The “Savage” Caveman

After watching the documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” about the Chauvet Cave in France, I was curious about the mention of the flute found within one of the caves mentioned in the movie. The flute discovered seems to be one of the earliest indicators of music culture present in our species. It is astounding to think that even approximately 30,000 to 40,000 years ago humans were able to make instruments capable of playing various notes. While their instruments were nowhere near as sophisticated as modern day instruments, the fact that their instruments made of bone were able to work so well while being so simple is remarkable.

Most people tend to see the earlier humans as primitive and barbaric, yet the fact that they had the instruments leads me to wonder if our (and by “our” I mean the general public’s) interpretations of early humans are wrong. Just looking at popular culture, movies such as Encino Man and Iceman portray early humans as barbaric, savage, and unintelligent. While they did not know as much as we do now, they are far from the image modern society has. While they lived long before us, they too had a culture that would surprise many today. When people think of early humans they think of them in loin cloths with clubs, grunting and attacking everything. These people however were skilled in making clothes from animal hides, fashioning gear that helped to fend off the rigid cold that they faced. They also had more sophisticated tools and weapons than is commonly thought. They fashioned impressive spears with feathers attached to help them fly straighter and even made spear heads and harpoon tips that were along the lines of a barbed item so that they would stay in the animal after contact. They also made tools for scraping the guts and fat off of hides so that they could make better clothing from them. Apart from just what they could make, these “savages” as people see them also had art and music. The early man partook in symbolic cave painting of animals and nature, and even of other humans. They sculpted animals and figurines such as those of the Venus of Willendorf and the Lion Man. They even seemed to have ritualistic and religious practices, using caves as places for what seem to be alters and areas of spiritual significance. The early man even practiced burying the dead with care, a sign of deeper thought and thinking along the lines of a higher power at hand.

With a culture like this it is curious to wonder why we see the early humans as being so savage. Perhaps it is because in our current time they seem so primitive to us that we downplay their intelligence to make our own seem more impressive. Or could it be that our society is just not as educated in this area as we probably should be? It seems surprising that so many seem to insult the memory of our ancestors, whom without we would be nowhere. These “savages” were definitely not as civilized as we are today, but with the evidence present they were far from the barbaric monsters they are so often portrayed to be.

5 thoughts on “The “Savage” Caveman

  1. I think your thought process regarding the intelligence of our very distant ancestors is incredibly intriguing. I, like many other also, just assumed that the human race today is much more intelligent and evolved than humans were tens of thousands of years ago. However, after watching the movie and our discussion in class, I can’t help but wonder if the stereotype of the “barbaric savage humans” that once roamed the Earth is incredibly off base. You’re right; the flute displayed in the movie is quite remarkable. It definitely made me wonder where they got the idea of a flute. Were they the first ones to make a musical instrument like that? Or were their ancestors tens of thousands of years before them making them? Additionally, did they make up their own songs or were songs passed down between them for generations and generations? I additionally enjoyed your logic when you discussed the care taken regarding the burials of loved ones. Like you said they buried these humans carefully and with objects and artifacts near and dear to the deceased and this must have taken some form of immense intelligence. Otherwise, I feel as if the bodies would have just been discarded in a careless, more efficient manner. The tools used to perform these burials/make the musical instruments are also a craft in themselves. Although we may never know the true level of intelligence expressed by the humans living at this time, I definitely agree with you in your notion that they were far from barbaric or living in savagery.

  2. I also find how complex these ancient civilizations were very interesting. Another thing that many people do not realize is that there was also some fairly complex medical care and knowledge of human anatomy present in these cultures. There is a perception of ancient humans dying over something as simple as a fever or an animal bite. And while many people did die of things that are simple fixes to us today, there is evidence to suggest that prehistoric peoples would occasionally perform even surgery, along with basic knowledge of healing plants for everyday ailments. The most common type of surgery seen in remains is called trepanning, in which a whole is bored into the skull, where it was thought to let demons or other maladies (such as epilepsy, migraines, or mental disorders) out of the person affected. There have been skulls found that have holes from trepanning that have been healed, suggesting that people did survive this procedure.
    In a 2011 study, ancient bedding made of different type of leaves and plants were found o have insecticidal and healing properties. The study suggested that early human had enough knowledge of healing plants to know that having them nearby was a good idea, and that some of them provided protection from insects, keeping the bedding bug-free.


  3. It is always fun to implement your imagination in thinking of ancient people. I remember reading something on the internet a long time ago that was somewhat of a guide in thinking through the lens of someone who had lived in a completely different time than us. I believe it was a response to a question someone had asked in regards to magic and if people alive many generations before us actually believed in magic or not. The response was extremely detailed and allows your imagination to really grasp looking through the eyes of someone who has a very limited understanding of the world around them (in contrast with our own way of viewing the world around us). Just imagine living in a world where real complete darkness exists. Since no lights from cities existed and blocked out lights from the stars, at night the sky must have been absolutely breath taking. Something that very few of us have experienced today. On top of an amazing starry sky, when night took form while clouds covered, you would be drenched in complete darkness. The world would have seemed more like a force of destruction, animals would have been much more prevalent and apart of your culture. The entire world would be different. The caves and the paintings gives us just a glimpse into a very blurred lens into the lives of our ancient ancestors. We are fortunate to have something tangible today to study.

  4. As we learned in our unit on the Mississippians, people in a new age will always try to downplay the importance or sophistication of ancient cultures. People will go as far as to straight up lie about finding artifacts and will go as far as they can to “prove” that those “ancient barbarians” were incapable of such enormous feats. The pyramids of Giza are another strong example as many of the conspiracy theories showed us. Scientists stated that there was “no way” the Egyptians could have completed such a grand task themselves. The input of aliens, Atlantians, or another lost civilization seemed so necessary to these men who could not fathom hard work and dedication creating something so great. An interesting point of irony is that we now think of the scientist’s cultures as ancient and more primitive as well. The more one learns about history, the more they realize that human nature never changes too drastically. Some cultures will hold certain personality traits or hobbies in higher regard than others and this is no different from humankind today. In the west we are very focused on one’s individual abilities and accomplishments, whereas the eastern part of the world is much more focused on the accomplishments of a group of people working as a team. In terms of creative outlets, we see that humans have always had a need for them. Music, art, architecture, even language are all forms of verbal and physical creative expression. I definitely think that it is very interesting, and almost mind-blowing to think about how long humans have been on Earth and how little our instinctive and primal instincts have changed.

  5. I thought about our perceptions of early humans while writing my blog post as well. I too was guilty of having a preconceived idea of early humans as primitive. When I thought about early humans, I pictured people in caves working with crude tools or hunters out roaming the landscape chasing wooly mammoths with wooden spears. I had no idea that they created such advanced works of art, like those in Chauvet Cave, or musical instruments. An example of a manifestation of our assumptions, in addition to those you pointed out, is the well-known Geico Caveman. The Geico Caveman was the manifestation of every stereotype about early humans: long-haired, scruffy, wearing a loincloth, and carrying a club.

    While thinking about this topic, I related it back to the assumptions behind the theories of the pyramidiots. For some reason, we often assume that ancient people were too primitive to have created great works of art or engineering. It turns out that they were probably just as smart as us. We just have more accumulated knowledge to work with.

    Why do we so often make these assumptions about ancient peoples? It could be due to a lack of education about history and ancient cultures. Most people probably haven’t learned much about ancient cultures, and therefore make uneducated assumptions about ancient people. I, for example, haven’t studied early humans (those who would have created the paintings in Chauvet Cave) in depth before taking this course. We might also place too much emphasis on what ancient cultures left behind instead of learning about the people. We hear a lot about the pyramids and tombs of ancient Egypt, for example, but most people don’t spend a lot of time learning about Egyptian societal structure or religion.

    Our misperceptions of early humans as primitive highlight the general public’s lack of knowledge about ancient cultures. They demonstrate the importance of learning about the past and being educated about a topic before making assumptions.

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