British prehistory has been much in fashion of late. Recent books include Francis Pryor’s Britain BC, Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins and Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain. Now Pryor has returned to the fray with Home. What has made British prehistory such a hot topic?
The answer to that question may be the dredging up in 1931 of a bone spearhead from the bottom of the North Sea, twenty fathoms down. Since then it has slowly been realised that prehistoric people – people genetically and physically identical to us, not ‘cavemen’ or Neanderthals – faced challenges from climate change that were far more extreme than anything we are currently facing. First, an Ice Age forced out of Britain its early population of hunters and then, when the temperatures jumped as much as ten degrees Celsius some twelve thousand years ago, an enormous rise in sea levels drowned the once-prime hunting plain of ‘Doggerland’. (The story is a gift for science-fiction writers, long used to fictional apocalypse, and the gift has been gratefully accepted by Stephen Baxter in his Northland sequence.)
What powers Pryor’s new book, in contrast to some other recent works, is a conviction that archaeologists should be focusing on family life, which he thinks was always the real motor of progress. They have been misled, he points out, by their unconscious acceptance of the social structures around them.