By R.T. Eady
Paddling in Western Europe – among the wild surroundings – not only refreshes the body in the waterborne basis of the ebb and flow of natural movement and rhythm.
It quickly coaxes the imagination to conjure the landscape as a preagricultural refuge for early humans.
Yielding many an enclave and narrow valley under limestone cliffs, known in anthropological circles as falaises, these areas exhibit evidence of human occupation from the 19th century back 400,000 years to the early days of the Neanderthals. Only a millennium or so before our own era, villages with stone churches and battlements began to be built into some of these cliff walls: in the eighth and ninth centuries residents took to the rocks to evade riverborne Viking raids, and in the 15th century, peasants took refuge in places such as those in France to evade the English during the Hundred Years’ War.
The nomadic hunters called the CroMagnon, who were, like us, Homo sapiens, existed here from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, and wintered in these locations sporadically over that time. The canyons sheltered them from cold winds, and the natural rock overhangs allowed them to hold heat inside by hanging hides over the openings of their shelters. It is thought that different groups met in those cold months and shared materials, techniques and genes before separating to go to their summer hunting grounds in the spring.
Their own ancestors had come to Southern and Central Europe via Africa, taking thousands of years to get there only to find another human species already in residence — the Neanderthal.