What does a real-life ‘early man’ make of Early Man?

Our archaeologist guest-reviewer says that while football might not feature largely in the real-life Neolithic to Bronze Age transition, you might be surprised by which bits of Aardman's new movie ring true…

What does someone who knows all about the real life of actual Stone Age humans think of the prehistoric, football-loving proto-Brits in Early Man, Aardman’s latest animated adventure? We asked James Dilley, an experimental archaeologist and specialist in European Prehistory at the University of Southampton (who knows how to wield a Neolithic spear and make a Bronze Age axe) to go along to a special screening of Early Man and give us his verdict [with footnotes to explain what was really going on…].

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As an archaeologist at the University of Southampton specialising in experimental archaeology and European prehistory, news of an Aardman film set during the Stone to Bronze Age transition was met with excitement – and concern that the time period I study and promote through public outreach could be portrayed inaccurately.

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The protagonist in Early Man [1] is Dug (Eddie Redmayne) who, in classic Aardman style has a trusty animal companion in the form of Hobnob the wild boar. However, we don’t meet the pair from the start as the plot begins some time before. The pair we meet first are a T-rex and Triceratops battling it out in the same way we’ve all seen in books about dinosaurs. Further away is a gang of prehistoric people also battling it out over some XXL meal deal drum sticks. Such a sight would generate a feeling of dread to anyone studying prehistoric life. The scene is quickly interrupted by an incoming asteroid. The prehistoric people who somehow survive the impact (the same can’t be said for the dinosaurs) discover a hot sphere in the crater which turns out to be bronze.

The footballers of Real Bronzio maintained their clean-shaven appearance to match their sporting prowess. Strong evidence of self-grooming and shaving appeared in the Bronze Age with metal razors and tweezers.

The ensuing game of hot potato evolves over time into football which forms of the core of the plot. Much later, Dug and his group of Stone Age people live in the crater which has become a lush oasis surrounded by the environmentally hostile “Badlands”. Their peace is interrupted by metal-clad mammoths [2] and soldiers led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) who are searching for sources of metal ore. After being driven from their homeland, Dug discovers this new Bronze Age society is held together by football. Dug has to unite his tribe [3] with the assistance of the highly skilled Goona (Maisie Williams) to challenge the team from the city to reclaim their homeland.

There are some brilliant puns (Early Man-Utd is just one) and Flintstones-esque moments throughout the film, including the use of a beetle as a razor [4] by the group’s leader Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall).

The core theme of football in the plot make it clear the film makes no attempt to portray prehistoric life accurately in any way. This offers some comfort to researchers like me who can sit back and thoroughly enjoy another masterpiece by Nick Park and his team. Sadly, evidence of football doesn’t appear in prehistoric archaeology, but thankfully the richness of the time period in Europe makes up for it.

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The transition from the Stone Age to Bronze is one of my favourite parts of prehistory. It’s a time of cultural and social change best seen in burials. Stonehenge is the best-known monument from this transition period which is a clear demonstration of the engineering and social strength of people at this time to come together on such a project. A similar group effort is shown in the film by Dug’s team to learn the game their ancestors played and defeat Real Bronzio. Wealthy burials found in the area around the circle contain objects of these new metals (which are actually copper and gold before bronze is created).

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This wealth is brought in by people who have travelled to what is now Britain from the continent such as the Amesbury Archer, who was buried with beaker pots, copper daggers, gold hair loops, flint arrowheads and a delicately carved bone hair pin. Such wealth would not have been common during this time. Perhaps most interesting though is that he came from central Europe. The accents of the Bronze Age people in Early Man are perhaps a nod to this fusion of new people and ideas to Britain [5] giving opportunity to some brilliant accent-based puns and jokes. Overall a highly enjoyable film with the mix of my two loves in life, I will certainly be watching it again soon.

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Read interviews with Early Man stars Maisie Williams and Eddie Redmayne in this week’s Big Issue, on sale now.

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James’ footnotes:

[1] Traditionally the term “Early Man” was used to refer to humans who lived during the oldest part of the Stone Age: the Palaeolithic. In archaeology today the term is not used for a number of reasons but mainly because the Palaeolithic is broken down into categories and sub-categories. When referring to the people themselves it would be anatomically modern human (us), Neanderthals or people would be known via the name of their sub-time period. The time period in Aardman’s Early Man is much later in time by many thousands of years. The comedic nature of the film suggested the title itself should not be taken seriously today, it’s a term from the dusty past of human origin research. I wouldn’t try to learn anything about our distant ancestors from the film, it wouldn’t be fair to the film or researchers.

[2] Sadly there is no evidence to suggest football was around during the Neolithic/Bronze Age in Europe, and there certainly weren’t any mammoths. Further inaccuracies could be listed, but the film quite clearly does not attempt to portray accuracy and that was appreciated.

[3] The arrival of new materials such as metal to Stone Age societies must have caused a ripple in the Neolithic world. Seeing that change in artefacts is fairly easy, working out what those changes meant to the people at the time is much harder. Some people probably embraced new materials and practices, others almost certainly resisted them (like Dug’s group).

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[4] One thing I noticed about the Bronze Age people in the film was how groomed they were. The footballers of Real Bronzio maintained their clean-shaven appearance to match their sporting prowess. Amusingly, strong evidence of self-grooming and shaving appeared in the Bronze Age in the form of metal razors and tweezers. A matter of hours before the preview of Early Man, I was in Copenhagen looking at some of these ancient grooming tools. The basic form of many had not changed up to the present day!

[5] Conflict between Neolithic and Bronze Age people is extremely difficult to pick out. There is plenty of evidence of violence during the Neolithic. A sizable proportion of human remains in many Neolithic burial mounds show obvious signs of blunt force trauma or axe wounds. Crickley Hill in Gloucester could be site of a Neolithic skirmish, based on the hundreds of arrowheads found embedded (point down) in the soil. Later in the Bronze Age we see the appearance of swords which (other than a status symbol) have one primary function: fighting other people. But there is still limited evidence of battles during the Bronze Age other than some isolated damaged weapons and a stunningly preserved battle site in Germany on the Tollense River. Here the remains of 130 individuals have been found, most with clear battle wounds surrounded by some of the weapons that may have caused them. The archaeologists on the site point out they have only excavated 3-4% of the area so suggest the casualties could run up to 750 individuals. From that they have suggested the battle size could have been up to 4000 people. It is likely people from across what is now Europe would have had some involvement, producing weapons to travelling to take part. Such a conflict during prehistory would have been rare (based on limited finds of a similar scale so far).

Early Man is in cinemas now

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