Did Cavemen Ever Really Exist?

A popular perception of our far distant ancestors is that they lived in caves. But did humans ever really live in caves en masse or is this just something that exists only in popular consciousness and not in reality?

To begin with, when you think of cavemen, you probably picture thick browed simpletons clad in tattered furs, sitting around a fire in a cave. This caricature of the dawn of humanity has been around since before the first fossils of prehistoric people were even found. When finally the first human fossils were found in the 19th century and recognised as the remnants of prehistoric people at the end of the 19th century, they were often found in caves, seemingly reinforcing this stereotype.
Since then, scientists have found out a lot about these supposed cavemen. Research was especially intensive in Europe, Siberia and the Middle East. This is why we know a lot about the people of this region during the time period we now know as the Stone Age, and more precisely: The Old Stone Age, also called the Palaeolithic.

It is an extremely long stretch of time dating from about three million years ago to about twelve thousand years ago. It is characterised by the use of stone tools by humans. Humans here being understood in the very broad sense of different human species like Neanderthals, Homo erectus, and modern humans. In short, all species classified in the genus Homo, yes this is the scientific term, are considered as being human. We today are considered “anatomically modern humans” or Homo sapiens sapiens. To sum things up, different types of people from prehistory were lumped together into a group we call humans.

So did these people of the palaeolithic live in caves? The answer is yes, our ancestors lived in caves. At least some did, though not permanently. And they also used other forms of dwellings at the same time.

For example, besides caves, another option that offers natural protection from the elements are rock shelters. A rock shelter is a shallow cave-like hollowing of a rock face that is thus open on most sides. It is usually formed when a layer of rock erodes while the rest of the rock face stays intact on top, thus creating a cut-out in the rock. It is, essentially, a natural roof. To palaeolithic people, it gave limited shelter against the elements. Both Neanderthals and modern humans built structures inside caves and at rock shelters to make the place more comfortable.
But here is the problem with caves and rock shelters: Palaeolithic people were hunter-gatherers. They went from place to place to hunt and gather food and other supplies.

Hunter-gatherers follow herds of prey animals, gather berries and seafood, hunt small game and fish to nourish themselves. They also produce leather and gather resources such as wood and stones. That’s right. Stone was an important resource to people of the, well, Stone Age. Shocking, I know.
So, people had to move a lot. But caves are quite stationary. So what do you do when you get somewhere, you need to shelter from the elements and there is no cave in sight? Why, camping, of course! The archaeological record points to the fact that palaeolithic people moved from place to place to camp sites that were known to them and used over many generations.

Ongoing research in south-western France, in a region known for its many and rich archaeological sites in caves and rock shelters, shows that even in such an environment where a lot of caves were present and used, dwellings were still made on open terrain. This shows that even in a place where natural shelters were abundant, palaeolithic people felt the need to create dwellings out in the open to suit their needs.2

If caves were not quite as important as was portrayed by the caveman stereotype, why did we find so many traces of palaeolithic life in caves? The answer to that is two-fold: On the one hand, the already existing stereotype of the caveman and early finds in caves naturally oriented more research in caves. It is a selection bias. On the other hand, the conditions for the preservation of fossils in caves are extremely good. Caves not only shelter humans from rain and wind, but also all other kind of things that are left behind in them. Adding to the protection from the weather, many caves accumulate sediment steadily over time burying archaeological traces. They are ideal grounds to conserve a glimpse of the past.

Outside of caves, in open terrain, the chances for the preservation of archaeological traces are dire as the exposure to weather, scavenging animals, flooding, burrowing animals and many other things like soil composition can destroy them partially or completely.

Adding to this problem, the further back in time we go, the more difficult the access to sites will be. As millenia of sediment pile on, access to relevant layers gets more difficult.

Furthermore, finding a palaeolithic archaeological site requires a lot of knowledge, skill and sheer luck. It’s the old needle in a haystack problem. Often sites get discovered by accident.

As many palaeolithic dwellings will have been made with perishable material, all that can indicate the presence of a campsite might be some holes in the ground for posts which were inserted to support a structure. These post-holes are visible to archaeologists in the earth as the hole will be coloured slightly differently than the surrounding soil even after the post has been removed or rotten away.

Aside from post-holes, there is a wide variety of things that can indicate a palaeolithic campsite, like rocks and remnants of coal from a hearth or campfire, concentrations of animal bones indicating hunting, trapping or fishing, stone tools or scraps left from stone tool making. Pits were also features of dwellings. They were landfill sites where all kinds of trash was discarded.

Together, all these traces can give archaeologists clues as to how a campsite may have looked. You can imagine that campsites that were used only briefly would have left very few traces whereas campsites used over longer periods of time were more elaborate and left behind more traces.

While it’s likely that some form of artificial shelter has been used for a much longer time, the first unambiguous archaeological evidence is from the Upper Palaeolithic, a period dating from about 50,000 to 12,000 years ago. It coincides with the arrival of early modern humans in Europe and what is today the Middle East. However, Neanderthals were already living in the region by that time. There are some hints that Neanderthals used some simple tents besides living in caves. The evidence, though, is sparse. Structures found inside caves inhabited by Neanderthals show that they were capable of building shelters.3 They were, however not as sophisticated as those of modern humans. This probably limited their possibilities to expand into landscapes with few caves. At that time, the climate was very cold. After all, it was called the Ice Age for a reason. A form of shelter was a prerequisite to live in the cold landscape of Europe at the time if no caves were available.

Two very interesting archaeological sites are located in western Germany. They are campsites dated into a relatively mild era of the Ice Age around 13,000 years ago,4 overlooking a part of the Rhine that was then very wide at that location, akin to a big lake. The two camps were placed on the opposite sides of the Rhine, one in today’s Gönnersdorf, the other in Andernach. The sites are thought to have existed at the same time.

Both sites are especially well preserved as we owe their conservation to a volcanic eruption. The campsites are located in a now dormant volcanic region. The eruption covered the whole region with pumice stones thus protecting the sites from erosion and other adverse effects to its preservation.5

The campsites show evidence of dwellings. They were round tents of about six to eight metres across with stone paved floors. A wooden frame was probably covered by horse hides, which were hunted by the dwellers. There are signs pointing to the use of fire inside the structures. Some of the stones might have been used to cook on, but only one dwelling had evidence of an actual hearth. It is likely that fires were made on the paved surface and the fire’s remnants were carefully removed after each use. These dwellings were probably used over a long period of time. The campsite could have been a base camp and smaller secondary camps were used as needed.
The campsites also revealed palaeolithic art. Besides jewellery made from seashells or animal bone and teeth, the most spectacular finds are slates engraved with figures. One famous depiction has been interpreted as dancing women. Other slates include horses, a mammoth, woolly rhino, an aurochs, a wolf, several types of birds, a seal and a few more animals.

So these dwellings were from a time and place with a relatively mild climate for the Ice Age. Let’s have a look at dwellings from a different time and place- Ukrainian Mammoth Huts.

Imagine you are in a cold steppe like the tundra in modern-day northern Siberia. There is plenty of game to hunt, but hardly any wood to build a shelter or make fire. How do you protect yourself from the cold wind blowing over the open plains?

Our inventive ancestors had a surprising answer to that: Build a hut out of mammoth bones. Yes, you heard correctly. In a place called Mezhirich in Ukraine the remnants of huts built of mammoth bones were discovered. Jaw bones of the mammoth made up a circular wall about five metres across and the top was made of branches, probably supporting hides. Inside the huts, hearths burning mammoth bones offered warmth. These dwellings are thought to have taken ten men over five days to build. Much like the campsites in Germany, these huts were thus not used to camp for the night, but for long periods of time. The mammoth huts were likely reused season after season according to the demands of the nomadic lifestyle of their builders.7

It is not the only place known to have used bones as building material, but it is certainly one of the most spectacular. Other dwellings from the open steppe were, much like the huts in Mezhirich, dwellings made to last for longs periods of time. In Mezin, also located in Ukraine, remnants of a hut have been reconstructed as a sort of tent, conical in shape, made of mammoth bones and reindeer antlers, covered with hides. Large bones might have been used to weigh down the hides onto the frame of the hut. In Pushkari, also in Ukraine, a rectangular depression in the soil was used as a dwelling, probably covered by a tent-like structure.

Moving on from there, we have the site of Ohalo in Israel revealed six huts in what appears to have been a year-round habitation. It is dated to 23,000 years ago, placing it well within the palaeolithic era. The site contained the earliest recorded brush huts, which are huts made of small branches. They were two to five metres across with an oval layout. The site also shows signs of cultivation of plants millenia before agriculture became widespread during what is known as the neolithic revolution. But the most interesting aspect of the site is likely the preservation of beds made of grass in the huts, the oldest evidence of bedding.9 Its extraordinary preservation of grass and wood is due to it being on the shores of a lake, called the Sea of Galilee, that submerged the site. Such waterlogged sediments make for excellent preservation of organic matter as the usual decomposition processes are hindered by a lack of oxygen. As the Sea of Galilee’s water level dropped dramatically in 1989, the submerged site was exposed and was thus made accessible for archaeological research.

So to sum up, yes, there really were so-called “cavemen”, but as we can see from the preceding examples, they did not all live in caves, or at least not all the time. Far from being the rock-bashing simpletons they might be sometimes portrayed as, people of the Stone Age had a multitude of types of dwellings that were adapted to the needs of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the climate they lived in, and the materials at their disposal.

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Expand for References

Boriskovskij, P.I. “The Study of Paleolithic Dwellings in the USSR [in Russian].” Sovetskaya Arkheologiya 1 (1958): 3–19. http://www.ra.iaran.ru/?page_id=1690&lang=e (accessed on 2020-07-18)
Bosinski, Gerhard. Eiszeitjäger Im Neuwieder Becken : Archäologie des Eiszeitalters am Mittelrhein. 3., erw. und veränd. Aufl. Archäologie an Mittelrhein und Mosel. Koblenz am Rhein: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Rheinland-Pfalz, Abt. Archäologische Denkmalpflege Amt Koblenz, 1992.
Freeman, Leslie G., and J. Gonzalez Echegaray. “Aurignacian Structural Features and Burials at Cueva Morin (Santander, Spain).” Nature 226, no. 5247 (1970): 722–726.
Gladkih, Mikhail I., Ninelj L. Kornietz, and Olga Soffer. “Mammoth-Bone Dwellings on the Russian Plain.” Scientific American 251, no. 5 (1984): 164–75.
Isabella, Jude. “The Caveman’s Home Was Not a Cave.” Nautilus, December 5, 2013. http://nautil.us/issue/8/home/the-cavemans-home-was-not-a-cave. (accessed on 2020-07-18)
Klein, Richard G. The Human Career : Human Biological and Cultural Origins. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Lavail, Frédéric: “ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATIONS PEYRE BLANQUE”, Youtube-video, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x187BWCjgvI. (accessed on 2020-07-18)
Moore, Jerry D. The Prehistory of Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
Nadel, Dani, Ehud Weiss, Orit Simchoni, Alexander Tsatskin, Avinoam Danin, and Mordechai Kislev. “Stone Age Hut in Israel Yields World’s Oldest Evidence of Bedding.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101, no. 17 (April 27, 2004): 6821–26. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0308557101.
Street, Martin, Olaf Jöris, and Elaine Turner. “Magdalenian Settlement in the German Rhineland – An Update.” Quaternary International, The Magdalenian Settlement of Europe, 272–273 (September 12, 2012): 231–50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2012.03.024.
1. See interview of Meg Conkey by Isabella Jude for Nautilus ; see for example Street, Jöris & Turner p. 243.↩
2. Nautilus-Interview; http://www.peyreblanque.org/ (accessed on 2020-07-18); “ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATIONS PEYRE BLANQUE”, Youtube-Video (accessed on 2020-07-18)↩
3. See for example Freeman & Gonzales Echegaray 1970.↩
4. Street, Jöris & Turner 2012, p. 235.↩
5. Bosinksi 1992, p.86.↩
6. Bosinski 1992, pp. 64–67, p. 86–88; Street, Jöris & Turner 2012 p. 234, 240.↩
7. Moore 2012, pp. 115 sqq.; Gladikh et al. 1984.↩
8. Klein 1999, p. 535–540; see Boriskovskij 1958 for the original reconstruction drawings.↩
9. Moore 2012, 106 sqq. Nadel et al. 2004↩

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