October 29, 2009

Why does Hollywood Love the Ice Age?

Why is the ice age such a popular topic for Hollywood? The ice age (or Pleistocene period, from 2.7 million years ago to 10,000 years ago) is a period of great interest to archaeologists because of the numerous watershed events in human evolution that occurred before the ice melted and the climate became more-or-less what it’s like today. For most parts of the world, the ice age is also the time of the classic cave-dwelling humans. Film-makers have also shown their enthusiasm for this lengthy and cool period of human history. Right from the earliest days of motion pictures, depicting human life during the ice age has been a favorite topic for films. For example, in 1914 the pioneering American director D. W. Griffith released the 33 minute silent film In Prehistoric Days and Charlie Chaplin released his 10 minute silent film His Prehistoric Past. In the following year, Willis O’Brien released one of the first ever stop-motion animated films, a six minute comedy called The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: a Prehistoric Tragedy.

Charlie Chaplin's His Prehistoric Past. To watch the rest of the film, click here.

Since these early days, cave men and women have been an almost constant feature in film. Notable more recent productions include Caveman (1981) starring The Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr, Quest for Fire (1981) including Ron Perlman and a special prehistoric language invented by Anthony Burgess, Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) based on the prehistoric fiction novel by Jean M. Auel, the animated Ice Age (2002) which recently had a third installment in the series released and a prehistoric-Woody-Allen-style comedy National Lampoon’s Homo erectus (2007).

As an archaeologist and teacher of a class that looks at archaeology in film, I often wonder why films are so frequently made about people in the ice age. Many details of these depictions are impressively accurate, such as clothing, stone artifact technology, social organization and subsidence. This is testimony to the both the dedication of the film-makers and the effectiveness of archaeologists’ efforts to communicate with the public. My thought about why the ice age is so popular in films is that through the depiction of cave people film-makers can explore ideas on contemporary cultural issues like technological change and racism that might be too confronting to directly depict. Watching the story of ice age people is like holding a mirror to ourselves at a safe distance, allowing for reflection on our contemporary human condition without the discomfort that sometimes interferes with more direct self-examination.

Willis O'Brien's film The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: a Prehistoric Tragedy. To view the rest of the film, click here.

Posted by: Dr. Ben Marwick, Assistant Professor, UW Department of Anthropology

Dr. Ben Marwick spoke at the Burke Museum’s Ice Age Archaeology event in his lecture Reel vs. Real: Prehistoric Archaeology and Ice Age Movies on Oct. 18.