If someone is positively prehistoric, acts like a caveman or is described as being from the Stone Age, the chances are they're seen as horribly outdated. It's easy to look back sceptically at a time before wi-fi, microwaves, vacuum cleaners, Facebook and, of course, the wheel, and wonder how our predecessors managed.
And yet quite apart from the popularity of the Paleo diet, it seems that within some of us, there's a desire to find out whether we could survive – or even thrive – in a land before time. No doubt this was one reason why 24 modern-day men and women signed up to life in the Stone Age. Later this month, these time-travellers will appear in the second series of Channel 5's groundbreaking show 10,000BC, having spent two months in a remote part of Bulgaria living the life of Palaeolithic man. The cast lived in huts and had to source their own food – fishing, hunting and foraging. Think Big Brother with spears rather than evictions.
As part of his ongoing research, US Marine turned Oxford DPhil student of archaeology Klint Janulis, 35, acted as the show's guide, taking the cast from AD2015 to 10,000BC – and then observing from afar the inevitable chaos. Now, he's built a replica Stone Age camp on a secret spot of land in Oxfordshire – both to assess the efficiency of Stone Age design and to serve research by the University of Oxford Palaeotechnology Society – and this is where I meet him to find out first-hand what the cast of 10,000BC (and our ancestors) went through, as well as what he hopes to discover from the hands-on approach to history.
The wooded site is littered with flint axes and clubs carved out of antlers. In the weak sunlight, the set-up reminds me of a rather rustic Girl Guide camp; basic but not unpleasant. Venison meat roasts on a spit over a fire and more utensils chiselled out of flint and rough stone lie scattered on the leafy ground. These are similar to the specially made Stone Age tools given to the 10,000BC cast for hunting wild boar and deer throughout their stay. (They were trained to mend any tools that broke, or else face weeks without protein.) But whereas hunter-gatherers acquired the necessary skillsets over a lifetime, learning from parents and grandparents, their modern-day equivalents had to start from scratch.
“The cast were not hunters,” says Klint, chewing on a willow twig similar to those that the participants used to clean their teeth. “It's not just about how to stalk an animal; it's about how to make the tools and how to repair the tools. And they had none of those skills.”
They learned quickly, he tells me. Strategy and teamwork were crucial to the group's survival. The cast were divided into two tribes, each of which had to elect a leader. Pub landlord John, who nominated himself as one chief, is described by Klint as a “chauvinist”, although not a malicious one.
“He says on camera: 'Female, go tidy up the camp',” says Klint. “He had a picture in his head of what a hunter-gatherer group looked like.”
Interestingly, this drilled-in perception – a perception that continues to influence social structures in the 21st century – may not be entirely accurate. The other tribe nominated unassuming Suzanne, a retired A&E doctor, as their team leader, and she took a very different approach to John.
“She was a badass,” says Klint. “She never had to pound her chest or be the alpha person. Her executive function, her ability to devise strategies and see the big picture and plan where all the pieces had to go was amazing.”
For example, Suzanne decided to set up camp next to a lake, where crayfish were plentiful. And according to Klint, her quick-thinking – which meant that her team had a steady supply of food – should encourage us to rethink gender stereotypes. Women, he says, almost certainly had larger roles in the Stone Age than we've previously given them credit for.
While we talk, Klint teaches me some Stone Age skills, including how to make cordage using strips of cedar bark. Cordage was a gateway technology which allowed our ancestors to fasten, loop, build and bind. It's a simple enough process involving twisting and crossing the ribbons of bark into a kind of proto rope, but it's time-consuming and after a while my thumbs begin to ache.
Time for a bit of light relief in the form of painting; something the cast did throughout the two months to stave off boredom. Klint mixes me some colours (charcoal for black, red ochre for red, yellow ochre for yellow and chalk for white) and hands me a willow twig to chew into bristles. Apparently willow makes effective paintbrushes as well as toothbrushes. We paint on to stretched rabbit skins; globs of charcoal dripping on to our crude canvases. I try not to think about my pet rabbit sitting in his cage at home.
By now the sun has gone down and it has started to rain. The dark site is cold, damp and thick with wood smoke. We take refuge in a grass hut where unidentified animal pelts are the only things keeping our chilly bottoms off the unforgiving earth. Very quickly, the camp feels even further away from the 21st century.
In terms of the show's academic significance, there are limitations – not least because of the omnipresent cameras – and naturally, some elements had to be staged for the safety of the participants. Stone Age water receptacles, for example, proved too complex and dangerous to use. (“If you get it wrong they get rot on the outside and you get sick,” says Klint. “It was a health and safety issue.”) The cast also had medics on hand in case of emergency, as well as a drop box where they could leave plants to be assessed by an expert who would return them if they were safe to eat.
In the first series of the show, which aired in February 2015, producers occasionally had to step in to ensure the participants' safety. When a freak storm covered the camp in two feet of snow, doctors and survival experts from the safety team intervened, assessing the situation and briefly evacuating the camp.
The real value of the show lies not in whether modern man can kill, gut and cook a boar – although, for some, that's entertaining to watch. The series actually provides viewers with a unique insight into human nature, exploring everything from leadership to loneliness.
What we learn by the end is that the finely-tuned group dynamics that develop over the course of the series can be applied just as readily to the 21st century as they can to the Stone Age. As Klint tells me while we huddle around the campfire at the end of the day: “People are people, no matter where they're at.” And after my trip to the past, I'll be using “Stone Age” as shorthand for impressive.
'10,000BC' airs on Channel 5 later this month