Cro-Magnons ‘Like You and Me’

Trenton Holliday, professor of anthropology in the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University, thinks human evolution is cool and hopes you think so, too.

In his new book, Cro-Magnon: The Story of the Last Ice Age People of Europe (Columbia University Press), Holliday explores where we as Homo sapiens came from and how we became the modern humans who exist today.

“They’re people like you and me,” Holliday said about the titular prehistoric humans. Cro-Magnons, sometimes called “European early modern humans,” were members of our species, Homo sapiens, who lived in Europe at the end of the last ice age. “They had language, they created art. Some of them lived in the same place all year long, which we often think of only happening with agriculture.”

Trenton Holliday surrounded by four replica Cro-Magnon skulls
Anthropology professor Trenton Holliday surrounded by replica Cro-Magnon skulls, says these early humans used language and art, similar to modern humans.

Holliday also describes what researchers know about the lives of the Cro-Magnons, like their diets, how they may have reacted to a warming planet at the end of the ice age and the art they created. “Their art is really unsurpassed,” said Holliday. “It’s every bit as good as what you see in the Renaissance.”

The book touches on some more well-known prehistoric hominins, like the Neandertals. Cro-Magnons and Neandertals most likely interacted with each other, although Homo sapiens came out on top. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Neandertals were stupid, Holliday said. “I’m a defender of Neandertal cognition.”

Neandertals tend to get a lot of attention, though, and Holliday wanted to focus on the early Homo sapiens he has studied for most of his career. “They appeal to me,” he said. “They were people with real human foibles and real human stories.”