘fascinating’ and ‘ballsy’. But they would probably have to chickened out of putting people in the kind of climates and environments that Britain was faced with 12,000 years ago, or someone might actually have died. Sounds extreme? Well, it was.

Over the last 1 million years in Britain there have been about 20 ice ages (PDF chart here). The most recent one began to wane following its maximum around 20,000 years ago (so a similar age to the oldest found bone needles). Glaciers retreated as global temperatures increased, and for about a thousand years before 10,000 BC, forests began to recover from the places they'd retreated to, and with them came large animals including giant deer and aurochs (the huge and feisty ancestor of modern cows). Reindeer were also still about, although mammoths had disappeared from Britain a few thousand years before. But climate is complex, and even though things were warming up overall, there were still episodes of cold and dry conditions that lasted a couple of thousand years at a time. The very last one of these started about 12,800 and lasted until 11,500 years ago– therefore including 10,000 BC.

Known to palaeo-climate researchers as the Younger Dryas, this period is famous for being super extreme. It dropped from only a bit colder than today, to average temperatures of –5 C in Britain. This probably happened within less than a decade, a ridiculously fast transformation that must have been traumatic for the people faced with it. Daily life went from being challenging but familiar, to extremely hostile, with conditions unknown in living memory. Glaciers began to form again in the Lake District and Scotland. Forests that had been recovering reverted to tundra, and deposits of loess – a sort of talcum-fine powder that derives from the pulverized rocks in front of glaciers – began to form, deposited by the strong winds. Confronted with this climate shock, the whole food chain would have been under massive stress, with plants that were unable to adapt dying, and animals living on them forced to move or starve.  


Younger Dryas abrupt climate change c. 10,000 BC.  Image: Iceage_time-slice_hg.png: Hannes Grobe/AWI derivative work: Alexchris (Iceage_time-slice_hg.png) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Things were so tough, that the archaeological record suggests most of northern Europe– including Britain, Belgium, Scandinavia, north Germany and France– was basically abandoned by people. We see the relatively rich Late Palaeolithic cultures that had been adapting to woodland conditions disappear, and apart from very infrequent visits, Britain in 10,000 BC was a deserted icy waste.


The ending of the Younger Dryas about 9,600 BC was, like its beginning, abrupt, with re-growth of forests and the return of large animals. After centuries of deep cold that froze the land itself, rivers of glacial meltwater ran over the surface, and at Malham Cove, Yorkshire, an enormous waterfall gushed over huge cliffs like a mini-Niagara. Re-colonisation of northern Europe by people was also remarkably swift, with this ‘Final Palaeolithic’ made up mostly of small rapidly moving groups, apparently aided by a developed boat culture, on both inland and via coastal routes. In Britain, the pioneers are known as the Long Blade culture, however the record is sparse and may reflect people who were hunting herds of horses but not staying for long. Just a few hundred years after this, we are into the Mesolithic (which remember, is the claimed setting for '10,000 BC'), and the archaeology becomes quite amazing.


The most famous Early Mesolithic site in Britain is Star Carr, Yorkshire, which has been the focus of decades of research since its first excavation in 1949, thanks to exceptional preservation of organic remains in peats. A settlement dating to around 9000 BC around the margins of a now-vanished lake, for years it seemed to fit ideas of early Mesolithic settlement being small-scale as a result of people moving frequently. But a campaign of large-scale landscape work at the site since 2004 led by trowelblazers Professor Nicky Milner and Dr Chantal Conneller has transformed our ideas about this site and the period. Star Carr was already celebrated thanks to early discoveries of spectacular objects including nearly 200 barbed antler points, beads of shale and amber, and the 21 mysterious stag head-dresses, made from the worked skull caps and antlers of red deer. New mapping of the whole lake margin has revealed the occupation at Star Carr to be much larger than previously thought, with continuous archaeological material covering almost 20,000m2. This includes substantial wooden structures built on dry and wetland, possibly as boat landings, providing evidence for early carpentry. Excavations on the other side of the lakeshore in 2007-8 uncovered a hut, with evidence for reeds on the floor and flint working inside- the oldest house in Britain.


Star Carr was repeatedly re-occupied, somewhere people came back to over several hundred years, and not simply a transient stop for a few families. It was a persistent place, with huge investment of time and energy through the construction of the wooden platforms, the house and even ‘landscaping’ of the lake edge by reed burning. It is one part of the extensive archaeological evidence from across Europe that the Early Mesolithic was highly sophisticated, with carpentry, multi-component and carved weaponry, imported precious stones, and activity that transcends the quotidian, as shown by the stag head-dresses and large burials. Even Stonehenge in Britain, better known for its late prehistoric archaeology, hosted earlier Mesolithic activity, with evidence of collaborative projects in the form of huge postholes found under the present-day car park, for objects probably 3 metres tall.

Whatever 10,000 BC ends up revealing about 21st century British tolerances for bad food and cold feet, it's clear that the Mesolithic and the preceding Late Palaeolithic were full of complex ways of living. Representing that even in a massively funded historical programme is tricky, never mind a ratings-focused reality TV series. So although there will doubtless be plenty of archaeological clangers, maybe we can celebrate that prehistory is on prime-time at all. Fingers crossed some people who tune in for the social melodrama will come away intrigued (and hopefully not grossed out) about what life was really like 12,000 years ago, and inspired to find out more- and thanks for reading if that's you!  


Thanks to discussion with Tash Reynolds who pointed me to bone needles older than the ones I knew about and revised dating for the Sunghir double child burial! A bit of info here too in this blog post by Aggsbach, and open access paper on Sunghir dates here

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