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The hunters cheered as they came within earshot of the drumming. After weeks away, they were now nearly home, with their haul of preserved antelope carcasses slung on branches. Their wandering had taken them along the great river, and down to the tribes at the Camp in the Cliffs. Their prize would feed the tribe through the winter, now the passes to the north were closed, and elk, reindeer, and aurochs could not be had. As they reached the top of the familiar ridge, they could see the Clearing below, with the fire sending sparks into the evening sky. Beyond it, shrouded in oaks, were the Caves. There, the painters would commemorate such a good hunt as this had been on the walls of the Great Grotto. But before that, thanks to the young messenger who had run ahead of them, there would be the Dance. As they drew nearer, they could see their lovers and daughters, enjoying one of the last warm evenings of autumn. As the drums continued, the women of the tribe moved in time, striking poses at the heaviest beats. Each one danced her own version of the Dance, choosing from the poses she had learned in past years in a sequence all her own. When they were near enough to be heard, the lead hunter began whistling the Return Song, and his companions joined in. Soon, the feast would begin, before the bulk of the meat was stored for the cold months ahead.

Thirteen thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age - or rather, the last cold snap of the present Ice Age - the geography of Europe was very different. With more of the world's water tied up in glaciers and ice caps, the seas were lower. Orkney was part of mainland Scotland, Denmark was about twice its present size, and only a very narrow channel separated Ireland from Galloway. Cardigan Bay did not exist, and in its place was the lowland forest of Cantre'r Gwaelod - the drowned land. Lyonesse joined Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly. These lost land masses have echoes in legend, but Doggerland is drowned so deep that no tale speaks of it. In those days, there was no English Channel, and very little North Sea. Whereas nowadays the Elbe and the Rhine estuaries are on one coast, and the Ouse and the Thames on the other, then the situation was reversed. The Thames and the Rhine found a common mouth somewhere between Harwich and Vlissingen, and between the Ouse and the Elbe was the peninsula of Doggerland. The Dogger Bank is now a mere hazard to shipping, but in the Magdalenian era, it was a habitable upland.

Finds from Spain, France, and England speak of a common western European culture at the time. Caves at Lascaux in the Dordogne, at Altamira, and now at Creswell, Nottinghamshire have yielded rich rock art. These paintings show hunters and their quarries, and naked dancing girls. Travel between these places was possible by means of Doggerland. Often referred to as a land bridge, Doggerland was in fact more than that. Linking present-day East Anglia, Lower Saxony, Belgium and the Netherlands, and extending as far north as Denmark does now, Doggerland was a crucial region for Magdalenian people. During the summer, they could safely hunt sub-arctic species in Britain, but when the deep winters of the era bit hard, it was to Doggerland and the adjoining areas that they would have retreated. As the centuries passed, the ice retreated, enabling deeper forays into Scotland and Scandinavia. But the same process gradually destroyed Doggerland, cutting off those most ancient Britons from their mainland cousins.

This was an era before Celts or Goths reached western Europe. While it's more or less certain that the Magdalenian tribes' descendants include all modern Europeans, we have no way of knowing what sort of language they spoke, or what the customs shown in the cave art meant. The beaker people of the very end of the stone age were utter newcomers by comparison to these tribes, and they in their turn were joined by the Celts after further centuries. Only then did the now-pervasive Indo-European-derived languages of Europe arrive in their current homes. I think it likely that not one single syllable in any name in Britain or other word of English has been retained from the Magdalenian. Etruscan, Georgian and Basque may contain fragments from that era, but even they may well be more akin to the language of the beaker-folk. Similarly, we cannot know if these people concerned themselves with a god or gods. What we learn from their relics is that they hunted, and that they danced.

Such was the importance of Doggerland, while it lasted. A retreat for early Europeans still battling the glaciers, and a path for them to reach Britain, it now forms the seabed in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. The name Dogger, given to the shallow area of sea, comes from a Dutch word for the cod which now live there. I do not doubt that those early tribes left remnants of their presence in Doggerland. Below the oil tankers and the ferries full of booze cruisers, the Royal Navy submarines and container ships of cheap plastic toys, there are certainly caves which once echoed to laughter and music. Their walls, now eroded or plastered with marine ooze, once showed mankind's faltering steps into a cold and dangerous world only recently released from the universal ice. And the shifting sands of the bank have worn away, over millennia, bone needles, stone axes, and carved bits of wood that served as children's toys. All we know of the place is drawn from items found elsewhere, and the inferences of geographers. Of all the vanished countries of Europe, it is the most lost of all.


Sources: The Guardian, April 15, 2004, page 11: 'Dancing girls and the merry Magdalenian', plus personal knowledge. Thanks to Gritchka and Gorgonzola for straightening out linguistic references.

Note to the opening story: the scene is set in Doggerland. The Great River is the Rhine, and the Camp in the Cliffs is La Roque Saint-Christoph, in the Vezère valley, France.

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