Thousands of years ago in the frosty depths of the Last Ice Age, with each cool breath lingering wispily under their noses, people we might call Ug and Nug sat in dimly lit caves, ensconced from the perils of the outside world. At some point they looked at those barren cave walls and decided to scribble on them. The quality of these doodles shouldn’t’ come as a shock to us – Ug and Nug were anatomically no different to Leonardo Da Vinci – but somehow we still find ourselves astonished at the precision of those beautiful and striking cave figures. Yet what isn’t a shock is the subject matter because our ancient ancestors were just like us in their obsession with animals.
The Ardeche region in southern France is named after its river, a tributary of the Rhone, and the limestone cliffs that tower over crystal blue water make it a firm favourite with scenery-loving kayakers. But in 1994 three amateur cavers were exploring a dried up gorge when they felt a breeze blowing through what seemed like solid rock. Intrigued, they removed the tumble-down stones and were thrilled to uncover the entrance to a hidden cave. Venturing inside, it was as if they’d stepped through a time portal in a Jules Verne novel because before them were hundreds of bones, visible prehistoric footprints and, most-importantly of all, some of the oldest cave art ever found.
Dating to about 32,000 years ago, the entrance to Chauvet Cave is narrow but soon opens up into a wide series of chambers extending 400 metres into the rock, and on virtually every wall there are beautiful, haunting drawings of animals – 420 images of 13 separate species. This alone was revelatory, but what has most surprised archaeologists is that, amongst the rhinos and mammoths we might expect, was a preponderance of carnivorous predators: immense prowling bears, ferocious hyenas and snarling lions.
While it’s understandable why our ancestors would have wanted to draw them – this may have been the world’s first Health and Safety warning notice – such attention given to meat-eaters was not mirrored in other known cave art. Later Stone Age artists were much more likely to depict grass-nibblers such as horses, aurochs and mammoths than razor-toothed killers. So, why did our ancestors stop scribbling portraits of carnivores and switch to herbivores instead? Was it a lunch menu of available meats, as when you walk into a fast food restaurant and stare at the photos of juicy burgers – “I’ll have the auroch and fries, please”…?
Or could it have been a magical form of wish-fulfilment in times of starvation, a way of asking Mother Nature to make these nomadic beasts appear? Were these creatures spirit guides in religious shamanistic rituals? Or were such murals even just hunting manuals, the equivalent of a tactical flipchart outlining the plan before a bank heist? “Jimmy Muscles, you poke it with the spear. Bobby the Flame, you wave the torch in its face. Short-Sighted Micky, try not to fall off the cliff again…”
As you can tell from my increasingly-desperate analogies, the purpose of cave art remains mysterious. But what’s interesting is that what was depicted on the walls wasn’t always what was eaten. At Altamira Cave in Spain, they drew bison but snacked on red deer. At Lascaux Cave, there’s only one reindeer on the walls, but it was by far their preferred meat. Perhaps drawing an animal was a way of recording its exciting novelty, the Stone Age equivalent of sharing a YouTube video – “guys, have you seen THIS?” We just don’t know.
IT’S BAD MANNERS TO EAT YOUR FRIENDS
What cave art doesn’t really suggest is whether our ancestors kept pets or not. There were suggestions in the 1980s that the huge number of bear skeletons found at Chauvet suggested humans lived alongside these animals, or even worshipped them, but that’s very hard to prove. There’s plenty of evidence for their bones being ritually stained with coloured ochre once they were dead, but that doesn’t really help us know how living bears were treated. Mostly, it seems people were in the business of eating animals, rather than feeding them. Indeed, to give you some idea of humanity’s impact on the natural world, we contributed to the extinction of 85% of large land animals (megafauna), including giant sloths, giant wombats, giant beavers, giant kangaroos and… er, mammoth-sized mammoths.
So, if we were busily wiping out anything with a heartbeat, did humans decide to spare some animals to keep as pets? Yes, the likely answer is that canines were our earliest companions, probably due to their dual abilities to hunt and act as danger-spotting sentinels. If I’d written this book in 2007, I’d now be telling you man’s best friend showed up 14,000 years ago, just before the end of the Ice Age, but new scientific research has blown that theory apart. A skull found in Belgium’s Goyet Cave has been scientifically dated to 31,700 years ago. DNA analysis suggests this animal was the product of a deliberate breeding program – it wasn’t a wolf, so it must have been Dog v.1.0.
Tellingly, dogs were given respectful burials in the Stone Age, not only alongside their human masters, but individually too (presumably because dogs live shorter lives than their owners). This act of burial suggests a close symbiotic relationship between human and animal. If the dog had merely been functionally useful in life, but un-mourned for in death, might we not have expected it to have been eaten for dinner or chucked in a ditch for the vultures to snack upon?
But it wasn’t just canines being invited into the cave. At Uyun al-Hammam in Jordan, in a grave dating back 16,500 years, a male skeleton has been found deliberately buried alongside fox remains, with both his corpse and the fox’s having been posthumously relocated from another grave. Was there a special connection between person and animal? Was the fox a pet? It does seem that way, or why else would both bodies be so carefully moved?
Similarly, more than 20,000 years after Chauvet’s denizens hired their animal-obsessed interior decorators, a young bear cub was probably kept as a tame pet in a rock shelter of the Grande-Rivoire in France. Examination of its skull fragments shows a rope had been looped over its teeth, distorting the normal jaw growth with a perfectly symmetrical groove. This was surely a bit risky – it’s not exactly like adopting a puppy, is it? – and we don’t know whether the animal’s death was commemorated with a touching funeral for a much-beloved pet, or whether it was slaughtered in panic by a terrified family who hadn’t quite realised that the cute little cub would turn into a giant killing-machine.
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