Contributed by Ryan Wheeler
On February 15, 2023 we learned about the death of Raquel Welch. You might think, what does Raquel Welch have to do with archaeology? Well, a lot and a little. After her performance in the 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage Welch signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and was then “loaned” to Hammer films for One Million Years B.C., a low-budget cave-person movie. In One Million Welch played Loana, probably best remembered for her fur-trimmed bikini, battles against Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation dinosaurs, and settling conflicts between the Rock and Shell tribes.
I’ve always been a big fan of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creature effects, including greats like The Valley of Gwangi (1969), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and many more. And yes, most archaeologists like dinosaurs, but cringe at the idea that archaeology has anything to do with them or that ancient humans ever even saw one—modern humans first appear around 300,000 years ago, about 65 million years after dinosaurs became extinct. A million years ago is solidly in the middle of the Pleistocene, a geological epoch that began around 2.5 million years ago. During the Pleistocene, we had lots of animals that you would recognize today—plenty of reptiles and birds and mammals—as well as megafauna like mastodons and mammoths, giant sloths, glyptodons, and more. We did have people, including Homo erectus.
So One Million Years B.C. gets a lot wrong. First, the idea of 1 million B.C. bugs me. B.C. means “before Christ,” though more people are moving to a version like BCE, which means “before the common or current era,” in other words the year 1 that our modern calendar has fixed as a starting point. So 1 million years B.C. is literally 1,000,000 years ago plus another 2,000 or so years. What’s 2,000 when we are talking millions?! I checked, and, perhaps not surprisingly, there were no scientific consultants on the film. Ray Harryhausen famously quipped that they weren’t making movies for scientists and doubted said scientists would go to see such films anyway (so wrong!). In her memoir, Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage, Welch talks about her own attempt to provide some notes to the film’s director Don Chaffey, but he wasn’t interested. What I didn’t know until recently, however, is that One Million Years B.C. is a remake of the 1940 film One Million B.C., which starred Victor Mature, Carole Landis, and Lon Chaney Jr. No Harryhausen effects there, however, there was a pig dressed in a Triceratops suit, lots of out-sized lizards, and even some animals more appropriate to the time like a woolly mammoth and an armadillo dressed as its megafauna ancestor Glyptodon.
This got me wondering what the earliest cave-people movie was, and led me to D.W. Griffith’s Man’s Genesis: A Psychological Comedy Founded on Darwin’s Theory of the Genesis of Man (1912). You can see some of the film on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQ3gaYbb38I. Griffith was involved in the production of the 1940 One Million, and all the films have some similar themes, namely conflict and sex. They don’t stop with the Raquel Welch version.
One Million Years B.C. did pretty well at the box office, but it’s really just one film in a long line of cave-people movies. Both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton made their versions, likely riffing on Man’s Genesis (Keaton invents golf in 1923’s Three Ages). A few years ago I challenged my Human Origins students to look at stereotypes about Neanderthals and they found the 1962 movie Eegah, which is sort of a mashup of 60’s beach party movies and the cave-people genre. The $15,000 budget may give you a sense of the film. Don Chaffey, the director of One Million Years B.C. revisited the genre in 1971 with Creatures the World Forgot (sans Raquel Welch, but with a very similar plot and movie poster!), and the 1980s has numerous entries with Ringo Starr’s comedy Caveman (1981), a defrosted Neanderthal in Iceman (1984), Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire (1981), Daryl Hannah in The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), based on the Jean M. Auel books, and even Peter Elliott (with narration by Michael Gambon) as the last Australopithecus in Missing Link (1988).
Ringo Starr aside, Quest for Fire and The Clan of the Cave Bear are two of the best-known cave-people movies since Welch’s One Million. What’s interesting is that Quest was a box office success and garnered some critical acclaim, while Clan was a flop. Both lack dinosaurs, so that’s good. And, both explore a lot of the same themes that come up in these movies over and over—conflict between different species of humans, sex and love, and the role of technology in becoming human. Many of the critics noted that Quest had a lot of humor, either intended or not, and that’s perhaps part of the charm as film critic Roger Ebert noted. Archaeologists and anthropologists at the time were not so kind. Philip Leiberman, writing in the American Anthropologist, delivers a strident critique of the “primitive” languages developed by author Anthony Burgess for Quest, noting that, “Burgess just doesn’t seem to know anything about phonological studies, developmental studies of the acquisition of speech by children, psychoacoustic studies of speech perception,” etc. Owen Lovejoy, writing in Archaeology magazine, describes Quest as a disaster on several fronts, noting specifically that “critical human qualities such as kinship, economics, infant care, symbolism and religion, language, technology, and so on, are simply glossed over as though they appeared magically with the Upper Palaeolithic,” though he does appreciate the lack of dinosaurs. One important point that Lovejoy makes is that the film tries to be a serious attempt to depict the distant human past and that, perhaps, our inability as anthropologists to synthesize this for the public is what is lacking. Quest didn’t benefit from scientific advisors, beyond Burgess’s work to make the primitive languages and Desmond Morris’s work on animal behavior and vocalizations.
The cinema isn’t done with the cave-people genre yet. In 2008, 10,000 BC (again with the BC!) joined the ranks as a visually stunning epic that suffers from many past sins, including some serious anachronisms. I haven’t watched 10,000 BC, but it involves cave-people, Pleistocene fauna, as well as people riding horses and traveling in ships. The movie did pretty well at the box office. Reflecting on this genre of cave-people movies makes me realize that there is a lot of interest in the distant past, but, as Owen Lovejoy noted in his review of Quest for Fire, us anthropologists and archaeologist haven’t been so good at providing a compelling narrative. In fact, a lot of the interspecies conflict in these films can really be attributed to pervasive ideas in studies of human evolution that have emphasized different species based on very slight differences in skeletal anatomy. The more we learn, we find that Neanderthals and modern humans are very similar and shared genetics when they existed in the same place. Maybe Quest for Fire got that right? Godspeed Raquel.