People often ask how scientists and artists working to reconstruct the past seem to be able to make such bold claims about how peoople and their technology looked hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
This is a tricky question, and hats off to the scientists who's sheer ingenuity, appliance of modern technology and 'thinking-outside-the-box' to build a picture of how things worked in our ancestry is amazing.
As I begin to work on some illustartions of life in the Ice Age (the bit of the 'Stone Age' in which homo sapiens like us lived - and the most recent of many ice ages) I thought I'd share a bit of the methodology I employ and how I undertake my research to build a picture of life in the past.
As a rule of thumb, the further back in time we go, the less hard evidence we have. To reconstruct WWII uniforms, for example, we have everything from photos to news-real, eye-witness accounts to the actual items themselves. This makes the job comparatively easy. Yet say we want to reconstruct a medieval tavern scene or a Roman baths the job is a little trickyer. We need to work with very old paintings and drawings of how things looked (which may only represent a anap-shot of how things really were in a big and very diverse world), archaeological remains and in places examples of how people live today in similar conditions/using similar technology - (did you know the outskirts of Mumbai are a really good analogy for the look and feel of Rome's backstreets during the empire?)
But as we pass beyond recorded history, when the books, paintings, buildings and preserved clothing and tools peter out, things get a whole lot more tricky...and perhaps that is why the 'Stone Age' interests me so much.
Here, our hard evidence is primarily archaeological - literally hard in the form of stone tools and bone - as we pass beyond ten thousand years ago little survives except in exceptional circumstances. There is, therefore, much less evidence to work with. You can, for example, list the archaeological finds for the occupation of Britain between a million years ago and twenty thousand years ago on two hands...during the Mesolithic (after the ice had melted 13,000 years ago, but before the stone-circle building farmers had arrived 6,000 years ago), the population of the UK was probably around 5,000 people, which explains why the chance find of evidence is so small.
So the reconstructive illustartor's job is all but impossible - or is it?
We have bone and stone which show us Ice Age people had tools and weapons, needles for sewing, beads and ornaments to wear, instruments to play, religious items to use and a host of carvings on bone and stone from 40,000 years ago whicht many a modern artist to shame (for example the Lion Man statue from Stadel cave, Germany, or the Sketches of Faces from La Marche in France).
The 'portable art' engraved on weapons, statuettes, jewelery and tools speaks of a world reliant on nature and dominated by hunting yet complex enough for deep spiritual thinking. These 'cave men' clearly had sophisticated social rules, technology capable of dealing with environments so harsh it takes millions of pounds of equipment for modern arctic scientists to survive in, and unparalleled craft skills.
They also had clothes.
Genetic work on the human body louse has demonstarted that lice which live in clothing seams evolved somewhere between 80,000 and 170,000 years ago, hinting that modern humans were wearing some form of clothing long before they even expanded out of Africa to collonize Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Coupled with the fact that fully tailored clothing would be necessary to survive the Arctic conditions of the last Ice Age, our picture of animal skin clad 'cave men' seem to dissapear as the evidence mounts.
Then there's cave art, which cleary shows very developed religious beliefs and more importantly hints at the use of a veriety of tools, clothes, hats, hairstyles, boots etc. I have seen some superb reconstructions based on the stick-men like forms dancing in central-European cave pictures, but there is still a lot of conjecture involved. Complex clothing was worn none-the-less. There are also chance preservations of coloured fabric woven from grass like fibres and shoes woven from rope like strands of vefetable fibre. Otzi, the 'Ice man' discovered high in the Alps on the Austrian-Italian border (though dating from the very end of the stone Age - he had a copper axe) was preserved with a heavy cape made of voven grasses, fitted fur jacket, hide leggings and loin cloth, leather cap, birch-bark containers and a host of other 'stuff' made from natural materials. Undoubtedly similar equipment existed thousands of years before this, but due to where these were burried, they simply have not survived.
So, the evidence suggests that Ice Age peple not only had clothing, but had complex clothing made of a veriety of materials, from animal hides to grass, dyed with natural materials and, perhaps, decorated with hand-woven decorations.
This leads us nicely into anthrapological evidence: looking at how peoples who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle today cloth and equip themselves. Though we must be cautious here. A LOT of time has passed between the 'Stone Age' and now, so it would be wrong to suggest that just because an Australian Aboriginal family in Arnhemland does something a certain way, it shows us exactly how people did things in the Mesolithic or beyond would be wrong: but it is our closest living analogy. As an aside, the traditional inhabitants of the Australias probably arrived there between 60 and 40,000 years ago and lived an uninterupted stone-age existence until about 200 years ago when western culture - and metal technology arrived. Their stone tool existence and the resources they had clearly worked, and there was no need to 'evolve' technologically and no way for new ideas to spread from other parts of the world.
So, if we look at the clothing and technological solutions of say, the Native Americans (Plains Indians), the Inuits of the Arctic regions, the Ivenki people of Siberia, The Sami of Finland or any of the African, Polynesian or South-East-Asian peoples who still live an essentially hunter-gatherer existence, I strongly feel we have a good chance of guessing in an educated way at how people may have equiped themselves in Britain during the last Ice Age. Their cultures tend to involve ancestor worship and singing/story-telling which ties them to the past in a very direct way, and passes on information of how their people had 'always' done things in order to survive and flourish.
But we are still guessing - or at least we are untangling the puzzle - of matching spear throwers found in French Alpine Caves from 14,000 years ago, to those used in the Arctic or Australia; of comparing Otzi's preserved boots to the way the Sami of Finland would traditionally stuff their boots with sedge to give unparalelled insulation from the cold, of using our creative imagination to create the most realistic picture we can.
Yet there is still the temptation to go over-board. I see far too many 'Stone-Age' reconstructions daubing their Ice Age people with agressive war paint, wacky skull head-dresses and 'savage' looking animal pelts. 'Modern' human beings, I believe, have always been more sophisticated and proud of their appearance than that.
So it's a tricky business. How to balance s
cant evidence, with artistic conjecture and the amazing detail and decoration of the tribal people around the world today. And then there is ethnicity and the physical look of humans as they evolved after leaving Africa...but that's a story for another day!