History in the Movies

"10,000 B.C." captures some reality, with a great deal of fiction, but in the end it's meant for entertainment.

‘10,000 B.C.’

The title “10,000 B.C.” probably calls to mind the last film to use B.C. in its name, the 1966 epic, “One Million Years B.C.” While that movie is best remembered for its iconic image of Raquel Welch in skimpy cave girl attire, it also boasts scenes of scrappy humans battling ferocious dinosaurs. Entertaining, to be sure, but complete nonsense. One million years ago, dinosaurs had already been extinct for millions of years, and modern homo sapiens were still hundreds of thousands of years away from making an appearance.

Like its predecessor, “10,000 B.C.” also has gorgeous actors (of both sexes) battling prehistoric animals. But at least this film tries a bit harder to mesh those cool special effects creatures with some plausible history.

Well, a little bit, anyway. Let’s see what the filmmakers gets right, and where it wanders off the mark.

Q. Is there any significance to that date-10,000 B.C.?

A. Actually, there is. 10,000 B.C. marks the tail end of the Ice Age, when woolly mammoths were dying out, though not yet extinct. So it rings true when a character in the film remarks that the mammoths were appearing less frequently.

The date also marks another significant turning point. Before then, everyone in the world lived in rather small, migratory hunter-gatherer tribes. Starting roughly around 10,000 B.C., a tiny handful of those hunter-gatherers began transitioning to agriculture, which meant more fixed settlements. But it took another six to seven thousand more years before the world’s first civilization and cities arose in Sumer (Mesopotamia).

Q. Was the big city in the film supposed to be Egypt?

A. It sure looked like it, with its Pyramids, its Nile-like river and its thousands of multiracial slaves. But the timing is all wrong. Egypt didn’t coalesce as a civilization until about 3000 B.C., and its pyramids were built about 500 years later. That’s certainly many thousands of years too late to be using woolly mammoths as pack animals.

Q. Since both white and black characters are in the film, was this supposed to be set in ancient Europe and Africa?

A. The geography in this film is a head scratcher. The home village of our mammoth hunting heroes looks to be set somewhere in north central Europe. After a raid on their village, our heroes set off-on foot, mind you-to rescue their friends, and soon find themselves in what seems to be an Asian jungle. After walking some more, they meet up with African tribes near a place that looks suspiciously like the Sahara desert. And before too long they’ve arrived at what appears to be the Egyptian civilization, on the banks of the Nile. In the end, the survivors head back home and arrive without anyone looking a day older. All this calls for some serious suspension of disbelief.

Q. Are the woolly mammoths accurately shown?

A. The mammoth hunt looked pretty plausible. Ancient hunters armed with just spears had to find creative ways to kill those large animals, and they often sought to drive them off a cliff or into some kind of trap. Cave art from the era shows hunts like these, and the remains of a hundred mammoths were discovered in pits at a site in the Czech Republic.

But there is no sign that woolly mammoths ever got to the tropical climes shown in the film. As for people harnessing them as work animals? Never happened.

Q. What was that freaky bird creature in the jungle?

A. A history degree doesn’t help me much here, so I turned to my paleontologist friend, Dr. Tim Gaudin at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. “Those were terror birds,” Gaudin said. “Flightless, carnivorous birds that typically preyed on small mammals.”

So, could they have hunted our “10,000 B.C.” heroes? No, Gaudin said. “For one thing, they were only in the American continents. Also, they died out about two or three million years ago.”

Q. How about those saber-toothed tigers? Were they shown accurately?

A. Sort of. Smilodon is the most well known saber-toothed cat (saber-toothed “tiger” is a misnomer, Gaudin tells me, since they weren’t closely related to tigers.) And while Smilodons lived long enough to be chomping on humans in 10,000 B.C., they weren’t found in the Old World, only in the Americas. Eurasia did have a type of the saber-toothed cat, but that one probably died out around 30,000 B.C.

The film has one more glaring inaccuracy, as Gaudin points out. The woolly mammoth, the saber-toothed cat and even the terror birds: they’re all just too big. In the film, the mammoths tower some 20 feet high, but in reality, “woolly mammoths stood just about 10 feet high at the shoulder,” Gaudin noted. Terror birds were also “close to 10 feet high,” though the movie shows them far bigger. And real saber-toothed cats were “about the size of a lion.” By contrast, the saber-toothed tigers in “10,000 B.C.” make a Siberian tiger look like a house cat.

But in the end, as the filmmakers say on the film’s Web site, “We didn’t intend for this to be a documentary.”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu