So exactly what is a Solutrean?
With the possible September 15 release date of Albert Hughes’ The Solutrean approaching — late summer/early fall plans are still in flux across Hollywood — it’s worth pausing to ponder the historical, or rather pre-historical, context of a film that promises to combine the chilly solitude of The Revenant with the mysterious antiquity of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and a proposed title as challenging as any since Comancheria (which CBS Films ultimately ditched in favor of Hell or High Water, fearing, as one insider put it, that the original sounded like “something you might catch”).
Whether Hughes’ title will stick depends on Sony Pictures and Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8, which have yet to release an official trailer. Clearly marketers are wrestling with the intricacies of a film that finds Kodi Smit-McPhee, its young star, fighting for survival in the company of a wild canine in the aftermath of a hunting trip gone wrong. This all happens at the height of an ice age, perhaps 20,000 years ago. And Smit-McPhee portrays a Solutrean — which is what?
Most importantly for Sony and the viewers, Solutreans actually were us, homo sapiens, and not near-relations, like the Neanderthals (homo neanderthalensis, or sometimes homo sapiens neaderthalensis), who were apparently gone at least 20,000 years before the movie opens. Simply put, these are modern humans stuck in a consummately threatening, pre-modern world.
They are not the oldest hominids to get a cinematic close-up. The homicidal creature who picks up a bone weapon in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey probably predated the Solutreans by 2.6 million years or more. In Quest for Fire, Rae Dawn Chong was loping through the bush perhaps 80,000 years ago. Even the rock paintings in Herzog’s Cave Of Forgotten Dreams documentary, from 2010, pre-date the Solutreans by as much as 15,000 years.
The word “Solutrean” is derived from a place in eastern France, Solutre-Pouilly, where in 1866 and afterwards the archeologist Henry Testot-Ferry unearthed the bones of reindeer, elephants, cave deer and horses—together with a plethora of flint points—in the vicinity of a distinctive rock.
Much later, that rock would become a favorite destination for the French president Francois Mitterrand. Mitterrand was not a Solutrean, and the Solutreans weren’t Frenchmen. In fact, Solutrean sites, defined by their era and craft, were later found in what became Spain and Great Britain. But many in France became fascinated with what was eventually understood to be a culture of Paleolithic—i.e., Stone Age—hunters, who showed particular skill in shaping beautiful blades from flint. Many were two-sided. Some were shaped like laurel leaves. The biggest and sharpest were used to kill beasts like the woolly rhinoceros, which still flourished in Europe, because the Holocene extinction, helped along by people like the Solutreans and ourselves, hadn’t yet done its worst.
Outsized archaic mammals could make The Solutrean even more exciting than The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio, in the 19th century American West, was battered by a mere grizzly bear. (Test audiences are just now getting a look.)
Adrien Arcelin, who worked with Testot-Ferry, eventually wrote a fanciful novel, Solutre, in which pre-historic hunters drove horses off the rock. Apparently, excavations at the site don’t support the horse hunts; but trap hunting could play a part in Hughes’ film. The idea of wolves joining the hunt, and so becoming domesticated, may also figure in the movie; but that sort of transition had actually occurred in Central Asia many years before, according to citations on Wikipedia and elsewhere.
Unlike many of today’s environmentally conscious movie viewers, the Solutreans almost certainly wore animal skins: Europe was cold at a time when the Scandinavian ice-sheet, according to a map in Grahame Clark’s World Pre-History In New Perspective, covered much of Great Britain, Germany, Poland and Russia. You could walk from France to England—at least the parts that weren’t under ice—because sea levels were much lower, and the European coast was as much as 50 miles farther out to sea than at present.
This last point presents a complication for advocates of the so-called “Solutrean hypothesis.” That is a theory, advanced by the archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley among others, which holds that Solutreans may have navigated the Atlantic before an Asian migration across the Beringean bridge, bringing technology that became a basis for the so-called Clovis-point implements eventually found in the American Southwest. But genetic evidence—what little there is—has not validated the notion that North America was visited by Solutreans, and any sea-faring Solutrean villages in Europe, if they existed, are almost certainly lost under today’s larger seas.
“To call this theory controversial would be an understatement,” Kenneth Tankersley wrote in his 2002 book, In Search Of Ice Age Americans.
But the hypothesis is presumably not the stuff of Hughes’ movie, in which Smit-McPhee and his tribe find icy trouble enough at home.