Review: What We Learn From Watching 10,000 BC

You learn a lot about maggots, the modern human condition and how we view the people of the past today. Unfortunately, you don’t learn very much about 10,000 BC.

In case you missed it, Channel 5 has launched a new reality TV show called 10,000 BC. It’s premise? Take a group of 21st century Brits, dump them in a Bulgarian forest, and leave them to it for the next two months. Thankfully, the reality is not quite the Lord of the Flies-style slide towards social breakdown that the trailers make out. More… eating worms and absurd soundbites like “I’m going to take the bum out and tie a knot in it”.

To help them get started, the 20 volunteers are given shelters, a freshly killed deer, flint, dried fruit and nuts, and a source of clean drinking water. They’re also stripped of their clothes and given a selection of rakish skins, a la Raquel Welch in 1,000,000 BC, to don. No mention of the finely woven textiles we know were being made as much as 36,000 years ago.

As you’d expect from reality TV, it’s more about the cast than what we know about life in 10,000 BC. Which is a shame, because although the show’s presenter Klint Janulis sounds like he popped straight out of a ‘what’s your survivalist-hero-turned-TV-presenter name’ generator, he’s actually a pretty sound archaeologist.

So, ok, this show doesn’t delve much into life 12,000 years age, but what can it tell us about today? The reasons that each member of the cast gives for wanting to quit modernity and give life in the Stone Age a try are… interesting. Mike the firefighter signed up because he “wants to be able to make fire” (!). Janet “wants to see if my family would be any different”. Karen wants to “experience the thrill of a kill, and know where food really comes from”. Kym wants to “reconnect with [her] natural self”, while Oliver the electrician has “always had sadistic dreams of apocalypse”. Blimey.

As for the way the cast variously view the people of the past as insane, admirable, something to be left well behind, or a benchmark to prove their own humanity also tells us something. “I want to be a caveman – the man from 10,000 BC” says one. “I think they were mad” says another.

What else? Well, despite how highly we think of our modern hygiene habits, just two days in we get a pretty stern lesson in how little we actually know about it. Overnight, their butchered deer has become a seething mass of larvae. So have the fur skins the cast use to keep warm. There are maggots and flies everywhere. Fetid flesh dangles in the trees. “I can’t tell what’s mud and what’s rotten skin,” one of them says, as another cheerily picks out the eggs and hangs everything back out to dry. What’s more, someone’s left a turd on their own doorstep.

Whether the show does anything more for our understanding of the past than make it clear that it took a complex suite of social, emotional and technical talents that we don’t have to keep warm, stay clean, live off the land and hold a group together, I’m not sure, but it certainly emphasises just how distant our society keeps us from the things that keep us alive.

The thing is, far from being brutish, our ancestors were cultured, artistic, had complex beliefs and varied in how they exploited their environments and organised their societies. You won’t get much of that from this show, but at the very least you will get the feeling that our ancestors could certainly have taught us a lot, and that maybe that’s something worth making a programme about.

UPDATE: Check out #Real10000BC on Twitter for some excellent fact-checking by Becky Wragg-Sykes, or read her awesome blog post.

10,000 BC is broadcast by Channel 5 on Mondays and Tuesdays at 10pm.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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