Dreamworks’ new animated movie The Croods is the latest in a line of films and TV shows (both animated and live-action) that depict a somewhat colloquialized version of humankind’s prehistory. Posters for The Croods invite you to “Meet the First Modern Family”, positioning the movie as a new-school Flintstones. To the chagrin of Creationists, The Croods grasps for more historical accuracy than its predecessor; there are no dinosaurs to accompany the humans in this movie. However, DreamWorks’ new film dutifully embraces a myth just as disconnected from science fact: that the earliest humans were white.
It’s widely known that the prevailing theory about mankind’s origins places the cradle of civilization firmly in Africa, particularly near modern-day Ethiopia. The results of recent studies have cemented the long-standing theory that the earliest homo sapiens evolved solely in Africa around 200,000 years ago, before spreading to the Near East and South Asia. Homo sapiens did not reach Europe until about 45,000 years ago, after they’d settled in Asia and Australia. Homo sapiens evolved specific traits–such as lighter skin in Europe and East Asia–as they adapted to their new environments over the course of millenia. In other words, the first humans were, in fact, dark-skinned–a fact consistently ignored by popular depictions of early humankind. In fact, white skin is a relatively new trend, developing around 5,500 years ago.
It’s likely that the characters in The Croods, The Flintstones and most popular fictional accounts of prehistory are actually supposed to be Neanderthals. Short, barrel-chested, with wide noses and flat skulls, the Neanderthal is the inspiration for the caveman archetype popularized in media. Often conflated with early homo sapiens, the extinct Neanderthals were actually kissing cousins that populated Europe before modern humans arrived there. However, the development of dark skin in humans coincides with the loss of dense body hair about 1.2 million years ago, before the first Neanderthals. Basically, even Neanderthals had a dark-skinned ancestor. At this point in human history, light-skinned humans were probably pretty rare and certainly none looked like modern-day Europeans as often depicted.
The convenient omission of these details about the first humans and their civilizations reveals an ethnocentric bias that places whites at the center of human history and development. While we can argue that a movie like The Croods should not be burdened with providing an accurate, academic view of the prehistoric era, movies and popular culture do inform our understanding, often to a much greater extent than science fact. Even though we may know on some level that the first humans were not white, it’s easy to imagine that they were because our collective consciousness has been inundated with images of white cavemen since before we can remember. It’s comparatively difficult to imagine early humans that were dark-skinned and what their lives might’ve been like because we’ve seen it so rarely in media. As a result, we tend to both inaccurately “naturalize” the presence of white Europeans in all phases of early history and overstate the importance of white European contributions to human development.
Case in point, the plot of The Croods centers around the arrival of an outsider (white) who has “invented” fire. The earliest evidence of controlled fire was found pretty recently in South Africa, where scientists speculate early humans used it to cook. Prior to this, evidence of fire being used by genetic ancestors to humans was found somewhat recently in Israel and attributed to recent migrants from Africa. Early humans in Europe didn’t regularly use fire for warmth until much later. This is not the only case where contributions other cultures have made to human development have either been omitted, downplayed or co-opted by depictions of history that have a strong pro-Western bias. For example, the Chinese beat the West to the invention of paper, print and cast iron (by almost 1000 years, in the last case).
I’m not insisting that the characters in The Croods should look like modern-day blacks, but they certainly shouldn’t look like modern-day whites, either. It’s important for both whites and non-whites to have a realistic impression of human history, not one that redoubles White Hegemony by focusing solely on the progress of European Whites. Though depictions of early humans are more even-handed today than in Ray Harryhausen’s One Million Years B.C., all-white prehistoric societies in media are still common. The recent Jack Black comedy Year One is curiously absent of people of color, even though a good portion of it takes place in the Biblical Near East. Roland Emmerich’s prehistoric 10,000 B.C. actually subverts the trope and makes the case for diversity among ancient humans. Sure, the main characters are attractive whites with dreadlocks a la Encino Man, but other races do appear prominently in the movie and even the main tribe.
Art that depicts mankind’s prehistory accurately builds more honest understanding of our world and gives us the ability to perceive it in an appropriate and informed context. A movie depicting dark-skinned people harnessing fire or non-whites forming the first civilizations might help us realize that the current cultural and economic dominance enjoyed by European whites is a unique and relatively new trend in the scope of overall human development, not something pre-destined by a mythical legacy of white dominance or ascendency that reaches back to the days of early mankind.