Caves were used for shelter before humans even existed. “Cave people,” however, usually is a term applied to Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon humans. They lived a LONG time ago, before written history. This makes it a lot harder to know about them. But, there are various ways to get a basic idea of how cave peoples lived. Or, if somewhat less clearly, cavewomen.
Cavewomen in many ways had a tough life, particularly facing childbirth in the age before modern conveniences or medicine. Cavewomen’s lives are still something of a mystery. But, it was a complex life, one where they were as important as men to the survival of their group.
Long, Long Time Ago
Neanderthals lived over 100,000 years ago. Cro Magnon people came on the scene around 45,000 years ago. Neanderthals were no more, extinct, around 25,000 years ago. Cro Magnon people became extinct around 10,000 years ago.
Written history only has been around for around 6,000 years. The period before this is known as “prehistory.” But, stuff obviously happened. How do we know about it?
Written history, the story of us, is not the only way we can learn about the past. Various other means are available to study ancient human cultures. Archeologists, those who study ancient ways of life, use these means to understand what happened.
People who lived a long time ago leave various things behind. Archeologists study these “remains,” including where they are located (“sites”) and analyze what they find. Various conclusions can then be made. But, some of this is guesswork. We can only know so much.
What is left behind? First, there are the actual places where the people lived. Also, there are various objects (artifacts), such as remains of tools or pottery. There can also be the bones of the people themselves. All of these things, including using scientific means to help date when they first existed, can be used to get a sense of how people lived in the past.
We do not have written records or even a complete set of remains of the ancient cultures. So, there are still debates over just what happened.
Another means used is to look at modern day hunters and gatherers, assuming that in a broad sense that they would follow the basic ways of their ancestors here. And, modern day primates and other animals also can tell us something about the behavior of ancient peoples as well.
Humans evolved from more primitive primates over an extended period of time, early hominids (human-like) living over a million years ago. This was the Paleolithic Era or “Old Stone Age.” This name comes from the type of tools, made of stone, used by humans at the time.
These ancient humans took advantage of limestone caves in Europe and Asia, including in places like Israel. The caves were often only temporary shelters though at times lived in for longer periods of time. The remains of some of these cave “homes” are still around even today.
Neanderthals, named after the region where their bones were first found, are those primitive beings most commonly labeled “cave people.” They particularly took advantage of caves.
The first Neanderthals might have lived hundreds of thousands ofyears ago. Their “golden age” might be considered around 30,000 to 100,000 years ago.
Neanderthals first lived in Africa. They then migrated (moved) to Europe and Asia. They were short and stocky (think a short boxer), useful for the very cold period (Ice Age) that overlapped their time on earth. They are not modern day “homo sapiens” (humans or “thinking man,” like you and me), but quite like them.
It is possible, from what we know about their bodies, that they had some form of spoken language. But, we do not really know for sure.
Life and Times
Neanderthals did have many things that suggest a “modern” way of life, if not quite as modern as portrayed on The Flintstones and some other fictional portrayals.
They used stone tools and fire. They were hunters and gatherers, moving around in search of where the food was available. Neanderthals also made clothes, using needles and other tools to do so from the furs of animals. They even had pet dogs (or dog-like wolves.)
Their average lifetime was about thirty years. Discoveries of elderly or deformed skeletons suggest that Neanderthals cared for those unable to care for themselves.
Also, it appears that they buried their dead. Neanderthals might have included religious type artifacts in their graves. The existence of an early form of religion is also possible.
Neanderthals died out around thirty thousand years ago. In their final years, they had some competition from more modern day humans. Cro-Magnon (named after where their bones were first found) lived in what is now France about forty thousand years ago.
Some of them also lived in caves. For our purposes, these “cave people” had lives much like Neanderthals. A major difference is that Cro-Magnon people were more clearly talking types.
Cro-Magnon people lived on and eventually their descendants moved on to a more settled agriculture existence. But, that is another story.
It is a lot harder to determine how cavewomen specifically lived.
For instance, scientists often can tell the sex from the bones left behind, but not always, especially from the limited remains often found. One famous fossil find was named “Lucy,” but it is not clear it was from a female. Scientists assumed it was from its small size.
And, it is even harder to tell gender — that is the actual sex roles of the ancient cultures being studied. But, using the various means to study prehistory, some details can be provided.
Hunters and Gatherers
Old fashioned understandings of cave persons often focused on cavemen going on hunts, sometimes attacking big animals like a mammoth (a sort of large elephant).
Big hunts were probably at best a limited source of food. Cavewomen also might have gone on these hunts at times. Small animals especially could be sought out by cavewomen.
Cavewomen also gathered a variety of food, which often could be the majority of a community’s diet. Cavewomen according to a poem entitled “The Mushroom Hunters” were really primitive scientists. What is science after all?
Science, as you know, my little one, is the study of the nature and behaviour of the universe. It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.
Cavewomen had to do that a lot. They had no books to rely on. Cavewomen had to determine what was safe to eat. Cavewomen found out certain things could be used as medicine.
If they had, like women traditionally in hunter and gathering societies do, the job of cooking, they needed to learn how to use fire. Later on, perhaps around 20,000 years ago, cave people also learned how to make bread. Women probably had an important role in doing so.
Cave peoples wore clothing and had the knowledge of how to produce it.
A fundamental turning point here was the discovery of string. Archaeologists talk about a “Fiber” or “String Revolution” that for ancient peoples was about as important as the modern day Industrial Revolution.
And, there is a good reason to think that cavewomen played a key role. Women traditionally have been in charge of making clothing.
The discovery of the ability to weave not only greatly improved production of clothing, but led to the creation of things like nets and baskets. Nets, for instance, would greatly improve the ability to obtain food, both fish and small animals. Baskets could store things.
String was also used along with shells and other things to form necklaces. Cavewomen probably wore such ornaments for decoration. They might have been used as status symbols, too.
It is also possible that red coloring from iron was used for body decoration, including as a primitive form of makeup. Later hunters and gatherers used such decoration.
Tattoos and other body modifications such as scarring of the skin also might be possible. Looking at bodily remains and artifacts, it appears people decorated their bodies in this fashion.
Small statues of women, called Venus figurines, found from as far back as about 45,000 years ago help us understand the appearance of cavewomen. They were made out of various things, including clay, ivory, stone, and even antlers of animals.
Venus was the Roman goddess of beauty. And, these objects appear to have a similar symbolic function, representing various things. The large breasts and stomachs suggest these figurines might be some sort of symbol of an ideal vision of a woman. Perhaps, they were some sort of fertility symbol to promote childbirth.
A closer look provides more details about a cavewoman’s possible appearance. The figurine’s head seems to portray detailed hairstyles and/or weaved headgear. Signs of necklaces, string skirts, tattoos, and maybe even a primitive type of bra have been suggested.
Cave people lived in small bands of about ten to thirty people. Close family provided an important means of support. Also, older members provided key knowledge to pass along.
A basic change for cavewoman from their primate ancestors was how they had children. Birth is a lot more difficult because of the bigger size of a more developed head. Giving birth alone became much harder. This required the development of a midwife to help the birthing process.
Help with birthing is but one way that cavewomen formed social bonds. Cave people did not have a modern form of marriage. But, a basic male/female/child family unit was a part of life from the time of our distant humanoid ancestors. So, cavewomen had that as well.
It is very possible that cavewomen were very important in the development of spoken language. Language is obviously a thing useful for men and women. But, cavewomen would do various things for which language might be more regularly used. Caring for children would particularly be an example where language would be very helpful as well as a way to pass the skill along.
Archaeologists have found the bones and even the footsteps of small cave children. Their lives are harder to determine. We can make some reasonable guesses on the life of a cavewoman based on their body type, environment, and how later hunters and gatherers live.
A baby cave girl relied on their mother to survive. They developed basically like a modern day human girl might, including doing things like smiling and crying when hungry. Remains of footprints suggest small groups of children staying together, perhaps playing. Play, including copying adults, is a basic child behavior even for primates such as monkeys.
Cavegirls probably had puberty at a young age, perhaps as early as eleven, though like modern humans, there was a range. Older women would be important to help guide them, including regarding things such as periods. Childbirth would regularly start in their mid to late teens.
As far back as 40,000 years ago, cave people played musical instruments, as seen by discoveries of flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory.
Most of us have seen pictures of cave art. Impressive works of art, focused on animal scenes, have been found in various caves. This might have had some religious significance or maybe just a way for cave people to express themselves.
Who drew such paintings? Again, we simply do not know for sure. But, studying the remains of handprints on the paintings, some scientists believe many or even most were drawn by women. Others argue that the handprints are from teenage boys.
Why wouldn’t cavewomen take part in cave art? Likewise, like men, cavewomen would be storytellers. Stories were not only a basic means of entertainment, but a way to spread knowledge. Wouldn’t it be nice if some cavewomen were still around to tell us some of their stories?
Cave dwellers did not have an Equal Rights Amendment, but they probably respected both men and women as a very important part of their survival. It would take the advent of farming and development of settled civilization to lead to a more imbalance of the sexes. Again, that is another story.