Back to the Stone Age: would you survive?

What would happen if you took modern humans out of the 21st century and transported them back to the Stone Age? That is the premise of a social experiment being broadcast by Channel 5.

10,000 BC participants in their Mesolithic-style camp. (Channel 5)

This article was first published in February 2014

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In 10,000 BC, a ‘tribe’ of 20 Brits faces hunger, sickness and extreme weather as they forage and hunt for food and explore what it would have taken to survive the Stone Age. Dropped into a forest in a remote area of Bulgaria, the ‘tribe’ is tasked with surviving for two months in a Mesolithic-style camp supplied with only basic tools, rations and flint.

Speaking to History Extra, the show’s survival expert, Klint Janulis, reveals the biggest challenges faced by the tribe, and shares some of the most entertaining – and gruesome – highlights….

Q: What is the series about? What inspired it?

A: The general idea of the series is to see what happens when you take 20 modern human beings with no real background in survival and put them in a robust ecosystem with some Stone Age tools and clothing. We wanted to see how they adapt and adjust to the challenges that our ancestors faced. It was never meant to be a ‘survival’ concept in the normal sense, but instead more of a social and anthropological experiment.

Modern ‘survival’ teaching tends to focus on individual survival skills being utilised for a short amount of time. Survival in the Stone Age was definitely a group event, and what we consider survival skills today would have been basic knowledge for hunter-gatherer groups.

The programme was set up as if a group of modern humans had stumbled upon an abandoned Stone Age camp with tools and clothes, and a bit of food to get them started. In essence, we were asking them to overcome many of the challenges that our ancestors did – in a two-month period. They were given just a rudimentary amount of training at the beginning, with the anticipation that at some point we would have to step in and give them additional guidance. In a sense, it is a visual anthropology of modern westerners adapting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with Stone Age tools.

10,000 BC. (Channel 5)
10,000 BC. (Channel 5)

Q: What can viewers expect from the series?

A: Viewers will have the opportunity to see the little details of life that our early human ancestors would have faced, and some of the challenges that they overcome in order for us to be here today. They will also see how modern people fare in such a situation – what they argue about, how they make decisions, and how they adapt (or don’t!).

The stress of a situation like this lends itself to drama that doesn’t have to be manufactured in any way, and one thing that is funny about most humans is that when we are stressed we tend to get tunnel vision and lose objectivity of what is most important – that manifests itself humorously at times! Having spent 14 years in the US military – initially as a Marine, and then in the Army Special Forces – I can relate to this. I have seen people in the middle of a combat situation arguing over who gets first choice of military rations – I recall thinking how bizarre it was to be arguing over who got the lasagna meal versus the chicken and rice when they should have been paying attention to the dangers around us!

Q: How did the team go about researching the Stone Age?

A: They read a lot, and contacted experts in both bushcraft and archaeology. I didn’t come into the project until a few weeks before filming, but when I showed up they had all been reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and they had sourced books on Mesolithic sites from the UK and Europe. They had also been in contact with a number of academics.

The team also worked with Will Lord, who specialises in making Stone Age tools and equipment, and who manufactured most of the items used in the show. At the end of the day, we had to balance out the logistical practicalities of a project like this versus the desire for some degree of authenticity.

Q: So how did you mimic Stone Age conditions for the show?

A: It is impossible to mimic the ecosystems and cultural diaspora that would have existed 12,000 or 14,000 years ago, so there are obviously a lot of limitations to what we could do. The project was filmed in Bulgaria at the base of some mountains in a very robust ecosystem with a lot of wild game and foods, so while it wasn’t the same as 10,000 BC, it was still a healthy ecosystem that would have presented many of the same challenges and opportunities.

We also had to accept we were limited in terms of the skill of the participants in regard to what technologies they could actually employ. While the intent was to let the Mesolithic archaeology guide the project, many of the technologies that might fall into what we would consider Mesolithic were too advanced for the tribe’s skill level. So we instead gave them some simple bow and arrow sets, a spear thrower, some clothing and furs, and several simple shelters with one large communal shelter.

Most of these were representations, because we don’t actually know what those would have looked like exactly. Even some of the animals the hides and clothes were made out of might not have been available to a European Stone Age group. It would have been great to make everything perfect and accurate in that sense, but if we had tried to do that, this project never would have got off the ground!

We had to break the visual authenticity of the project in a number of ways too. A couple of obvious things viewers will notice are the footwear, and the provided water source. The decision was made to give the team boots because their ancestors would have had feet adapted over a lifetime to the terrain. The producers, very reasonably didn’t want it to turn into a show about 20 people getting mangled feet and having to be evacuated!

Meanwhile, some testing had indicated that the local surface water in the area originated from a source that had agricultural chemicals in it, so providing a clean water source was a necessary health and safety precaution.

The more keen-eyed viewers may also notice that the team uses some ceramics that definitely weren’t around in the Stone Age. The decision to give them ceramic vessels basically came down to logistics: having a container that can hold water and cook food is immensely valuable for getting as much nutrient value out of your food as possible, and our group just didn’t have the skill or knowledge to make that happen using hides or tree bark containers. We were more interested in seeing how they foraged, trapped, and hunted.

In regards to foods, the team is eating things that wouldn’t have been available in 10,000 BC, but we reasoned that since the ecosystem couldn’t be truly replicated, they should just go with what is available today.

Q: What problems did you or the ‘tribe’ encounter?

A: A lot of what we were doing was experimental. One problem we encountered at the beginning was that by day two the reindeer hides [used as covers for warmth] became infested with fly eggs – covered in hundreds of thousands of them. If you grabbed one of the hides, your hand would come away with a yellow paste of smashed eggs and maggots!

We gave the tribe blankets to compensate while we worked out what to do. It was not a problem I had ever encountered before. We worked out that to prevent infestation we would need to use traditional tanning techniques [used to treat and maintain the hides] involving smoking. So Adam Hendley, one of the survival consultants on site, constructed a dome-shaped smoker and smoked all of the salvageable hides and then disinfected them of the maggots. That solved the problem, and the hides were returned to the group. From an aesthetic perspective, it is a bit unfortunate that for a couple of days the tribe was running around with modern nylon hotel blankets!

10,000 BC. (Channel 5)
10,000 BC. (Channel 5)

Q: What sort of conditions did the tribe have to endure? Did they struggle?

A: They all struggled with insects and the shift in diet and lifestyle at the beginning. Some of them had hundreds of insect bites on them after just a couple of days, and a lot of the foods they were eating were completely foreign to their palates. In a way, many of them suffered culture shock at the beginning, which is entirely understandable, as many of them had never even been camping.

The overarching aim each day was to keep more calories coming in than were going out. Their biggest adversary in the long run was the cold, and their organisational abilities. The days were warm in the beginning, but at night they were constantly cold, and at first they didn’t really know the simple techniques for staying warm at night, such as making a really good mattress and managing their fire to last through the night.

It doesn’t matter if you can hunt or forage 2,000 calories worth of food a day if you are burning 3,000 calories a day trying to stay warm. The average human can burn 400 calories an hour shivering, so if the group were shivering most of the night that could easily add up to 2,000 calories overnight alone. That’s a kg of weight loss every few days.
Being efficient was a major challenge as well, because if you’re not foraging efficiently then you’re not going to bring in the calories you need. For instance, on one occasion a few of the group travelled an hour to a location to dig some roots, but only spent about 60 minutes gathering, and only got enough roots to last a couple of days. Plus, the type of root they were digging was called burdock, which is really healthy and high in nutrients, but unfortunately it isn’t terribly high in calories. In fact, it’s been advocated as a diet food.

A more efficient solution would have been to spend most of the day gathering so they didn’t need to make frequent return trips. These aren’t things we often have to consider in our daily lives, so adjusting to that mode of thinking in this context was a real challenge.

Q: What were your series highlights?

A: The most memorable moment for me was during a training when I was showing one of the participants (JP) how to clean out boar intestines and stomach, and it just became too much for his senses. The stomach and intestines were still full of partially digested food, and it didn’t smell very nice! He was trying to squeeze the contents out one end of the stomach, which was shoving a lot of built up gasses out. He started violently vomiting, but was determined to finish the job, so he kept working in between being sick. It was impossible to stop myself laughing, but I was really impressed with his resolve to finish the task!

Another moment was teaching Paul B and Steve flint knapping: I was explaining that in order to get to the tool you want, you have to strategise and plan your strikes several steps ahead – sort of like chess. It was an abstract concept until they started to do it themselves, and when they eventually figured out what I was talking about, it was like a light bulb turned on and they both got very excited. Paul was almost in tears when he figured it out – his reaction was very rewarding. To see a skill like that ‘unlocked’ for someone is one of the reasons I love my job.

Also, partway through filming there was a massive snowstorm that really altered the dynamic of the group and the project. It added a lot of drama, not just for the participants, but on the production side as well. That being said, I love snowstorms, and it was a tremendous amount of fun to try to problem solve and keep everything on track amidst a weather event that basically shut down that part of Bulgaria for a week! Fortunately the production team was very flexible and we had great management, so despite the conditions we were able to solve the logistical problems and make it work.

All in all, it was a massively rewarding project to work on, and a lot of fun. Since this isn’t primarily marketed to an academic audience, hopefully the programme will encourage interest in Paleolithic research and help dispel notions of our Stone Age ancestors being ‘knuckle-dragging cave men’. The viewers will quickly realise just how much skill, organisation and intelligence was required for our ancestors to make the necessary tools and survive the conditions they did.

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The eighth episode of 10,000 BC airs on Tuesday 24 February on Channel 5 at 10pm. Find out more here.