Quite a bit, as it turns out.
Seeing humans survive terrible conditions is a pretty good excuse to take stock of myself. I like to think I’m pretty handy with tools, but living where we do (Texas) I have to say that I’m a big fan of air conditioning, and I’m bound to get lost if I don’t have my iPhone with Google maps at hand.
But if I were stripped of all these modern contrivances — or even the more basic conveniences like matches, ready shelter, underwear — and dropped into the middle of an icy moor of Scotland, well…first, I’d weep. Then I’d curl up into a ball. And then I’d likely starve to death. If I wasn’t eaten by wolves, killed by exposure to the elements, or infected with a fatal disease.
I get the feeling that my Stone Age predecessors had little time for such indulgences.
It’s a modern conceit to think of those that came before us as mouth-breathers who crouched in their mud huts, unknowing and unthinking. Like, when your parents were kids, their socks didn’t even have elastic in them. Primitive, am I right?
I guess it’s no surprise, given that I’m here writing this, and you’re there reading it, that our ancestors were pretty adept at keeping themselves alive. But as “What The Ancients Did For Us” teaches, they did a lot more than just bare survival.
The program covers the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, and offers a fantastic glimpse into their innovations and inventions, mostly through demonstrations of exactly what it would have taken for even relatively simple-seeming tasks.
Building an Iron Age roundhouse, a carefully-constructed and geometrically considered enterprise, from its woven walls to its peaked roof, takes us about 3 months.
(Speakers in the program also gleefully relate that they once built a roundhouse just to burn it down. Total time to escape alive: 4 minutes. But because of the aforementioned geometry, such a scenario was fairly unlikely, due to the smoke dispersal and collected carbon dioxide keeping sparks to a minimum.)
They demo the creation of flint hand-axes, the forging of bronze and iron swords, panning for gold using sheepskin, and even nautical navigation — using boats which were woven together, as nails didn’t yet exist. And don’t even get me started on the making of chariot wheels!
…Okay, you’ve convinced me. While all the stuff in “What The Ancients Did For Us” is incredible, my favorite part was watching them transform ash poles into circular, spoked wheels.
They estimate the process of making a single chariot would have taken about a year. With all of our technologies like pressure cookers, readymade tools like clamps and hammers, and four or five strong, skilled dudes, it can be done in just a few months.
Further, when Julius Caesar arrived in around 55 BC, the chariots of the native Britons proved a significant advantage over the Roman legions’ style.
“Their manner of fighting from chariots is as follows: first they drive in all directions and hurl javelins, and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels they generally throw the ranks of soldiers into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile their charioteers retire gradually from the battle, and place chariots in such a fashion that, if the warriors are had pressed by the enemy, they have a ready means of retreat to their own side.” (via)
The Romans were eventually turned back, and didn’t return to Britain until 43 AD, nearly a hundred years later.
No wonder people were buried with their chariots.
Oh, and speaking of burials, I’ve been fond of the Beaker people ever since visiting Stonehenge during my semester abroad in London.
These days, you can’t get close enough to Stonehenge to see the stones, which may be a good thing, in terms of erosion. Did you know they’ve even been re-set with new foundations in order to reconstruct part of the circle? Weird, huh?
Luckily, though, the nearby Avebury Henge has no such restrictions.
I’m not among those who believe that aliens had a hand (or a tentacle) in the construction of these henges…I prefer to believe in the astounding ingenuity of human beings. Like this man, who demonstrates how a single person can move stones the size of these henges:
All of the people involved in the demos in “What The Ancients Did For Us” are clearly experts in their fields of specialization, which makes it all the more amazing when you think that at least a few people in each tribe or village would have had to possess one of these skills or another, just in order for the group to make it to the next year — and moreso when you realize how much of this information was subsequently lost to the ages, with various advancements of technology and culture brought on by invasion, occupation or its simply dying out.
As a side note, this episode is the ninth in a nine-part series, which also covers the cultural contributions of the Islamic world, the Chinese, the Aztecs, Mayas & Incas, the Romans, the Indians, the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks. We haven’t yet watched the other eight parts, but if they’re even halfway as fascinating and educational as this one, it’s well worth the investment of time. Highly recommended.
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