This blog will explore what people looked like in prehistoric Europe, largely from archaeological evidence. There have been many representations of prehistoric people since the rise in antiquarianism and archaeology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These have been modified again and again as our ideas about the appearance and abilities of our prehistoric forebears have changed following new or reconsidered evidence, or vagaries in theoretical approaches.
The way Neanderthals have been represented is a case in point. Take this reconstruction of the Neanderthal buried in a cave near La Chapelle-Aux-Saints in Corrèze in south-central France from 1909 by Frantisek Kupka, based on the work of Pierre Marcellin Boule who was keen to make the Neanderthal seem as apelike as possible. In reality, the ‘Old Man’ of La Chapelle-aux-Saints was given a proper burial and had probably been looked after well into old age after his teeth had dropped out. Someone either chewed for him or ground his food up into mush (Trinkaus 1985).
More recent work on Neanderthals has revealed that they may have made art and worn jewellery (Morin & Laroulandie 2012; Radovčić et al 2015; Zilhao et al 2009), and there is overwhelming evidence for interbreeding between Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens incomers to Europe. And so recent reconstructions of Neanderthals show them in a different light, such as this diorama of a Neanderthal group by Johannes Krauss from Krapina in Croatia at the Museum of Krapina Neanderthals.
When early antiquarians depicted people from later periods of prehistory, it wasn’t much better, informed as they were by ideas of barbarianism v. civilisation. This is an illustration that has stuck in my head. It’s by John White who is better known for depicting Native Americans on one of those early voyages to America in the sixteenth century. He depicted a Pictish warrior, mainly based on descriptions by classical authors (although claimed to be based on images from “a oolld English cronicle”) in contrast to the more civilised Native Americans, who at least had clothes (Sloan 2006, 153-55).
More recent representations are not only informed by a couple of centuries of research, but also endeavor to show a range of people doing things and are often based on evidence from a specific site. This reconstruction by Jane Stanley shows a burial taking place at Harlyn Bay near Padstow in Cornwall (Stanley 2009, 116-7). The grave is stone lined and the mourners are eating at the graveside until it is time to cover the body.
Clearly a lot of research goes into these amazing modern reconstruction drawings and dioramas that convey so much to us about the people who used to live in Europe many generations ago. This blog aims to get to the bottom of what that research tells us about how people looked, from physical appearance to clothing, jewellery, body painting and tattooing, and how they wore their hair. It’s a big job, and this is just the start.
Morin E & Laroulandie V, 2012. Presumed Symbolic Use of Diurnal Raptors by Neanderthals. PLoS ONE 7(3): e32856. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032856
Radovčić D, Sršen AO, Radovčić J, Frayer DW, 2015. Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119802. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119802
Rodríguez-Vidal, J et al 2014. A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 111 No. 37, pp. 13301–13306. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1411529111
Sloan, K 2006. A New World: England’s First View of America. London, BM Publications.
Stanley, J 2009. A Brush with the Past. Jane Stanley and Cornwall Council, Great Britain.
Trinkaus, E 1985. Pathology and posture of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 67(1), pp. 19–41.
Zilhão, J et al 2009. Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 107 No. 3, pp. 1023–1028. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0914088107