By Mukulika Radhakrishnan
The advance of archaeology and pop-culture have majorly contributed to the increased fascination with prehistory among all of us. Nonetheless, prehistory in pop-culture is often largely built on imagination and creativity even today. One of the main reasons for this cited by experts is the lack of proper evidence for the period roughly between 220,000-50,000 years ago. I often hear friends argue on the need to accept that almost all animated films based on prehistory are meant for children’s entertainment, that they do not claim to be scientifically accurate, and that historians who criticise such works of art pay no heed to artistic licence. Though valid to an extent, it sometimes becomes difficult to ignore the hidden political symbolism and their implications in some visual representations of prehistory. However, it may not always be wise to brush aside such imaginations as innocent and harmless, after all. In the background of work done so far by archaeologists, anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists that argue that these are products of our traditionally-held prejudices including Eurocentric and gender-based biases, I look at reconstructions of ancient humans in animated Hollywood films – Ice Age (2002) and The Croods (2013) – two extremely popular films from recent times that have prehistory as their plots. As there is widespread reception amongst the general public for such films and since children gain their primary impressions about prehistory from such reconstructions, there needs to be a greater dialogue between the producers of such art and scientists, archaeologists and theorists. Since such imaginations reinforce the same notions and social behaviours back into our society in a cyclical process, it is imperative that we scrutinise them as part of our history lessons early on.
Ice Age (2002)
The screenplay of Ice Age (2002) is jointly written by Michael Berg, Michael J Wilson and Peter Ackerman, and directed by Chris Wedge. Backed by big names in the industry like Blue Sky studios and 20th Century Fox, the film made a whopping 383.2 million US dollars in the box office – one of the only two animated films to make over 100 million that year. The film was followed by several sequels.
Ice Age begins with a scene that appears like a southward migration of a motley bunch of prehistoric animals, like mammoths, dodo birds etc. It is rather interesting to note how the paleo-environment has been constructed in these initial scenes. As the camera pans over them, it’s visible that the group is moving to warmer or muddier areas separated from all the ice. Some of the migrating animals mention that the migration is due to the “ice age” and that they would “freeze to death” otherwise. This is followed by a scene that shows a human settlement with tents, fire pits and leather sheets. We soon see some humans – muscular men with long hair around the fire, clearly outside the tent, and they have got several tools like sticks, stones, clubs and spears. Though the dialogues are inaudible, one of them is shown giving orders to the keen rest. Soon a woman with long unkempt hair appears with a baby – she has just come out of the tent.
Julie Solometo and Joshua Moss (2013) argue how pop-culture representations of the prehistoric actively re-establish gender roles. By pointing out the inability of such images to showcase ambiguity or abstractness, they argue that visual imagery of this kind normalises underlying notions about women’s position in society. Through tropes like featuring more men than women in general, men carrying out the stereotypical ‘manly’ activities like hunting, such imaginations stress on the centrality and dominance of men, reducing or “tethering” women indoors and establishing the “male/active/dominant and female/passive/submissive dichotomy”. Psychologist Sandra Bem (1993) believes that these reconstructions are products of three predominant patriarchal ideas: androcentrism, which assumes male superiority and reinforces the devaluation of female contribution; gender polarisation, according to which men and women are fundamentally different; and biological essentialism, which justifies androcentrism and gender polarisation as inevitable consequences of the intrinsic biological differences between the sexes. Bem argues that post-war era brought about ideals for the ‘white middle class American woman’ which asked her to conform to societal conceptions of femininity, confining her life into “sexual passivity, male domination and nurturing maternal love”, and how the recent surge in the number of working women and female archaeologists hasn’t contributed to any major shift in such reconstructions.
Revisiting the Ice Age scene mentioned above, we see that while men make fire, hunt, distribute duty, the passive female is seen restricted to her tent, taking care of the infant. Is this backed by any historical evidence that claims that prehistoric women did not participate in hunting or other outdoor activities? The busy father occasionally embraces the child, but is otherwise not shown engaging with the domestic space, which is reserved for the mother. They superimpose today’s conventional notions about the gendered division of labour onto the past, establishing that men and women have always occupied different positions in society or have had specific tasks carved out for them since prehistory.
Moreover, by portraying women as extremely smaller in size to men, we see how notions of sexual dimorphism work out, even while the origins of the emergence of physical differences (size-based, not genitalia) is still a debated topic. Such imaginations thus fail to reflect the lack of certainty that marks expert opinions on such issues till date.
The Croods (2013)
Written and directed by Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, The Croods (2013) is about a ‘prehistoric’ family in search of a safer habitat for themselves as they are forced out of their current one by tectonic shifts and other ecological changes. The family consists of an overprotective, brutish father Grug, portrayed as having been instrumental in keeping the family safe. Grug’s family is apparently the only one on the planet to have survived climatic changes, animal attacks and epidemics. Muscular Grug growls when he’s angry and complains about his inability to think straight when something goes wrong. He says that he has no ideas, because he is ‘too prehistoric’, much to his daughter’s embarrassment.
Michael Szpir (1993) observes how the scientific word ‘neanderthal’ has become a common insult to describe people who are crude or boorish. Szpir, wondering how this rather technical term acquired such a derogatory meaning in pop-culture, holds scientists to be responsible for the stereotyping of prehistoric humans, most of them featured as angry men. Archaeologist Stephanie Moser (1992) puts forth Neanderthal reconstructions by anatomists Marcellin Boule and Arthur Keith to point out the differences between two images based on the same fossil – highlighting how individual prejudices guide our reconstruction of the past. While Boule represents the Neanderthal as a short, stooped down, hairy ape-like man outside a cave with a club in his hands, Keith’s diametrically opposite image is of a less hairy, tall, muscular man inside a cave with a fire beside him, meticulously working on some more ‘evolved’ tools, and not just clubs.
The rest of the family in The Croods are Grug’s wife, her mother, and three kids. Except for their routine hunts, the Croods mostly stay inside their cave, obeying the orders of the alpha male. However, his rebellious daughter Eep complains that this is “no fun”. Breakfast is ‘acquired’ through an adventurous hunt where the whole family, led by the father Grug, sets out in search of food – bird eggs, animals etc. The rest of the family follows him and listens to his orders.
Eep, Grug’s teenage daughter, detests being controlled by her father who locks them all up in the cave day and night. She is clad in what seems to be a skin-hugging animal skin tube dress and a hypersexualised figure. Solometo and Moss (2013) discuss female bodies in visual representations of the prehistoric, which they believe are highly sexualised due to androcentric aesthetics or simply, the ‘male gaze’. Grug’s wife is a ‘tamed’ figure, featured almost always in the background, with a baby in her arms. It is to be noted that we never see Grug pampering or holding the child.
All of them have unkempt hair. Anthropologist Judith C Berman (1999) talks about the symbolism hidden in the association of body hair with prehistoric men in reconstructions of the caveman, whom she believes is visualised stereotypically in both scientific and pop-culture. She argues that this is a product of the Western or Eurocentric notions of the ‘primitive’, and that like any other body part, hair too has many social and emotional meanings, but what differentiates hair is that it’s the only body part that can be altered without physical pain. A “visual signifier” therefore, unkempt or long hair means “one who cannot master his own body”, as well as freedom and independence. Hair thus becomes a marker for primitivism or wildness.
A bizarre turn of events occurs towards the middle of the movie when one fine night, Eep comes across a young boy, called Guy who introduces her to the fire. As strange as it may sound, this boy who is their contemporary, however seems to have ‘evolved’ a bit more than the Croods (simultaneous timelines) and he wants to escape into a safer and better place since the current habitat is going through ‘doomsday’ ecological changes. Guy, clad in denims, thinks, and has a million ideas, is very unlike savage Grug, who is stuck in time. Grug is lovable and beastly at the same time – a version of the ‘Noble Savage’ – an unsmiling, infantilised brute who is often the butt of all jokes. Grug is desperate to regain the respect of his family, especially his daughter, but he simply has no ideas and just cannot think. Guy on the other hand is a pleasant boy who is enthusiastic to take them to the modern world with him.
Archaeologist Clive Gamble (Szpir, 1993) associates such imagery with general Victorian/Eurocentric attitudes towards people from other regions and seeks out the origins of such representations in the nineteenth century. He asserts the existence of an underlying social agenda behind such reconstructions – colonial representations of other cultures and the prehistoric past are connected as it sought to reinforce that people of darker skin belonged to earlier times. Along similar lines, Moser (1992) explains that “grotesque” physical features were often used while representing prehistoric humans, and that features of non-Europeans were increasingly being used in these mediaeval depictions. Berman (1999) argues that European voyages and explorations contributed to the belief that ‘real’ savages were found outside Europe, and related images were disseminated all across Europe during the Renaissance. Such representations soon became part of modern pop-culture in the Global North, culminating into movies like Ice Age and The Croods.
Berman, Judith C., ‘Bad Hair Days in the Paleolithic: Modern (Re)Constructions of the Cave Man’, American Anthropologist, 1999, 101:2, pp. 288-304.
Mann, Alan E., ‘Imagining Prehistory: Pictorial Reconstructions of the Way We Were’, American Anthropologist, 2003, 105:1, pp. 139-43.
Moser, Stephanie, and Sam Smiles, ‘Introduction: The Image in Question’, in Sam Smiles and Stephanie Moser (eds.), Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image, Blackwell Publishing, Malden USA, 2005, pp. 1-12.
Moser, Stephanie, ‘The Visual Language of Archaeology: A Case Study of the Neanderthals’, Antiquity, 66 (253), 1992, 831-844.
Solometo, Julie, and Joshua Moss, ‘Picturing the Past: Gender in National Geographic Reconstructions of Prehistoric Life, American Antiquity, 2013, 78:1, pp. 123-46.
Szpir, Michael, ‘Nasty, Brutish and Short?’, American Scientist, 1993, 81:4, pp. 328-29.
The featured image is a still from the short film 'Taste of Humanity'
Written and Directed by Izzy Schulte
Produced by Kat Canoy
Camera by Arthur De Neve
Sound and Edit by Sade Briggs
Giulia Di Bella