At the height of the last glaciation, around 18,000 years-ago, people moved south to survive; it was only as the ice receded, around 15,000 years-ago, that people began to move north again. Initially, grass and shrubs reclaimed the barren lands of the ice, which, in turn, attracted herds of horse and reindeer to graze it. People soon followed and moved inexorably northwards at an average rate of about one kilometre a year . At 14,000 BC they arrived in northern France and at 12,700 BC they reached Britain. However, these first people did not come to stay; they were pioneers in this frozen land and probably retreated south each winter to avoid the savage cold.
At a place called Gough's Cave in southern England , although there is no sign early travellers actually killed the dead bodies they had with them, cut marks on the bones show that they butchered and presumably ate the flesh; some bones even shows signs of having been roasted . It seems that, although people revered the dead and their spirits, in such harsh conditions practical considerations won out. However, there is also evidence that people had other sources of food, as horse and deer bones were mixed in with those of the humans. If they had an alternative, just why were they consuming their dead? Perhaps it was desperation, but perhaps it was for more ritualistic reasons. These were barren places and maybe eating those who had not survived was a means of ensuring that part of their bodies (and maybe their spirits) would return to the homeland further south and not remain in this desolate land, particularly as it appears that the survivors did not intend to remain long. From the horse bones, people had taken sinews to use as thread, probably to repair their clothes. They would need them, for it seems that, before returning home, this band moved yet further north, to Creswell Crags in north-west England.
Although there is a good mixture of bones from the caves at Creswell, there are no human bones and the bones from horse and deer were likely dragged in by carnivores . The people caught arctic hares and survived on them. However, despite eating hare, people clearly had other animals on the minds, since they engraved and, in a single instance, painted, images of animals on the caves walls . The art was only discovered in 2003 and caused a sensation as it was the first to be found in Britain. Although it stemmed from the same tradition as the great painted caves of France and Spain (and the last of these caves probably only slightly predate the images at Creswell, if at all), it is clearly nowhere near as dramatic nor the images as numerous . It seems that the art was the result of a small band of pioneers putting their unique mark on the rock walls. Perhaps the images were involved in some sort of ritual at the cave, perhaps they were merely a way of marking a human presence in a land that must have appeared empty and, at times, truly terrible .
About the same time that intrepid groups of pioneers were exploring the more northerly reaches of the land, and living on a meagre diet of arctic hare, others were engaging in a very different type of hunting. At Meiendorf, in northern Germany, the Ahrensburg Valley formed a bottleneck as the land squeezed tightly between two lakes. This was also the migration route for thousands of reindeer, passing through the valley to reach the frozen lands of Scandinavia . This was an opportunity that people could not resist and the deer were killed in huge numbers, leaving behind the remains of thousands of bones. The ground would have been slick with blood by the time the migrating deer had passed. As the deer were passing between the lakes, people probably drove them into the water and, as the animals were floundering to escape, let fly with their deadly spears . The hunters gave even more power to their arsenal by using a spear-thrower to increase velocity . Experiments have shown that spears thrown in this manner can penetrate the flesh of a reindeer by 32 centimetres; since people were aiming at the hearts of the animals, this was guaranteed to be fatal . However, to affect such penetration, the spear needs to be tipped with good quality flint (experiments with antler points penetrated flesh to only 15 centimetres). Fortunately, there were ready supplies nearby; this land appears to have held all that an early hunter might need.
At Etiolles, in northern France, for example, flint blocks were brought to be knapped into tools, including the spear points used to hunt reindeer . Through careful analysis of the heaps of chippings left by each knapper as he or she sat around a central fire, it is possible to discern a pattern. The best knappers were those who sat closest to the fire (a perk, no doubt, reflecting their skills), whereas apprentices and those whose quality of work was not first rate were, quite literally, out in the cold, and sat around the perimeter of the fireside group .
Many of the spear-throwers of this time were decorated with finely engraved images of prey animals; likely those that the spears were designed to kill. However, the animals are not shown in a state of panic or distress but are calm and serene, perhaps reflecting the respect that the hunters had for their prey . It is also possible that the images reflect the spirit of the animals, their carving being an act of appeasement for the violence that was to follow. Calling on the spirits of prey animals in this way might also help to explain another site in these lands, at Gönnersdorf, in western Germany.
The schist plaques from Gönnersdorf make up the largest collection of images from central Europe at this time. Animals make up the most abundant images with horse being a favourite subject, perhaps reflecting its position as the main food resource for the people who lived there . However, mammoths were also commonly depicted and these were extremely rare in the area, if not absent altogether . Among the most celebrated engravings are those of the women, numbering just over 400, including several carrying a baby on her back . However, unlike the animals, which were depicted in fine detail, the women were extremely schematic with most missing heads and feet; this must have been a deliberate choice.
Moreover, these schematic images are mirrored at La Roche in France, where the engravings on the walls of the rock shelter are almost exact replicas of the Gönnersdorf women , and at Wilczyce in Poland, where similar designs were chipped from flint .
- Mithen 2003: 120.
- Currant, Jacobi and Stringer 1989.
- Cook 1991.
- Charles and Jacobi 1994.
- Pettit et al. 2007.
- There are around 90 figures within Church Hole at Creswell Crags and may well be more lying undiscovered in other caves.
- After the discoveries at Creswell, more art has been found at Gough’s Cave and at near-by Aveline’s Hole. However, these engravings comprise scratched geometric shapes rather than animals and may date to a later period; the research is ongoing. Mullen and Wilson (2005a, 2005b) provide further details.
- It used to be thought that the reindeer calved in northern Germany before moving to southern Sweden for winter grazing, but Aaris-Sørensen, Mühldorff, and Brinch Petersen (2007) have questioned this assumption.
- Bokelmann 1991: 77.
- Bokelmann (1991: 77-8) shows how the spear-thrower acts as an extension to the arm as the spear is hooked into its end and then spear and spear-thrower are thrust forward.
- Terberger 2006: 31.
- Pigeot 1987.
- Pigeot 1990.
- White 2003: 107.
- Mithen (2003: 130-1) provides a different reconstruction for the use of the panels, although retaining the ceremonial setting and shamanic overtones.
- Bosinski and Fischer 1980.
- Bosinski 1984.
- Bosinski, d’Errico and Schiller 2001.
- Clottes 2008: 214-5.
- Fiedorczuk et al. 2007.
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