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Academic & Professional Books  Evolutionary Biology  Human Evolution

Cro-Magnon The Story of the Last Ice Age People of Europe

By: Trenton W Holliday(Author)
280 pages, 49 illustrations
Cro-Magnon presents a detailed and factual picture of the Last Ice Age people living in Europe.
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  • Cro-Magnon ISBN: 9780231204972 Paperback Jul 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Cro-Magnon ISBN: 9780231204965 Hardback no dustjacket Jul 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book

During the Last Ice Age, Europe was a cold, dry place teeming with mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, reindeer, bison, cave bears, cave hyenas, and cave lions. It was also the home of people physically indistinguishable from humans today, commonly known as the Cro-Magnons. Our knowledge of them comes from either their skeletons or the tools, art, and debris they left behind.

This book tells the story of these dynamic and resilient people in light of recent scientific advances. Trenton Holliday – a paleoanthropologist who has studied the Cro-Magnons for decades – explores questions such as: Where and when did anatomically modern humans first emerge? When did they reach Europe, and via what routes? How extensive or frequent were their interactions with Neandertals? What did Cro-Magnons look like? What did they eat, and how did they acquire their food? What can we learn about their lives from studying their skeletons? How did they deal with the glacial cold? What does their art tell us about them?

Holliday offers new insights into these ancient people from anthropological, archaeological, genetic, and geological perspectives. He also considers how the Cro-Magnons responded to Earth's post-glacial warming almost 12,000 years ago, showing that how they dealt with climate change holds valuable lessons for us as we negotiate life on a rapidly warming planet.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A full-bodied picture of the discipline
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 15 Mar 2024 Written for Paperback

    During the Last Ice Age, Europe was home to groups of hunter-gatherers that were virtually indistinguishable from humans alive today. Commonly known as Cro-Magnons, they seem to have overlapped in time with Neandertals, even exchanging genetic material with them. Who were these people and what do we know about them? Palaeoanthropologist Trenton Holliday has studied the ice age Europeans for the last 30 years and in this, his first book for a popular audience, he gives you a detailed picture of their lives as it played out over some 30,000 years.

    The last popular book that I know of specifically looking at Cro-Magnons was the eponymous book by Brian Fagan published in 2010. Given that Fagan writes about many different archaeological topics, 14 years have passed, and Holliday is a specialist, this book provides the reader with an informative and in places very detailed update. Several chapters provide you with background information on important topics in archaeology and palaeoanthropology that apply to human evolution more generally. For instance, how did humans make stone tools and how did these evolve, where and when did Homo sapiens first appear and thence disperse, or how do the predominant four models of the evolution of modern humans differ? Important second players in this story are the Neandertals. Holliday provides a potted history of their discovery, the genetic evidence of interbreeding with our ancestors, and the archaeological evidence that the two overlapped and interacted in time in Europe. This leaves only the last four chapters to deal "exclusively" with Cro-Magnons, discussing their bioanthropology (including skeletal morphology and ancient DNA), hunting gear and diet, art, and their response to the planet's fluctuating climate.

    The organisation of the book overall is good. Holliday uses subheadings to divide each chapter into manageable and clearly signposted sections while several chapters contain maps to all the sites mentioned in the text. Two early chapters use separate boxes for technical minutiae about different European lithic industries (i.e. stone tools) and craniofacial differences between Neandertals and Cro-Magnons, giving you the option to skip this material. Even so, he goes into quite intense technical detail in places. For example, in chapter 5 he repeats an earlier principal component analysis to compare the body proportions of Neandertals and Cro-Magnons, supplemented here with additional data. This shows the latter to have more heat-adapted bodies with comparatively longer limbs and narrower trunks. Similarly, in chapter 7 he repeats an analysis of comparative brain sizes amongst hominins using encephalization quotients, here supplemented with additional data. Needless to say, it is not very common to present new or refreshed analyses of data in popular works. In chapter 8 he admits to getting into the weeds on the stratigraphy of different lithic industries in various European caves. The reason is that certain classes of stone tools, here Châtelperronian and Aurignacian, are ascribed to respectively Neandertals and Cro-Magnons. In some caves, these tools are found in alternating layers, suggesting alternating habitation by, and possibly interactions between, Neandertals and Cro-Magnons. Heated debates have flared up about whether these tool sets are indeed unique to each of these hominins, and whether the observed stratigraphy is original or the result of later processes jumbling everything up. In short, this is a factual book and though he includes a few fictional vignettes to add flavour, his writing is not nearly as evocative as that of for instance Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Elsa Panciroli, or Thomas Halliday.

    There are two things that Holliday does do well and consistently. First, he provides enlightening overviews of the history of the field. This logically includes the discovery of the first Cro-Magnon and Neandertal remains, but also the historical baggage of race science in anthropology. Very interesting is the overview of how different models of modern human evolution developed throughout the twentieth century and by 1984 crystallized into four palaeontological models. These all agree that modern humans came out of Africa, but disagree on how much archaic humans outside of Africa contributed to today's humans. The models range from "none" (African hominins completely outcompeted and displaced others) to "quite a lot" (extensive gene flow between different hominin populations was the norm). Ancient DNA analyses have revealed that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The second aspect Holliday highlights is that almost every finding and opinion is contested, which adds further layers of detail. After saying it a few times, he jokingly reminds you: "Have I mentioned that scientists are a skeptical lot?" (p. 78). Which hominin made the Châtelperronian lithics? Are the wooden spears from Schöningen, Germany, really projectile weapons? Are salmon remains in caves evidence of a dietary switch to fish or were they left by other carnivores? How old is the cave art in Chauvet Cave, France? And so forth.

    The only thread I feel he left hanging is that you might reach the end of the book and ask "What happened to the Cro-Magnons?" The warming of the Holocene seems to have been the biggest climatological challenge they had yet faced. As he points out at the start, the term Cro-Magnon has fallen out of favour in scientific circles as we cannot tell these people apart from modern humans in any meaningful biological sense. So, did we just stop calling them Cro-Magnons as they became us, making it a historical term that has fallen out of favour? If so, he does not clarify or analyse when we stopped using it. I imagine this will have been a gradual trend, rather than an agreed-upon decision to stop using "Cro-Magnon" from this day forward. Confusingly, the Wikipedia entry on Cro-Magnon refers to work by the research group of Svante Pääbo and David Reich that suggests they were a genetically distinct group. Holliday here also references that paper and on page 235 speaks of Epipaleolithic people as their descendants. I am tempted to throw my lot in with the ancient DNA crowd who argue for a long history of genetic churn and turnover, but Holliday leaves the eventual fate of the Cro-Magnons unresolved and unexamined.

    Having said that, Cro-Magnon is a rewarding read. Holliday eschews simple narratives in favour of the rich diversity and complexity that come with an imperfect archaeological record and different proxies, neither of which yield straightforward answers. He gives a very realistic, full-bodied picture of the discipline: this is popular anthropology for grown-ups.
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Trenton Holliday is a professor of anthropology at Tulane University and an honorary research fellow at the Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey, University of the Witwatersrand.

By: Trenton W Holliday(Author)
280 pages, 49 illustrations
Cro-Magnon presents a detailed and factual picture of the Last Ice Age people living in Europe.
Media reviews

"Trenton Holliday is unquestionably one of the foremost experts on this subject."
– John Shea, Stony Brook University, and author of The Unstoppable Human Species

"Most every schoolchild has heard of the Cro-Magnons, but few people actually know anything about them. This engaging and accessible book by Trenton Holliday may go a long way toward remedying that situation! Written by one of the leading experts on the Ice Age peoples of the world, Cro-Magnon brings to life – in clear, nontechnical English – what we know about these ancient Europeans, their fascinating history of study, and the very latest research on them."
– Steven Churchill, Duke University, author of Thin on the Ground: Neandertal Biology, Archeology, & Ecology

"In Cro-Magnon, Holliday gifts us a vivid, impressively detailed portrait of the earliest modern Europeans. He deftly weaves studies of biological characteristics, behavioral indicators, environment, history, and colorful descriptions of places and people into a fascinating narrative that brings alive these humans of the distant past. Holliday's book is thorough yet eminently readable, and is certainly required reading for anyone interested in the later phases of human evolution."
– Fred H. Smith, University Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

"Perceptively reviews what we have learned about Cro-Magnons over the century and a half since their discovery."
Natural History Magazine

"Well illustrated and referenced, citing both the most recent research and past studies, the volume has an obvious place in college and university libraries. Holliday's engaging writing style also makes this a readable, informative source for an audience beyond the walls of academia."
Choice Reviews, the American Library Association (ALA)

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