Bad Geology Movies: Caveman, 1981



Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Bach

Premise: Could the awkward defeat the hulking in one zillion BC?

Caveman has got to be one of my all-time favorite movies. I liked it when I was a kid, because it was just plain silly. As I got older, I liked it because it had Ringo Starr in it (I was a Beatles fan – I guess I still am!). As an adult, I’m entertained by the subtext. (Zug-zug!) And as a paleontologist, I am wildly entertained by all the inaccuracies.

It’s comedy, so of course it’s fraught with inaccuracy. A lot of it is intentionally blatant. That’s what makes it funny. Because this movie is billed as comedy, any intelligent person knows better than to believe anything in it. I’ll just point out the paleontological silliness and warn you that if you haven’t seen this movie before, there are lots of spoilers ahead!

It opens with a big guffaw. One zillion B.C. it reads on the screen. Zillion isn’t even a proper number, but it is certainly much larger than a billion, thus exceeds the known age of the Earth (even back in 1981).

Setting— Everything about where the movie was shot, down to the tar pits, says California. Well, cavemen were not kicking around in California. They were in Europe.

Dinosaurs and humans— What were they even doing there? Dinosaurs and humans never co-existed. They missed each other by at least 60 million years.

The Dinosaurs themselves— Only two dinosaurs were depicted. One was a lizard-y guy with spikes on his back and tail and a big pointy horn. This guy also had chameleon-like eyes that moved around this way and that. He also had a sprawling stance (his legs out to the side like an alligator). This was clearly made up. This could be a take on the original interpretation of Iguanodon, but I think it was just made up for the sake of the show.

The original (now known to be inaccurate) reconstruction of Iguanodon – Photo by mugly on Flickr

The other dinosaur was Tyrannosaurus rex (I assume). This version of T. rex is a nod to the original interpretation of the dinosaur, with the body held vertically and the massive tail resting on the ground. This is in marked contrast with the interpretation of T. rex in Jurassic park, which itself is totally different from modern depictions of the beast. These days, T. rex is seen as a fleet-footed predator that held its body horizontally and its tail straight out behind. The modern view of T. rex also includes feathers.

The Tyrannosaurus of Caveman is a talented dinosaur, however, able to emulate howling wolves, crowing roosters, and hooting owls. It’s actually worth a bit of a chuckle to think that the crowing and hooting aren’t so far off from possible, given that modern birds are thought to be the closest living relatives to dinosaurs, especially theropods like T. rex.

The pterosaur and the giant egg— Pterosaurs and humans never co-existed either. Though not dinosaurs, pterosaurs lived during the same time and went extinct at the same time as dinosaurs. The giant egg was clearly too large to have been laid by the pterosaur that we see flying around in the movie, but it sure lends itself to a hilarious sequence of events.

A nearby ice age…— This is hilarious because we know it ain’t possible. An ‘ice age’ is a time period, not a place, and certainly, no-one is going to walk from the desert to a frozen wasteland in one day. Nevertheless, the snow beast is adorable and you just have to feel for him. Maybe he was just trying to make friends.

My favorite part of this movie has nothing to do with paleontology. I love the bit where Atouk’s little tossed together tribe has an impromptu fireside music, song, and dance fest. It just makes me happy.

3 thoughts on “Bad Geology Movies: Caveman, 1981

  1. I like the scene where Atouk is getting an unwanted lesson in English, but his teacher finally concedes on zug-zug. I thought Shelley Long’s character was very cute too, but then I’ve always had a soft spot for her.

    Now I’m going to be humming that song from the campfire scene to myself all day.

  2. My husband majored in geology in college, was obsessed (yes, I would use that word) about dinosaurs as a child, and also loved monster movies. Think I will get him this movie for his birthday. I’ve never seen it and I don’t think he has, either. (Oh yes, he was a Beatles fan, too.)

  3. kinda old your post, but saw caveman today (maybe my zillionst time) and had afterwards to search for an article exactly like this one for one reason only; to post this thought:

    caveman may be truly the only real creationistic satire in existence.

    thank you, Penny 😉

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