Saturday, February 07, 2015

10 000 BC

A real lesson

On Channel Five – a channel which I seldom watch – they are showing a programme called 10 00 BC. The premise is as simple as it is problematical.

Take twenty ordinary people from GB with a selection of practical and life skills, maroon them in a forest in Bulgaria for eight weeks with no technology from the 21st Century; and see how they make out mimicing our distant ancestors. The twenty included both men and women. Some had real outdoor experience either rock climbing, camping, or orienteering. Some had useful “civilian” skills such as archery, fishing and construction. They were a real cross-section of society – minus the “intellectuals”. For, only the end of the Stone Age and the development of agriculture would bring the deveopment of the complex, technological societies we see today.

Quite ordinary folks in an extraordinary situation, really. The group contained lots of your “I know a guy just like that” types.

Just to be on the safe side the producers had a survival expert stay with the group for two days to get them going. Sort of. They also provided them with a source of fresh water and three or four huts built to pre-historic specifications. Being kind-hearted folks they even left a freshly killed deer behind to provide a head start in the food race.

A film crew stayed with the group – otherwise there would be no film and no show! This is glossed over by the documentary makers, but an intelligent viewer would realise that they were not really marooned because the film crew (and therefore help) was always there in the background.

As an example, before the show got underway an elderly (late 50's) lady was taken ill and removed from the site before the challenge really got started. Also, one of the lads decided this was not for him and left. So, in practice rescue is really only a phone call away.

The first day was a bit of a lark. After spending some time trying to butcher the deer, they rightly decided that the priority was to get a fire started. Good call.

They had no matches, no butane touch, no nothing except a primitive bow and stick fire-making tool which our ancestors might have used. They spent most of the day trying and trying to get it to work after the first effort failed miserably. Finally, just as dark fell, they made it. Fire! Prometheus would have been really pleased!

With the fire going and sticks collected you might think that they were off to a good start. They roasted some of the deer over the fire and went to bed suitably fed and probably feeling as if a really good start had been made on Day One.

Day Two dawned. The left-over deer, which they had hung on the branches of a tree, was covered in flies. The weather was unseasonably warm and they were constantly attacked by the local mosquitoes. Some of the group were reluctant to get out from underneath their nice, warm animal skins. By evening the survival expert had bid they farewell and they were on their own. Wisely, they decided to “elect” one of their number as leader. The bow and arrow expert got the job. His success would be measured in the amount of co-operation and respect he could gain from the others. He did make a start at assigning jobs to various small groups. Some when to forage for edible plants. Some dug a primitive latrine. Some had another go at getting some useable meat from what was left of the deer. Some, alas, did very little.

One bright spark decided he knew where some edible mushrooms were and led a group in a wild goose chase after taking a wrong turn. Steve, the leader, led a foraging group who stopped to try and strip bark from a silver birch to use to make some sort carrying pots or containers. After spending hours with their flint tools, they decided it was too difficult, gave up and collected a few roots instead. One particularly dopey guy decided to spend the whole day devising a trap to catch a wild boar. If it works, which I suspect it won't, it might give a boar a headache of a bruised rib. Kill it? Not a chance.

Back at camp, it was discovered that despite having dug a latrine, a person or persons unknown had defacated quite near the tents. By the end of Day Two, food was running low, (the deer meat was covered in maggots) and it began to dawn on the group that this was not going to be a jolly camping trip in a charming, benign woodland setting after all. Dejection had well and truly set in. There were signs of tensions within the group. Some were clearly not pulling their weight. Some had been reduced to tears by trivial set-backs. Leadership was lacking. A sense of community was not really developing.

As the programme develops, the weather is going to turn colder and colder. You can clearly see this in the intro which shows our Stone-Agers shivering in their shelters with the snow falling and a good covering of the white stuff already on the ground. Lots of fun to come.

So, what have we learned so far?

Life in 10 000 BC was hard – very hard. I'm convinced that we have no real idea of how hard our ancestors had to work just to stay alive. I'm convinced the poor souls in this programme have no real idea how hard they will have to work if they are to make it to the end of the eight weeks.

Food is the essential and they show no sign of being able to either hunt for it or forage for it. Already some people are complaining of being hungry. This is despite the gift of a deer and the results of two days foraging. Do we “moderns” really understand hunger? I suspect not (except for those unfortunates in Third World Countries – actually the third-worlders might do a better job of surviving than this hapless crew of GB's finest!).

Clothing became a real problem real soon. The unseasonably warm weather meant a plague of insects, particularly flies. And where you have flies, you will have maggots. The animal skinsthey were using as bedding became infested with maggots, so the producers replaced them with wollen blankets on Day Two.

Shelter is just about Ok for the moment, but when it gets cold they are going to experience life like our ancestors, who must have been mostly cold most of the time in the winter.

This programme focuses the mind on the journey we made to get where we are. It has been a long one. It has been a costly one. It has been one of fits and starts. But, modern man is the product of people who overcame these kind of challenges. What seems to be missing is the ability to put to one side the usual modern sensibilites. To survive our ancestors must have been fairly ruthless – especially with those who did not pull there own weight. The Bulgarian guinea pigs seem unable to do this at present. If they can't master the skill of working together they will surely fail. I look forward to the rest of the programme.

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