Jennifer Macaire’s latest book, A Remedy in Time, might be the ultimate in dual-timeline novels; the protagonist travels back from the year 3377 to the last Ice Age. She tells Historia what drew her to the Palaeolithic era and how she goes about researching such a distant time.
One of the things I love are Natural History museums. I was lucky to grow up near Albany, NY, where the museum has an impressive display of the Ice Age, including a life-sized mastodon. I would pass the other exhibits to stand in front of the diorama where the mastodon stood in the snow with its trunk wrapped protectively around its calf, looking majestic but at the same time, forlorn.
I loved the sabre-toothed cats the best, and I was terribly disappointed when I found out that they were all extinct. I think I cried when my parents told me we couldn’t see any in the wild, or even in zoos. These magnificent creatures were all gone, but a keen interest in the Ice Age mega fauna has stayed with me.
On Fridays, I trot over to Zygoma, a blog run by a dead zoo (museum) curator to look at the specimens he posts every other week for people to guess at. I never guessed anything; but one day I clicked the page open and saw a sabre-toothed tiger jaw. I knew exactly what it was.
What I hadn’t realized was that there was still a huge debate about how the animal used to kill and eat its prey. Was it a predator? A scavenger? No-one could be sure. The teeth were so outsized that it seemed impossible for it to bite – so perhaps it stabbed? The massive bones in the jaw, neck, and forelegs of the animal seem to suggest strong muscles which argued for a wrestling hold; and yet so many of its bones had been found in the tar pits it would seem it scavenged off dead and dying animals trapped in the pits and became entrapped itself.
That, in the beginning, was the basis for my research. I wanted to learn more about the sabre-toothed tiger and its hunting and eating habits, so I went hunting for articles. Nowadays, the tigers are mainly referred to as ‘cats’, so it’s no longer sabre-toothed tigers, but sabre-toothed cats.
I found a treasure trove of articles to read, and anyone who has worked with scientists know they have a terrific sense of humour, so I found articles like Dining in the Pleistocene—Who’s on the menu? Kohn M, McKay M, Knight, J Geology (2005).
At any rate, I soon found lots of information to help me craft a realistic sabre-toothed tiger in my imagination, especially after reading this snippet of information: “It is postulated that sabre-toothed felids used their claw-equipped forelimbs to grasp and hold their prey as do modern felids. In this fashion, the enlarged upper canines could then be used to kill the victim, and this was probably done by a stab to the nape of the neck. It is also thought that Smilodon, like the modern lion, adapted to open habitats by forming prides”. Behavioral Implications of Saber-Toothed Felid Morphology, Gonyea, William J Paleobiology 2, no 4 (1976).
The next step was to incorporate that into my storyline, which was about a young woman sent back in time to collect samples from the sabre-toothed cats. Time travel being extremely expensive, it was doubtful that her university would send her back simply to take a picture of the Smilodon stabbing some poor creature in the neck.
So the reason would have to be saving the planet, and what better menace than something that started in the past, perhaps with the mega fauna of the time – like a virus? Then I dived into the study of virology, helped along by my son, who has a Masters in microbiology and biotechnology (so helpful when developing a disease!) and I created a sort of deadly typhus that had just been discovered in the far future.
This was before Covid-19, so I have to admit, I wasn’t helped along by current events. However, mankind has gone through so many plagues that it was also easy to study the effects (both psychological and physical) of various deadly sicknesses through the ages. One book that has barely left my side since I first read it is A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W Tuchman (Random House 1978). This book examines the vast repercussions of the Black Death, looking with microscopic precision at the results on both families and kingdoms from lowly serfs to mighty kings. Anyone wanting to know more about what happens to a society when it is devastated by a deadly disease may be interested in reading A Distant Mirror.
Well, fine and dandy, you’re thinking, but what about cavemen? How did you find out about them, what they wore, ate, built, and how they spoke? Ah, there is a problem. You see, precious little remains of people from that period. Only a pitiful number of bones and teeth that have been discovered and studied – in fact, what I learned was that the entire amount of the fossil remains of our long-gone ancestors could easily fit into the back of a pick-up truck*.
The most precious indications we have come from the art they left behind. Stunning cave paintings and detailed carvings are all that is left to speak for untold generations of hominids. What we do know, from the little we have to work with, was that they loved beauty, they were attentive to nature, they most likely lived in tight-knit family groups, and that they travelled far and wide.
I loved writing this book – for me, it was like time-travelling back to the dawn of human history to a time when man and nature were intimately linked and everything was pristine, and when anything was possible.
*“Since the dawn of time, several billion human (or humanlike) beings have lived, each contributing a little genetic variability to the total human stock. Out of this vast number, the whole of our understanding of human prehistory is based on the remains, often exceedingly fragmentary, of perhaps five thousand individuals. You could fit it all into the back of a pickup truck if you didn’t mind how much you jumbled everything up, Ian Tattersall, the bearded and friendly curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, replied when I asked him the size of the total world archive of hominid and early human bones.” Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
Replica of a cave painting from Lascaux in the Brno museum: via Wikimedia
Skeleton of Smilodon (Smilodon fatalis) in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo: via Wikimedia
Sabre-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis), Natural History Museum, London: via Wikimedia
Painted hands at the Cuevas de las Manos in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina: via Wikimedia