Ice Age Art

The effects of the last Ice Age on the North Sea and its tributary rivers are the keystone to the alternative history I created for The Last Rhinemaiden and the Cuckoo Club stories.

But the Ice Ages which covered much of northern Europe with glaciation has been a minor fascination of mine since I learned about them at school. (Scottish geography lessons about the Würm glaciation tend to be very simple – “here’s what it says in the book, now go look out the window and spot drumlins“).

Scotland didn’t have much in the way of human habitation during the Ice Ages. Most of the country was covered in a thick layer of permanent ice, many metres deep. The slate (and granite) wiped clean.

There were no Neanderthals in Scotland. Far, far to the South, in the Perigord region of what is now France, they lived in caves in limestone cliffs along the rivers which run out to the Bay of Biscay and never saw the need to travel north.

And then, modern humans arrived in their valleys. Was this a shock, or did they know in advance, and retreat ever westwards until they ran out of land at Gibraltar, leaving little trace behind?

I’ve just finished reading The Mind In The Cave by David Lewis-Williams. He postulates that the prehistoric artists who painted cave art had the same brains as modern humans – because they were modern humans.

So while we don’t know the stories they told to accompany their illustrations, we can take a good guess at the reasons why those people painted their fabulous paintings on the deep cave walls.

And tucked into the sheltered caves south of the great ice sheets, modern humans left art.Cave art from Lascaux, France - giant prehistoric deer

What does this have to do with writing?

The history of Science Fiction is shot through with stories about the search for other intelligent life, in space or in the far future or in a parallel universe.

The search for life on Mars has propelled spaceships to the red planet and beyond, to where telescopes point to planets in distant galaxies with the potential to support life.

Folk tales of the “Little People”, Trolls, Elves, man-apes, Yetis, the Orang Pendek, and myriads of other names for not-quite-human peoples which might still walk the Earth are abundant in every culture.

How much of a Big Deal is this?

We have been looking for another intelligent life form on the planet since the first creation myths were invented.

In the last ten years or so, evidence has been found that modern humans aren’t the Big I Am we thought we were.

The humans who came before us had quite a bit of what makes us special.

If the research can prove that Neanderthals made art – even simple art forms like hand prints and shapes which might have been a language of sorts – what about their ability to tell stories?

Makes my brain sizzle.


  1. It’s not just whether they could tell stories, but whether any stories have survived. In some form “Cinderella” is everywhere and has been around for as long as we can work it out. It’s amazing to speculate that it, or something like it, could have been told by pre-humans and passed along from generation to generation and thus from one species to another.

    Or are certain stories either mapped to our brain patterns? (And thus what of pre-homo spaiens?)

    Or are certain structures in stories inherent in the nature of stories, just as a triangle has three angles, it must therefore have three sides?

    • I’ll wager the one story that has survived since we learned to make fire was the story about something bad hiding in the dark.
      The other one is the wolf-in-the-forest. Or is that a facet of the same thing?
      And yes, anything that involves family dynamics, like, as you say, Cinderella – or Snow White.

      • Cinderella and Snow White feel like they needs some civilisation, whereas Little Red Riding Hood is an obvious “don’t wander off” tale.

  2. Ah, Little Red Riding Hood. It’s more of a coming-of-age story for little girls. The mother sends the girl into the forest, knowing full well there are wolves in there: the theme is not-all-men-can-be-trusted (and written from a feminist perspective: not all little girls want to run away).
    You should try some Angela Carter – or just the critiques of Angela Carter, actually – to see it from a different angle. Or watch The Company Of Wolves.
    “As you’re pretty, so be wise;
    Wolves may lurk in every guise…”

    • But is that inherent within the story or layers that have been added later?

      • Terri Windling answers this best (and at great length with many references):
        The Path of Needles or Pins.
        I never studied folklore so I’m well prepared to defer on this!

  3. Ah, interesting. It’s the other way around – thanks for that link.

    The story has been used in a few writing classes I’ve been to, but the modern one rather than the pins and needles original.

  4. Of course, I put my own slant on this one in The Road Through The Woods. 🙂

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