How Realistic Is 10,000 B.C.?

Did woolly mammoths help build the Pyramids?

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10,000 B.C.

The Warner Bros. cave man saga 10,000 B.C. raked in more than $35 million on its first weekend. The film tells an action-packed love story set against a prehistoric backdrop that includes everything from woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers to pyramids and written language. Did all of these things exist at the same time?

No. The woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger might have survived as late as 10,000 B.C., although they went extinct fairly abruptly right around that time, give or take a millennium. On the geologic timescale, this date marks the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, which we know colloquially as the Ice Age, a period of nearly 2 million years that saw the rapid expansion of Homo sapiens across the planet. Some paleontologists blame excessive hunting by humans for the extinction of these species, though the number of mammoth fossils that show evidence of having been killed by man-made weapons—usually stone spears—is fairly small. Others suggest that disease or climate changes wiped them out. Whatever the cause, the mammoth-hunting hero of 10,000 B.C. is practicing a dying art. Other predators in the film, such as the giant, flightless, carnivorous birds, were already extinct by this time, though they were once thought to have survived up to around the end of the Pleistocene, most numerously in the Americas.

In the film, the mammoths travel in herds and disperse when the lead male gets spooked. We don’t know much about the behavior patterns of extinct animals, but experts generally believe that these movie-star mammoths get it all backward. If you can trust inferences drawn from elephants (close cousins of the mammoths), herds would have been led by the oldest female, and the bulls would have been expelled at puberty. Geologists at the University of Michigan have pioneered a field of study known as “tuskology,” by which a mammoth’s diet and birth patterns can be determined based on its accumulation of ivory. According to these measurements, mammoth herds appear to have expelled males at around the same time that elephants do.

While it’s plausible that humans would be hunting mammoths in 10,000 B.C., the film runs awry when it mixes in elements of more advanced civilization. The pyramidlike monuments, codified language, and organized society that show up later in the story wouldn’t have been around until about 3,000 B.C., with the urbanization of the regions surrounding the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Indus rivers, and possibly the steppes of Russia. We also know that humans weren’t growing their own food in any organized way until approximately 9,400 B.C. at the very earliest; the hero of 10,000 B.C. studies a wooden hoe and learns how to plant seedlings from what appears to be an African tribe.

There is evidence of early stone monuments from around that time, like a mountain sanctuary in southeastern Turkey called Göbekli Tepe, dating to approximately 9,000 B.C. But most of the technology in the movie—particularly the metal tools and weapons—is way out of place. The movie’s title places the action solidly in the Stone Age; bronze and iron tools don’t appear for several millenniums. Other inventions appearing in the film, like the sextant, are even further off. The sextant was not invented until A.D. 1731, though the ancient Egyptians did have a rudimentary knowledge of astronomy that allowed them to navigate and align their structures.

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Explainer thanks Omur Harmansah of Brown University; William Jankowiak of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Dan Joyce of the Kenosha Public Museum; and Jeffrey Saunders of the Illinois State Museum.