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Who would win in a fight: astronauts or cavemen?

25th February 2007 (17:16)
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Over on atbvs, AoQ has just reviewed A Hole in the World, and naturally enough the question of Astronauts v Cavemen has sparked off much discussion. Even though it’s obvious to all right-thinking people that astronauts would clearly be the winners in a fight, some misguided souls apparently disagree: so I thought I’d set out my ideas here – taking the question both literally and (probably more interestingly) as a metaphor for the series.

First, taking the question literally. Some people seem to see this as a question of brains versus physical strength, as though astronauts are all scrawny, intellectual egg-heads. But in that case, wouldn’t the question have been “scientists versus cavemen”? In reality, most astronauts have been serving or former military personnel, and all are carefully chosen and fully trained to be at the peak of physical fitness. They also benefit from a modern diet – look at ancient suits of armour in museums to see just how tiny people in the olden days were compared to us. True, the average Paleolithic hunter-gatherer would probably enjoy a high-protein diet and plenty of exercise, so would be fit and healthy compared to, say, a mediaeval peasant. Even so, I think the advantage of strength and fitness would clearly belong to the astronauts – and that’s even ignoring the fact that, as members of the armed forces, they have probably been trained in modern hand-to-hand combat techniques.

One of the terms of the argument in the episode is that the astronauts “don’t have weapons”. I’m going to assume that this means they don’t get to bring any of their technology with them to the fight, not that they’re barred from making or adapting any tools during it. (And that the same restriction applies to the cavemen). Now, I’ll concede that “primitive does not equal stupid”, and the cavemen are going to be able to plan ambushes, make use of terrain, and improvise weapons from natural materials. But so are the astronauts! And the big advantage they have is their modern education (including, in most cases, military basic training and officer command school).

In pre-literate societies, knowledge comes from experience or oral tradition, which is great as long as you’re doing the exact same things that your ancestors always did. If the environment changes or a situation crops up that’s outside your group’s communal experience – such as fighting a group of astronauts – then you’re in big trouble, because you have no precedents to base your behaviour on. But the modern people can draw on the experience of not only their own family and neighbours, but any person throughout history who’s written down their knowledge. The cavemen might have an initial advantage – for example, if the battlefield has flint nodules lying around, they may be able to fashion a handaxe from them while the astronauts are still wondering and experimenting with the different rocks to see which ones can be made into tools. But the caveman might walk straight past the yew coppice without noticing it, because he’s never heard of a bow and arrow and can’t even conceive of a weapon that can kill him from a hundred paces away… until it’s too late. Likewise, a caveman may be able to make fire by banging flint and iron pyrites together, but be unaware that you can also do it with a friction drill – the astronaut might never have used either method, but should be aware of both of them.

So the answer is that the astronauts should always win… as long as they don’t get trapped into playing the game the cavemen’s way. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the message of Angel Season 5, which brings us neatly to the metaphorical part of the question. :)

In the episode, it seems clear that astronauts represent modernity, and cavemen the ancient powers such as Illyria. A Hole in the World shows our heroes employing all the tools of modern science and technology, from the extensive multi-million dollar W&H laboratory to their “really good” jet aircraft, to try to save Fred - but it’s all in vain. Illyria, the caveman, triumphs… and in her last bleak moment of lucidity, the dying Fred acknowledges it. “Cavemen win. Of course cavemen win.” After all her bravery and defiance throughout the episode, refusing to admit defeat, refusing to accept that there is no solution, she finally surrenders to despair. It’s a defeat not only for her, but for the whole of Team Angel.

Or is it?  Fred may be gone, but her influence, her memories – arguably, her soul (that was consumed by and thus integrated into Illyria) – achieve the impossible; they humanise an Elder God. By the end of the series they turn her, much to her own bemusement, into one of the most powerful Champions for Good on the planet. The caveman chooses to become an astronaut. She even becomes an aficionado of that most modern of electronic technological gizmos, the Playstation.

The message here is that awful things happen, but the human spirit can still triumph in the end. As I explained above, I don’t really accept that the caveman-astronaut metaphor is primarily about strength versus intelligence, or rationality versus instinct. Cavemen were just as capable of intelligent reasoning as we are (this is where I plug Hiywan’s Story as my own take on a stone age tribal culture), but they were restricted to repeating what they knew, or what their parents knew. They may not have been stupid, but they were ignorant. That’s why fifty thousand years of human history went by between the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, while in the last hundred years we went from primitive aircraft made from canvas and plywood held together by wire and glue, to being able to buy a little electronic box for your car that communicates with a satellite spinning 12,600 miles out in space, to tell you your exact position anywhere on the Earth.

Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh, and cruel; people like Fred can die pointless, painful deaths not because they deserve it, but because they simply got in the way. Some people just accept that, and bow their heads and shuffle along the same old paths hoping that fate won’t notice them. They’re the cavemen.

But astronauts defy the bonds of gravity and reach up to touch the heavens. They live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be.

They may not always win, but being defeated isn’t a sin. Giving up is. By the end of season 5, Angel had realised that.
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Comments

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb )
Posted at: 25th February 2007 19:28 (UTC)

If I try and think about it literally a lot of comes back to why are they fighting at all. Cartoon cavemen are as mindlessly aggressive as Reavers, the Apache of Joss’s space western. We aren’t so convinced the native Americans were the aggressors with no moral code to hold them back these days.

Modern people can draw on the experience of not only their own family and neighbours, but any person throughout history who’s written down their knowledge.

Provided they have access to those books. Modern education relies on training people in different specialisms – no-one expects to know everything just where to look it up or who to ask. A lot depends on how diverse your astronauts backgrounds are supposed to be (it’s a measure of how Wesley has changed and not necessarily for the better that he asks first about weapons not librarys).

The caveman chooses to become an astronaut

The astronauts weigh up risk and danger and results, and this can paralyse them. Yes they can decide that the risk is worth it, but the cavemen will fight immediately, and without holding back.


The cavemen, if we use Spike’s definition, win the battle yet lose the war. Illyria has a new body but the world she knew is dust and it brings her only grief. Caveman loses but do the astronauts win? Angel’s arrives at his final strategy by doing what the ancient powers that be tell him to, following Illyria’s realpolitik tactics and absorbing the blood of the Senior Partners.

You could read the cavemen/Illyria as a metaphor for the past, the thing Angel especially but all of them to some extent (Spike included) are trying to avoid or escape by staying at W&H. Time though is a black hole to our would be astronauts, as inescapable as entropy, stronger than fire, colder than ice, outliving both passion and rationality.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath )
Posted at: 26th February 2007 23:14 (UTC)

Provided they have access to those books. Modern education relies on training people in different specialisms – no-one expects to know everything just where to look it up or who to ask.

Valid point... although it's through my reading of science fiction and fantasy books even more than any actual studies that even I have at least a theoretical knowledge of how to make fire (put one stick in a hole in the other, wind some kind of thread about it for leverage, and pull rapidly to and fro so it spins and creates friction), what a flint axe looks like and how to make it, and what ingredients go into gunpowder (although I'm not sure I'd recognise saltpetre if I saw it, at least I know roughly what it is and how it was manufactured...) I'd assume a high proportion of astronauts would have similar interests, else why volunteer for the space programme? :)

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb )
Posted at: 27th February 2007 21:35 (UTC)

To play golf on the moon?

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