Thursday, March 12, 2015

Busting the Caveman Myth

Knowledge is fickle. One day something is true and the next it is ridiculous. Discerning truth from deceit, lies, or just plain lack of knowledge is not as easy as we think it is sometimes. A colleague of mine speaks of statistics this way: Math, he says, is math. But always remember, figures may not lie, but liars figure. Especially smart liars. Math not being my strong subject I must rely on others to get my information, and hope they are not good liars.

One example of misinformation, both deliberate and ignorant, is about “cavemen.” Growing up I saw lots of pictures of the Ice Age, prehistoric man, and life before “civilization,” (that is when we became civilized). One in particular was an image of a brute with a beard and long hair wearing animal skin with a club over one shoulder. With his other hand he drags a female into his cave by her long hair. “They didn't talk real language then,” I was told. “They grunted to communicate. We have come a long way since then.”

Another familiar scene was a group of fur-skin clad people sitting around a fire in a cave with bones on the cave floor all around them. They were eating like we might today, holding a turkey leg in our hands and tearing the meat off the bone with our teeth, minus the table and napkin. And I am sure it was not turkey.

This community also had artists. They would take fur and wrap it around a stick, dip it into some natural plant juice and draw pictures on the wall. They must have been pretty good artists; some of their work was very large – 20 feet or so, and can still be seen today, thousands of years later. These creative souls were of service to the tribal leaders who needed to placate the spirits for a good hunt, and help train young boys to recognize the prey when they were old enough to join in.

Mammoth hunting was depicted as well; a humongous beast with long ivory tusks being attacked by a dozen or so males with crude spears. Some of the spears were already sticking out of the animal’s hide like porcupine quills. This would be their food supply, so they were quite motivated to succeed and take the giant down. Sharp stone tools would be used to butcher this mastodon and provide the clan’s food and hides. 

Then there is man and fire. Images abound of early man sitting in front of a pile of sticks, twirling another stick between his hands in an attempt to light a fire. Have you ever actually tried that? There is an art to using fire; my dad taught me how to build a proper campfire, and arrange the logs in the fireplace. Starting fires (without modern matches or lighters) is tricky. The Vestal Virgins of ancient Europe were responsible for making sure the fires never went out. Because they are hard to light. Sharing a smoldering coal with someone whose fire had gone out was a precious gift. Prometheus paid an eternal price for sharing fire with early humankind, it must have been important. 

These stories and images were in my history books, on display in museums, in art, and on television. I was quite fascinated with the primitive form of social life I saw. Our historians worked very hard collecting information about our caveman ancestors, and it was all there in my school history book. I have to confess that I sat often and considered how I would teach the brute a lesson for dragging me by the hair, and then was quite thankful that I did not live in those beastly animalistic times. But then I realized that it had to be that way, after all, he had the future of humanity in his mind, babies must be made. “They managed to survive,” I was told, “otherwise humanity would have disappeared and we would not be here.” I said thank you to the ancient cavemen for being clever enough to survive the women they pissed off. 

I have come to call these stories the Cave Man Myths. Not really fair to the word mythology, which does not really mean “things untrue” but has come to communicate that in our modern world. Like the Mythbusters of TV, let me address each of them with science, geology, climatology, dendrology, history, and translations of inscriptions from Magdalenian picture language (12,500 BC). 

Some things to know about the Ice Ages: 

There is a reason we call them that. It was not just cold. It was so cold in some eras that most of humanity died. In between those frigid, iron-old periods were warmer periods we call the Ice Ages when it was only 50 below zero, plus wind chill, for several months, then just warm enough to let the grass grow for a few months. For centuries it was like that. There was not much growing, it is hard to cover the earth with green stuff when it is mostly winter. The earth was covered with prairies of many-colored long grasses, low shrubs, Dryas, and a few trees. The great forests did not grow till after the Hudson Bay slush-out at 6000 BC when it warmed up. (for more information about history see: Symbology: Decoding Classic Images, Michelle Snyder, available at Amazon)

How did they make fire? Joseph Campbell published an image of a fire-bow, used to start fires. It is like a bow and arrow bow, except the string is wrapped around the upright stick and the bow is used in a sawing motion to twirl the stick faster than ever could be accomplished by hand. To protect the hand a stone is placed between the palm of the hand and the twirling stick. The pile of flammables was also a science. Horse and Mammoth poop was dried and used for fire, wood was scarce, and dried patties burn longer and hotter than wood. (Buffalo Chips were for the same purpose on the prairies in our own US history). Dried brush was also in the pile. How to use the fire-bow and start and maintain fires is etched onto the palm-stone. Smart, inscribing directions for how and when to use the tool right on the tool. The Magdalenians did that a lot.

 Fire-bow;   Palmstone, bottom;   Palmstone, top, inscribed

The phrase “caveman” came from the assumption that our ancestors lived in caves like we live in houses. Caves were actually not that common. Lascaux  Altamira, Le Marche caves, and other caves were highly localized, not found in enough areas to provide homes. They were sites chosen to create images instructing when and where certain animals could be hunted, and what to use them for. Almanacs on the cave walls for public use. Let’s talk about making the cave art. Does anyone wonder how they painted such perfect, huge (as long as 20 feet), vivid animals deep in the darkest recess of the cave, sometimes 12 or even 20 feet off the ground on cave walls and ceilings? It would not be possible unless they had scaffoldings and light. I have been drawing and painting since two years of age. Not only can I not comprehend how they could be so accurate with their depictions, and they were, but how they created colors which have lasted thousands of years. Some of these locations were used for four or five thousand years by generations of artists and villages. Even Da Vinci didn’t make work that will last that long. 

People looking at the replica of Lascaux Cave paintings, France

Besides, caves are not good houses. You can’t heat them. During the winters of the Ice Age the wind roared and temperatures dropped below zero by fifty or more degrees. A fire was small protection against the iron fist of the cold. If you could seal off the entrance to your cave you might keep the wind out, but you would fall victim to the poison of the fire. Monoxide poisoning. If you ventilate your cave so you can breathe, you freeze to death in less than an hour. The truth is they built triple walled houses covered with waterproofed skins. Air is a good insulator, and they used other layers of stuff as well. The fireplace was vented with a flap that opened and closed at the top of your house, and was vented from underneath by a channel that brought air in from outside under the ground, so that your fire always had fresh air to burn, not the air in your house. This art of venting fireplaces was forgotten by modern designers. Indians knew how. 

The walls were painted white to reflect as much light as possible from tiny oil lamps. It would be all they had for months. Stones heated on a great fire outside were brought in and placed around like radiators. Smaller cloth-wrapped heated stones were put in the beds, just like in pioneering days here. Keeps the toes warm. When a baby was expected, warming stones were placed around the mother and the crib.

Paleolithic house diagram, 12,500 BC

Ever heard the term “smoke and mirrors?” Let me introduce you to its origin, and at the same time address the myth of the monstrous mammoths. 

Mammoth hunting was a source of provision for Ice Age humanity. Not just meat, but bone, fur, skins, and hair. Even the enormous rib cages were used, covered with skins, to provide shelter. But Mammoths are pack animals, like elephants. They travel in bunches, migrating to and from seasonal locations. According to historian-translator Duncan-Enzmann, villages dotted the landscape in 12,500 BC, and all the people participated in the hunt. They watched the skies and kept records to predict when the great herds would come through. Then when the stars were right, the watchers were sent out to the surrounding areas to wait for some sign of the mammoths. 

When the great herd was spotted smoke signals were sent by day, and light from a fire was reflected off of polished obsidian (smoke and mirrors) at night to warn the villages to be ready. Everyone participated. For weeks food was gathered to feed the hunters. Spears and throwers were made. (throwers are like a slingshot for spears, without them a spear would never penetrate the thick hide of a mammoth) Children beat the bushes with sticks and shouted. Women coordinated all the goings on, and the hunters were made ready. They could hear the herd thundering over the plains. Feel the ground shake. It was awesomely terrifying. Already the old textbook myth of the mammoth hunt doesn't work.

Inscriptions instructing how, where, and when to hunt, and how to process mammoths

Gotta love the Flintstones. They had all the commodities of modern life, in Stone Age fun.  Truth is, so did Ice Age humans. They needed to eat, stay warm, have babies, and protect themselves. Diapers, laundry, light, heat, and medicine, all were necessary then just like now. They did not, contrary to popular myth, wear just skins and sandals. Skins were used on the houses. They made yarn, and wove material and stuffed it to make quilting, using the abundance of Eider Duck down there was. From the quilts they made clothing. If you ski, you know Eider Down is the warmest natural substance known. Space blankets don’t count. They wore quilted clothing, layered boots, hats, mittens, all waterproofed. If they had not, we would not be here. The kind of protection needed to go out for even five minutes in Ice Age winters could not be created any other way. 

Lady at loom with lamp and three lumps of fuel, symbol for quilt, instructions to make shoes and boots, four females with papoose going out in quilted clothing to get supplies

At last, let me address the brutish grunting jerk dragging the women by her hair. First, the Neanderthal was the one who grunted. Homo-Sapiens-Sapiens had verbal language. And written language, as Duncan-Enzmann has proven. They did understand that without babies human life would end. This caused them to hold women and daughters in the highest esteem. Provide for them. Protect them. Women and children first is an ethic that comes from the Magdalenian culture of 12,500 BC. 

Reproductive calendric, Birth of baby girl Lorelei at winter solstice, 12,500 BC

In 12,500 BC babies born at winter solstice (around today’s Christmas) had the best chance of survival. Check out the article below and see why. To have babies then, they needed to be pregnant by spring equinox (today’s Easter). The calendar above instructs as to the timing of conception. Lorelei’s birth is an inscription about how to help the new baby be born. All of nature celebrated the birth of a daughter. They knew that like the golden sun, their golden haired daughters were required to provide life. Most Vanir had blonde curly hair, very fair skin. Referred to as the Fair Folk, they populate fairy tales as Fairies. The northern (Celtic) Aesir were strawberry blondes with pale skin. They both descended from dark haired, white skinned Picts, referred to in fairy tales as Pixies, like Snow White. 

Vanir, Aesir, and Pictish girls represented as Disney's princesses

Now my understanding of prehistoric humans has changed. They were smart, resourceful, brave, and caring. Family was important. They had aspirin (taken from willow twigs at just the right time) and digitalis (from Foxglove, for tired hearts) and many more medicines. The Rx symbol we still use today traces back to inscriptions from this time for the medicine lady and her medicines. Perhaps there is hope for us yet.

Inscription from 12,500 BC, Gönnersdorf, Germany. Medicine lady, patients, and medicines - origin of Rx used today 

Intrigued? Robert Duncan-Enzmann and J Robert Snyder have just published a compilation of translations from this period; the stories are drama at its best. Ice Age Language: Translations, Grammar, Vocabulary, available at Amazon

About Symbologist Michelle Snyder

Michelle earned her post-graduate degree at the University of Wales, decoding prehistoric images, mythology, folklore, and fairy tales and tracing them to their roots. She is an author, columnist, publisher, artist, and teacher. Her artwork, inspired by her love of symbolism and folklore, has appeared in galleries from Massachusetts to California. Michelle is co-owner of White Knight Studio.
     Books by Michelle, available at Amazon:


Symbology ReVision: Unlocking Secret Knowledge  
Symbology: Hidden in Plain Sight
Symbology: My Art and Symbols 
Symbology: Fairy Tales Uncovered 
Symbology: Decoding Classic Images 
Symbology: World of Symbols 
Symbology: Secrets of the Mermaids


A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book One - The Lost Unicorn


A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book Two - The Lost Mermaid

The Fairy Tales: Once-Upon-A-Time Lessons First Book


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  2. This is a free blogger blog, which I built with a template and my own content and images. Thanks!

  3. Great piece Michelle. I find symbolism fascinating. Quite amazing what you can uncover through folklore and legends.

  4. Thanks for the kind words. Symbolism is my passion, and profession. You might enjoy some of the other posts I have here on decoding fairy tales and symbols. - M

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