Authors: Bryan Sykes
Ursula was born into a world very different from our own. Forty-five thousand years ago it was a lot colder than it is today, and would get colder still in the millennia to come leading up to the Great Ice Age. Ursula was born in a shallow cave cut into the cliffs at the foot of what is now Mount Parnassus, close to what was to become the ancient Greek classical site of Delphi. The cave mouth looked out across a wide plain a thousand feet below which led away to the sea twenty miles off to the south. Today this same plain is filled with the dark green of ancient olive groves; then it was a landscape of scattered woodland pressed up close against the mountain slopes with open grassland beyond. The coastline was several miles further from the cave than it is today. This was a consequence of the lower sea level that prevailed when more of the oceans' water was locked into the ice and snow of the polar ice caps and enormous glaciers filled the valleys of the great mountain ranges. Temperatures would carry on falling for another twenty-five thousand years as part of the regular climatic cycle that has been going on for at least four hundred thousand years and will no doubt continue far into the future.
Of course, Ursula was completely oblivious to these long-term changes â much as we are today in our everyday lives. What mattered to her and her band of twenty-five was the here and now. Ursula was her mother's second child. The first had been taken by a leopard when he was only two, in a raid on a temporary camp one dark night. This was a tragic but not uncommon occurrence in Ursula's world. Many children, and occasionally adults too, were hunted and killed for food by lions, leopards and hyenas. Though it was a sad and serious blow for Ursula's mother to lose her only child, it did at least mean she could get pregnant again. While she was nursing her son her periods had stopped, she no longer ovulated and could not conceive. This was a deliberate evolutionary adaptation to space out the children. Only when one child could walk well enough to keep pace with the seasonal migrations of the band would another be conceived. And that could take three or even four years. So, a year after she lost her son, she gave birth to Ursula.
It was March, the days were getting longer and the band had moved up from the coast where they had spent the winter. It was a good time of year; Ursula's mother always looked forward to the spring. The coast in winter was damp and miserable. There were no caves to shelter in and she had to do the best she could in crude shelters of wood and animal skins. It wasn't much of a home, and the living was difficult and uncomfortable to say the least. But they had to come down from the mountains: it was too cold up there, and in any case all the game on which they depended had retreated to the lower ground. There was plenty of it, but it was hard to catch. Her particular favourite was bison, which congregated on the plain in reasonable numbers at that time of year. But they were practically impossible to hunt down on foot and in the open. It was difficult and dangerous work. They were wary, hungry themselves and very bad-tempered. Only the year before two young men had been trampled to death in a stampede; since then, everyone had decided that it was just not worth it, and bison hunting in the winter was off limits. The loss of two hunters from the small band was a serious business, because it meant that there were extra mouths to feed in the shape of the bereaved women and their children. But the band only survived by co-operation, and there was no question of abandoning the dependants to their fate.
With bison hunting ruled out, the only food coming into the winter camp was either scavenged from carcasses or the occasional red deer that could be ambushed in the woods higher up the slopes. Scavenging was a depressing business for the hunters, and not without risk. They walked for miles, keeping an eye open for the signs of a kill made by a lion or a leopard. They might be lucky and spot the kites circling overhead if it was a clear day, but more often than not it was just a question of trudging round the usual circuit and listening out for the dreadful chatter of hyenas as they fought over the rapidly disappearing carcass. There had to be at least five people for a successful raid against a pack of hyenas. Making as much noise as possible, they rushed the carcass and scattered the hyenas before the beasts had a chance to realize what was going on. Then two of the group got on with the business of slicing off whatever meat was left while the others confronted the caterwauling hyenas that always hung around and made repeated lunges at either people or carcass. They pelted the beasts with stones and yelled to keep them back until the butchers had salvaged what they could, including the ribs, which were rich in marrow. Then it was a question of a hasty and organized retreat, with more stone-throwing and shouting as they left the scene. The trick was to leave at least some of the carcass behind, and to cover up what they had managed to collect under a skin. That way the hyenas eventually stopped following and returned to what was left. It was miserable, degrading work. The hyenas were awful, with saliva dripping from their disgusting mouths and making that frightful noise. There was nothing noble about this way of making a living, and everyone wanted to get off the soggy plains as quickly as possible and back to the mountains where at least they could hunt properly.
As soon as the first swifts appeared overhead, back from spending the winter in Africa, the band struck camp and started north for the mountains. The idea was to get there before the bison moved up to their summer pastures on Parnassus; that way there was a good chance of ambushing them as they filed through the steep-sided gorge below the cave. But even that wasn't simple. If men had been trampled in a bison stampede on the open plain, imagine how much more dangerous the herd was in the tight confines of a gorge only 10 metres across at its narrowest point. As usual, there was an argument about the best way to go about it. This happened every time. Some people advocated blocking the gorge and diverting the lead animals into a side couloir where they could be stoned and speared to death. The trouble with this approach was that some bison, who definitely sensed what was going on, had a nasty habit of turning round when cornered and charging straight back. The prospect of facing a ton of charging muscle and horn was too much for some people, and they shot up the rock face. When the escaping animal got back, snorting and sweating, to the main herd, this panicked the whole lot and they charged through the gorge at enormous speed. The advocates of a less audacious method pointed out the dangers of this direct attack and argued that it was simpler to wait until the main herd had gone through the gorge and pick off the stragglers. This wasn't a particularly heroic approach, but it did usually work. The bison bringing up the rear were usually the old members of the herd, but they still tasted better than scraps scavenged from the hyenas.
While this argument was going on, Ursula's mother withdrew to the shelter of the spring camp in the cave. Even though it was not uncommon for children to be born when the band was on the move, it was a lot more comfortable in a settled camp. The cave was dry and it was warming up as the sun rose higher in the sky. She was very glad to have made it before the birth. From the smell that hung around the back of the shelter it was obvious that it had been used as a winter lair by a cave bear. These huge and fearsome creatures, bigger than even the largest Alaskan grizzly, were a dangerous threat to the band. They would quite often attack the hunting parties, and to kill a bear was a special event. But this particular bear had left its hibernation quarters long since, and there was no danger that it would return before the autumn.
Ursula's birth was uncomplicated and attended by her mother's elder sister, who sliced the umbilical cord with a sharp flint blade and tied it off. Like all human babies before and since, Ursula announced her arrival with a loud cry as the air was sucked into her lungs for the first time. Within seconds the fresh oxygen was absorbed into her bloodstream and surged round to her brain and muscles to take over where the placental supply left off. Almost immediately she was suckling urgently at her mother's breast, drinking in the natural goodness of the milk. In this milk were also the antibodies she would need to fight off infections while her own immune system built itself up. If, as sometimes happened in the clan, the birth had gone badly and the mother had died, this also meant death for the child, for there was not yet any animal milk that could be substituted to sustain it.
Ursula spent only a few days in the cave before it was time for her mother once more to contribute to the main occupation of the clan â finding enough food to live on. The spring camp had been sited carefully, with a commanding view over the wooded slopes below and close to the gorge through which the bison must pass on their way to the summer pastures on the hills. This spot had been noticed only a few seasons before by a hunting party exploring the region from their main base further east. It was already occupied, not by members of another band but by a small group of a completely different kind of human, Neanderthals. The hunting party had given them a wide berth. These were very strong creatures, stocky and built to withstand the cold; but they showed no particular aggression to the newcomers.
When they returned the following year, the camp was abandoned. It was as if the Neanderthals, even though they would have been a match for the hunting party if it came to a straight fight, sensed the power of the new arrivals and feared them, preferring to leave a prize camp and retreat to higher ground rather than risk a confrontation. There were many stories of the Neanderthals in the band's collective mythology, stories that were repeated around the camp fires in winter. They were rarely encountered nowadays but they must once have been more common. In virtually all of the old, abandoned caves, the band came across the heavy hand axes which were the Neanderthals' principal tool. By the standards of Ursula's fellows, these tools were crude and unsophisticated; they worked the same stone as the Neanderthals, but could make much better use of it. For instance, they would strike off thin slivers of flint and sharpen any dull edges by chipping away at them. All the men had to learn how to make their own flint knives and scrapers, but inevitably some were better at it than others â either better at selecting the right piece of flint in the first place, or better at judging exactly where to strike it to create the best flakes. The Neanderthals, from the evidence of stones left behind in the caves, had never got the hang of doing this.
They were strange creatures, whom the band preferred to avoid and who preferred to avoid them. They could certainly hunt, for the evidence was all around. Horse and bison bones littered their old caves, and in one spot, further north, there was a ravine full of the bones of wild animals that looked as though they had been deliberately stampeded off the cliff edge, then butchered where they fell. Occasionally, hunting parties still came across a small group of Neanderthals in the forests or on the remoter slopes. They were very shy and would melt into the trees rather than confront the hunters. For their part, the hunters never attacked the Neanderthals. A few were tempted to hunt them down for food, but there was a great aversion, almost a taboo, to hunting something that was so nearly human.
By the time Ursula was born, Neanderthals were a rare sight. Her ancestors had moved very slowly, over the generations, from the Near East through Turkey. They had crossed the Bosphorus which separated the enormous freshwater lake to the north, now the Black Sea, from the Aegean to the south. In the past, whenever the climate cycles turned and it became colder, there would be a slow retreat towards the Middle East and the Neanderthals would reclaim their lost territory. But this time Ursula and her band had penetrated much further into Europe than any of her kind before her; and unlike her distant ancestors, this time they did not retreat when it turned colder.
Ursula and her band certainly looked quite different from the Neanderthals. They were only slightly taller, but with a much slimmer build, betraying their adaptation to the warmer climates of the Middle East and Africa, where the ability to disperse heat rather than conserve it was the overriding requirement. More than a quarter of a million years of adaptation to the colder European climate had evolved the Neanderthal body shape to a stout and compact form so as to reduce surface area and heat loss. Their faces looked different, too, with a receding forehead, no chin to speak of and bony ridges just above the eyebrows. Whereas Ursula's band had small and inconspicuous noses, the Neanderthal nose was distinctly large and protruding, so as to warm up the cold air before it reached the lungs.
These physical characteristics were not in themselves enough to explain why the Neanderthals slowly began to withdraw as Ursula's band and other modern humans began their slow infiltration of the European mainland. The gradual Neanderthal extinction would take another fifteen thousand years of retreat until the last one died in southern Spain. There were no pitched battles, no deliberate suppression of the âfirst nation' Neanderthals to rival the European colonizations of recent centuries. For one thing, the level of political organization required to achieve this was entirely lacking in Ursula's people. They were not a state, with territorial ambitions and weaponry at their disposal; they were just bands of people, living on the edge and just trying to survive. Nor was it their skill with the flints that made the difference. It was the higher levels of communication and social organization that made Ursula's people the better survivors.
Ursula spent her first year being carried by her mother on the daily round of food gathering. A lot of this took place in the woods close to the spring camp. Spring itself was a lean time, for there were no fruits on the trees yet; the band relied on the men to kill at least a few deer or even a bison. It was Ursula's job, as soon as she could walk, to help her mother in the woods. There were frogs to collect by the sides of streams, birds' eggs in the bushes, roots and tubers to dig up with a stick or a piece of red deer antler. Autumn was the best season in the woods: there were hazel and beech nuts to gather in, berries hung from the bushes and there were mushrooms and toadstools on the ground. The band were often on the move from one camp to another as the seasons changed. Summer would be spent up in the mountains hunting hares and deer, autumn in the oak woods and camped by the gorge to ambush the returning herds. Then in winter it was down to the plains before moving up once again to the spring camp. This pattern was repeated year after year after year. Some years were good, the game was abundant and more children survived. Others were less so, and children and old people starved to death in the long winters. Life was very, very hard, and survival depended on a strong constitution and a great deal of luck.