The way cavemen have been portrayed in film and the media is often full of stereotypes and was not made for intellectual enrichment, unfortunately. The Croods is a movie made in 2013 about a family of cavemen in a sort of whimsical fantasy prehistoric world. The premise is that their home is destroyed, so they must find a new place to live and settle down. The whole family is mostly unintelligent and like stereotypical cavemen, but the main character, their teenage daughter Eep, shows more intelligence and curiosity which often made her clash with her “old-fashioned” father. During their journey, they meet a more anatomically (and cognitively!) modern human. He shows them his new “inventions”, which are humorously anachronistic played for comedy, and becomes attracted to the teenage daughter Eep which also perturbs the father, Grug. The film overall was average, nothing stood out of too much note plotwise, but one aspect many that have reviewed it including scholars seem to have overlooked is the theme of behavioral modernity and cognitive evolution portrayed in the film. In my opinion, it was quite sophisticated, even if it wasn’t fully intentional!
“Although often debated, most scholars agree that modern human behavior can be characterized by abstract thinking, planning depth, symbolic behavior (e.g. art, ornamentation, music), exploitation of large game, and blade technology, among others” (Wikipedia)
“A more terse definition of the evidence is the behavioral B’s: blades, beads, burials, bone toolmaking, and beauty.” (Wikipedia)
The character Guy, the modern human, shows many of the traits of behavioral modernity and more advanced cognitive skills than the other cave people. Anatomically, too, he is set apart from them as they all have more robust and stocky bodies. I actually do wonder if the creators of the film actually did consult with some paleoarchaeologists! I can only hope! I also find it amusing that they named him “Guy”, as in just a person. It’s similar to “Adam” being called “Adam” as the word merely means “man” in Hebrew, or “Everyman” in The Pilgrim’s Progress. It sends the message that yes, even though he’s primitive, he’s just another guy like you or me! Perhaps he represents modern humans as a whole just as Everyman in Pilgrim’s Progress represents all Christians. Moving on to the main point though, I made a list of specific examples of how Guy demonstrates behavioral modernity in his cognition:
- The Ability to Use and Control Fire
In the first scene with him, Eep discovers Guy when she sees a torch of fire that he made. Guy is capable of making and controlling the fires he makes and shows the others how to do it. In one humorous scene, the family is amazed by his control of fire and accidentally sets their environment on fire when Eep’s brother tired to play with it! He also uses fire in another scene near the end to deter animals from swarming around him and Eep. Cooking food is also another human universal, made possible by fire! Guy does that too, to the Crood’s delight.
2. Domestication of Animals
Guy has a pet monkey-like creature that he takes care of. Modern humans domesticated the dog around 14,700 years ago. This was an important leap for humanity as it led to other higher-thinking behaviors in controlling aspects of nature down the road for the neolithic revolution. Many believe that the domestication of the dog arose out of a symbiotic relationship with wild dogs, humans would feed them and they gave humans protection.
3. Use of Blade Technology
Guy uses blade tools in the film. This is thought to be one of the marks of the “Great Leap Forward” in human cognition around 50,000 years ago. Earlier hominids used tools too, but not to the level of sophistication that modern humans have made. However, 50,000 years ago tool designs really took off though! Tools went from more thick blunt pieces of flint, to thin pieces five times sharper than a modern-day scalpel!
4. Self Ornamentation
One can see that Guy wears jewelry to adorn himself as well as pigment. This was evidence of a great cognitive leap; a sense of self and the abstract concept of what is aesthetically pleasing. One has to have a certain level of self-awareness in order to care about how one looks and is perceived by others. There is more evidence of modern humans adorning their bodies, but some evidence is coming to light that Neanderthals did it too, but to a lesser extent. I noticed the other family members of the Croods did not adorn themselves the way Guy did, so I wonder if they did that on purpose. I assume it was to show his superior cognition visually too.
5. Abstract Thought
This one by far is the most important in my mind, and overarches to connect with all the other traits of behavioral modernity. Without our increased ability for abstract thought, we wouldn’t have any of the other traits. Guy demonstrates is increased capacity for it in his numerous inventions that the Croods were mostly incapable of thinking and imagining something new and unheard of. Guy’s ability to invent shows advanced problem solving skills and an imagination, which is in the abstract! He also shows it in his self-awareness in decorating himself and how he used fire to fend off animals. The most prominent scene that comes to mind though is when he disguised himself to be an animal for protection. This shows his ability to imagine being something he is not, which we may take for granted as simple, but is a massive cognitive achievement compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. The ability to imagine creating something and having a mental image of the finished product in your head is also a mark of behavioral modernity. While earlier humans had limited versions of those abilities, they really took off in the Great Leap forward 50,000 years ago!
This music video shows some of the scenes he displays his behavioral modernity! Can you spot some examples too?