“Welcome to your new ecosystem,” says Klint Janulis, former Green Beret and Oxford PhD candidate in Stone Age archaeology. He’s with a group of 20 Britons representing, according to the production company, a cross section of twenty-first-century society. They are gathered in a Bulgarian forest ready for Channel 5’s latest ‘social experiment’ reality TV show, 10,000 BC. “Can twenty-first century people”, asks a narrator in breathless tones, “live like cavemen?”
It’s that strange part, deep inside us, that wonders what we really are, what it is to be human
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. And it’s the way that the earnest expert Janulis would like us to. Some of the participants seem to think it’s time travel, though, as if the fleet of Bulgarian minicabs that had delivered them to the forest had been modified with Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. The show’s producers though are perhaps more interested in the arguments and romance that are reality TV’s bread and butter.
But there’s something else at stake, something that’s not real history or contemporary entertainment formula. It’s that strange part, deep inside us, that wonders what we really are, what it is to be human.
Are we, in short, formed by culture and experience? Or is there some innate humanity that runs, like a golden thread, right back to nature? The biblical version tells it through Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden. But there’s a secular version of the same story, a hippy fantasy of stripping away the trappings of contemporary life: the perpetual immersion in the warm bath of media, the constant nag of consumerism, the perversion of behaviour by capital, the psychic manipulations of society. Strip it all away, says this fantasy, and there, standing naked, would be our essence, the raw kernel of unadulterated, innocent humanity.
We need only think back to The Flintstones (1960–6) to see how the representation of pre-history narrates a commentary on the present. It wouldn’t be a surprise to discover that Bedrock was actually CIA-funded propaganda intended to fuel the argument that, deep down, humanity has always harboured the soul of 1960s suburban America, in love with automation, drive-ins and the social structures of the golden age of US consumerism.
So how do they fare, these ordinary Brits, in their Bulgarian time-warp? From the get-go, not very well. Someone burns the mallet in the fire. A daughter says to her mother, “You’ve only been here ten minutes and you’ve already eaten a worm!” Given a ‘caveman’ starter pack, a member of the tribe collapses before she even gets the furs on. She’s carted off by a medical team, who will find themselves a lot busier than they might have imagined. The starter pack includes several huts, a dead deer and some apples and berries. But the real problem is what on earth to do with it all. The participants find it almost impossible even to light a fire – the thing that Janulis describes as ‘the machine’ at the heart of Stone Age society.
There is a gigantic mismatch between the kinds of tasks they need to do and the skills they have, but it’s the moments when the twenty-first century and the fiction of the prehistoric reenactment intersect – the safety team bustling into the hut to take someone’s blood pressure, producers in Puffa jackets discussing pulling the show or four-wheel drives zooming into the Stone Age clearing – that are the real revelation. It’s the assorted present-day characters – the club promoters and digital-content creators of our own age – demonstrating their inability to knap a flint while talking to camera in therapy-speak about their inability to knap a flint that somehow touches. Shows like this might dress themselves up as something to do with history, but they can’t escape the very contemporary nature of their own staging.
Instead, we could understand them as surreal performance art, where contemporary myths about nature and origin are performed. In 10,000 BC, it’s a life without objects brought to you by series sponsor Kellogg’s Krave (“When you want tasty breakfast, nothing hits the spot like chocolate...”). Can we even imagine alternative ways of living, now that alternative lifestyles are instantly co-opted by the mainstream? Can we imagine life without Krave? Or at least a world where the endorsement of a breakfast cereal far removed from nature allows us to send a bunch of people to fend for themselves in historic drag for our own edutainment? Welcome, as Janulis might say, to our very own asynchronous, multiple-narrative ecosystem, the point to which the 12,015 years of human toil since 10,000 BC have brought us.
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue.