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An Alien Past

May 10, 2014 | Art, Food, France, Spain, Wine
Today in astronomy, exoplanets are all the rage. These are planets, orbiting stars located elsewhere in our galaxy, that we’re finding in extraordinary numbers. It fires the imagination to consider what these alien worlds might be like, but really, we don’t need to look to outer space to find a strange planet. All we need do is look back in time at our own world.

Twenty thousand years ago, Earth was a very different place than the one we live on today — in fact, you could almost call it alien. Back then our planet was in the grip of an ice age. Most of northern Europe was covered in ice, it was cold even in summer, and sea levels were low. And early humans, our ancestors, struggled for survival.

One place of refuge from the ice was an area we now call southwest France. There were no glaciers, rivers didn’t freeze during winter, reasonably abundant food sources were present, limestone caves and rock shelters were plentiful, and there were copious quantities of flint — a rock essential for fashioning tools.

Leap ahead 20,000 years. In March 1867, French geologist Louis Lartet discovered the first skeletons of early modern humans at a rock shelter in Les Eyzies, Dordogne, France. A Mr. Magnon owned the land, and the skeletons were called Cro-Magnon because of where they were found — in the “rock shelter of Mr. Magnon” — or so the story goes.

It’s now May 2014, and we are visiting the tiny village of Les Eyzies and the National Prehistoric Museum. The Museum has a collection of six million objects and displays some 18,000 artifacts. If you have any interest in pre-history and Cro-Magnon (often referred to as “early modern humans” in current literature), the Museum is a must-see stop. Established in 2004, this two-story exhibit hall can take several hours to explore. The first floor has display cases full of prehistoric tools, with videos showing how they were made.

The second floor focuses on prehistoric artifacts found in France and was the floor I enjoyed the most, because there were numerous etchings in rock that I could view up close. There were also examples of incredible art created by Cro-Magnon carvers thousands of years in the past, including the image at the start of this post — “Bison Licking” from 12,000 years ago, carved on a reindeer antler.

Unlike the caves where we were kept far from the art, here I could press my nose (or camera; photos allowed but no flash) right up against the glass and be mere inches away from a prehistoric sight. The only downside (if you’re not with an English-speaking group) is that all the labels are only in French, though there are English information sheets that explain some of the primary concepts and artifacts.

There is still much about Cro-Magnon that we don’t understand. In fact, as I puzzled over some of the artifacts, it occurred to me that — considering how little we really know about them — these people, our very distant ancestors, might as well have been aliens living on another planet.

Written by: Paul Deans – TQ Editor

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