Kim Stanley Robinson is a New York Times best-selling author, and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards.
When a five thousand year-old body emerged from
a glacier in the Alps in 1991, it immediately became one of the greatest finds
in archeological history, because all the dead man’s gear had been frozen and
preserved with him. Most of the Paleolithic
technology that has survived into our time is stone or bone, so we imagined
that culture using spear tips and cutting blades, and this tended to give us
the impression that they were relatively simple or primitive people. But the Ice Man’s clothing and equipment,
expertly manufactured from a wide range of plant and animal materials, gave
proof of a sophisticated, “high-tech” culture.
In his fanny pack he had medicines, fire starters, and most of the tools
we now find in Swiss army knives. He wore
a hat and cape, his shoes were fitted and filled with straw socks; he was
tattooed. As I read about his gear I was
struck by how much it resembled what I took into the mountains myself when I
went backpacking. The materials were
different, but the design and use were much the same. I thought He was just like me.
This wasn’t right, but it was provocative. I had always been interested in the people of
the ice age, and now I became fascinated. I wanted to know how they lived and
what they were like. And it felt like
part of my science fiction work, because in imagining what we might become in
the future, it seemed more and more important to understand how we got the way
we are now; and that happened in the ice age.
That’s when we evolved into what we are.
So when I was backpacking in the Sierra, especially when snow camping, I
would lie in my sleeping bag at night looking at the stars, and wonder what it
had been like for our ancestors, lying under those same stars. I wanted to write about them, but I didn’t
know which story to tell. Their culture
lasted for some thirty thousand years, after all: that’s a lot of stories to choose from.
Then I heard about the Chauvet Cave, discovered
in southern France in 1994. The
paintings inside it were found to be 32,000 years old, nearly twice as old as
those in Lascaux and Altamira, indeed among the oldest paintings ever
found. At the time that cave was
painted, ice covered much of northern Europe, Neanderthals were still alive,
and people were beginning to domesticate wolves. And as Werner Herzog’s fine movie “Cave of
Forgotten Dreams” makes clear, these ancient paintings are as beautiful as any
art humanity has ever made. They quiver
and pulse with a mysterious power.
Ah, I said as looked at the photos, and watched
the movie: there’s my story. The people
who painted that cave, so like us, so not like us—who were they? What happened to them?