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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.


Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 10:39 (UTC)
gratification by buttersideup.

Compare that to the amount of progress even in the graphic arts we've made since Michelangelo's time.
Of course - progress gathered momentum and accelerated as time went on. I think my point is that the astronauts have more knowledge, but the cavemen might be just as smart. Streetsmart rather than booksmart. :)

less fighting sabre-tooth tigers and more picking berries, digging up roots and looking after fussing babies, every single day.
I think I meant adaptability. Humans have settled everywhere from the desert to the frozen tundra, often living right on the edge of existence. Learning to use everything there for the taking, living in the most delicate of balance with their environment.

And if you don't think astronauts are ever in a situation where they have to adapt or die, just look at Apollo 13...
Ah but that's a crisis situation (sabre-tooth tiger attack) - I meant every day being a struggle survive. Inventing a new tool or discovering a different source of food could mean life or death. A desert island scenario.

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 14:46 (UTC)

But isn't the point precisely that cavemen (an incredibly broad misnomer, but we've gotta work with what Joss handed us) didn't invent new tools on a daily basis, and didn't survive? For the vast majority of human history, life expectancy has been something like 20-30 years. Flint axes looked pretty much the same for 2 million years. IIRC, technological advances beyond spears and axes didn't really come into play at all until we became agricultural - by which time we, by some sort of definition, were no longer "cavemen".

It's true that mankind on a whole is capable of incredible adaptation, we'd colonized every continent except Antarctica long before we even discovered metal, but we're not talking about tribes adapting over thousands of years here - we're talking about individuals in a stressful situation, where every second may count. And I just don't see them inventing brand new weapons at a moment's notice when faced with an astronaut; if they could, they would have done so the first time they came upon a cave bear. They will have advantages, absolutely; they will know where to set traps, how to make clubs and hand axes, how to find water in the wilderness, which berries are edible... but once the astronauts put together a bow and arrows or domesticate a horse I don't see the cavemen standing a chance.

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 19:22 (UTC)
Slayer by kathyh.

See all this just shows why I find this such an awkward argument when taken literally. There are too many unknowns. Where are they fighting for a start? The environment could make all the difference. To be honest I never gave the literal interpretation much thought - for me it's far more interesting as metaphor. And when it's a metaphor, my position is neatly summed up in this argument:

Kendra: Emotions are weakness, Buffy. You shouldn't entertain dem.
Buffy: Kendra, my emotions give me power. They're total assets!
Kendra: Maybe. For you. But I prefer to keep an even mind.
Buffy: Mm. I guess that explains it.
Kendra: Explains what?
Buffy: Oh, well, when we were fighting, uh, you're amazing! Your technique, it's flawless, it's, hmm, better than mine.
Kendra: I know.
Buffy: Still, I woulda kicked your butt in the end. And ya know why? No imagination.
Kendra: Really? Ya tink so?
Buffy: Oh, I know so. You're good, but power alone isn't enough. A good fighter needs to know how to improvise, to go with the flow. Uh-uh, seriously, don't get me wrong, y-you really do have potential.
Kendra: Potential? I could wipe de floor wit you right now!
Buffy: That would be anger you're feeling.
Kendra: What?
Buffy: You feel it, right? How the anger gives you fire? A Slayer needs that.

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