Surviving the Stone Age: reviewed

I shamelessly enjoyed Surviving the Stone Age, which finished last weekend on Channel 4 It is the latest example of ‘experimental archaeology’ and far better than the others tried over the years, because they used subjects who actually knew what they were doing.

The Hobbesian attraction of the conceit is clear – this was re-enacting life in the earliest stages of society, not in a state of nature but shorn of all the accretions and presuppositions of developed society, to put the subjects within touching distance of that state of nature.

Yes, it was a bit of fluff to a large extent, as they all are – the ‘tribe’ know they were out in the wild for just a month with hot baths and full larders to follow and they knew that if something serious went wrong there was a camera crew and extraction team, but to their great credit this did not interfere too much.

It was a mammoth’s head and shoulders above previous efforts along the theme. Over the years, the good folk in tellyland have tried several times programmes along the lines “What if we take ordinary people out of their homes, put them in a Bronze Age / Iron Age village and see how they get on?” It was just reality-TV in roundhouses. One of those a few years ago was horrifying: the subjects plonked in the village knew nothing outside the comforts of running water and packaged food and the first time they tried to cook over an open fire, several of them were sent home with food poisoning, while others left after arguments falling just short of a fist-fight. It was just a freak show.

This time though we had something very different. There were no real ingenues: all those taking part were men and women who had taught themselves Stone Age skills and so knew what they were seeing and feeling and what to do. They had two Americans who had each lived alone wild in the primaeval forests and were exactly in their element; glorious. There was a former Royal Marine who had gone wild himself. As their voice-of-the-audience was a charming young couple whom you might imagine coming round to tea, but who were skilled hobby stone-agers. This made for realism and that made it watchable. When they wanted to eat, they had to find roots, berries, fish and flesh. Once they had it, they used every ounce they could, for meat or material.

The constant of life is food. We need to eat every day, and in the wild that means hunting and foraging every day for most of the day, and the only break in the pursuit is after a big kill that may last a few days if properly preserved.

The programme was filmed in one of the few empty lands left in Europe, in the Rhodope Mountains, an arm of the Balkans wreathed in mist and myth. There are no bureaucrats here and no petty regulations like that ruined the ’roundhouse telly’ of past years: they wanted meat so they stalked and shot a deer, or speared fish, without filling any forms in.

The challenge is for us to recognise that even for those hardened to the prehistoric life, that life is hard and precarious, and how could we have survived? Yet man did survive and thrive in the Stone Age. In the hundreds of thousands of years of humanity, all was the Stone Age except the last few millennia. In pockets of the world, as in deepest Amazonia and in the central lands of New Guinea and among the Andaman Islands, the folk live in the Stone Age still. The Stone Age not weird or a passing phase: it is modernity which is weird, and brief so far.

They could not in a month show anything but a glance of Stone Age life. New love, childbirth, injury, death were not going to appear. Neither did they compete bloodily for resources – they did not come across a tribe sent out by Canal+ and fight them with spears for the resources of the land.

War is the Hobbesian reality in cultures from the earliest days to our own. If there can be a state of nature, then it is a state of “Warre Of Every One Against Every One“, but the needs of survival require the formation of clan groups and tribes, which are the first forms of society. They in turn are at war with all others with whom they have no social contract. Within the clan group is all the comfort and support that is available, and anything we have in modernity is just a reflection of that ancient society.

We can shake that out of ourselves in the comfort of our advanced civilisation, or at least what seems advanced to us in this brief generation, with our abundant resources made abundant by the complex organisation of worldwide society, but it is only that society which supplies us and keeps us from what was the reality of mankind for almost all of our existence. We are still those people, the same in frame and mind as ten thousand years ago and more, sitting on a thin crust of civilisation. Surviving The Stone Age was attempting a glimpse at what we are.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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