Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man/Chapter 11




AMONG the fossil remains of the human species supposed to have claims to high antiquity, and which have for many years attracted attention, two of the most prominent examples are—

First,—'The fossil man of Denise,' comprising the remains of more than one skeleton, found in a volcanic breccia near the town of Le Puy-en-Velay, in Central France.

Secondly,—The fossil human bone of Natchez, on the Mississippi, supposed to have been derived from a deposit containing remains of mastodon and megalonyx. Having carefully examined the sites of both of these celebrated fossils, I shall consider in this chapter the nature of the evidence on which the remote date of their entombment is inferred.

Fossil Man of Denise.

An account of the fossil remains, so called, was first published in 1844, by M. Aymard of Le Puy, a writer of deservedly high authority both as a palæontologist and archæologist.[1] M. Pictet, after visiting Le Puy and investigating the site of the alleged discovery, was satisfied that the fossil bones belonged to the period of the last volcanic eruptions of Velay; but expressly stated in his important treatise on palæontology that this conclusion, though it might imply that man had coexisted with the extinct elephant, did not draw with it the admission that the human race was anterior in date to the filling of the caverns of France and Belgium with the bones of extinct mammalia.[2]

At a meeting of the 'Scientific Congress' of France, held at Le Puy in 1856, the question of the age of the Denise fossil bones was fully gone into, and in the report of their proceedings published in that year, the opinions of some of the most skilful osteologists respecting the point in controversy are recorded. The late Abbé Croizet, a most experienced collector of fossil bones in the volcanic regions of Central France, and an able naturalist, and the late M. Laurillard, of Paris, who assisted Cuvier in modelling many fossil bones, and in the arrangement of the museum of the Jardin, declared their opinion that the specimen preserved in the museum of Le Puy is no counterfeit. They believed the human bones to have been enveloped by natural causes in the tufaceous matrix in which we now see them.

In the year 1859, Professor Hébert and M. Lartet visited Le Puy, expressly to investigate the same specimen, and to inquire into the authenticity of the bones and their geological age. Later in the same year, I went myself to Le Puy, having the same object in view, and had the good fortune to meet there my friend Mr. Poulett Scrope, with whom I examined the Montagne de Denise, where a peasant related to us how he had dug out the specimen with his own hands and in his own vineyard, not far from the summit of the volcano. I employed a labourer to make under his directions some fresh excavations, following up those which had been made a month earlier by MM. Hébert and Lartet, in the hope of verifying the true position of the fossils, but all of us without success. We failed even to find in situ any exact counterpart of the stone of the Le Puy Museum.

The osseous remains of that specimen consist of a frontal and some other parts of the skull, including the upper jaw with teeth, both of an adult and young individual; also a radius, some lumbar vertebræ, and some metatarsal bones. They are all embedded in a light porous tuff, resembling in colour and mineral composition the ejectamenta of several of the latest eruptions of Denise. But none of the bones penetrate into another part of the same specimen, which consists of a more compact rock thickly laminated. Nevertheless, I agree with the Abbé Croizet and M. Aymard, that it is not conceivable even that the less coherent part of the museum specimen which envelopes the human bones should have been artificially put together, whatever may have been the origin of certain other slabs of tuff which were afterwards sold as coming from the same place, and which also contained human remains. Whether some of these were spurious or not is a question more difficult to decide. One of them, now in the possession of M. Pichot-Dumazel, an advocate of Le Puy, is suspected of having had some plaster of Paris introduced into it to bind the bones more firmly together in the loose volcanic tuff. I was assured that a dealer in objects of natural history at Le Puy had been in the habit of occasionally securing the cohesion in that manner of fragments of broken bones, and the juxta-position of uninjured ones found free and detachable in loose volcanic tuffs. From this to the fabrication of a factitious human fossil was, it is suggested, but a short step. But in reference to M. Pichot's specimen, an expert anatomist remarked to me that it would far exceed the skill, whether of the peasant who owned the vineyard or of the dealer above mentioned, to put together in their true position all the thirty-eight bones of the hand and fingers, or the sixteen of the wrist, without making any mistake, and especially without mixing those of the right with the homologous bones of the left hand, assuming that they had brought bones, from some other spot, and then artificially introduced them into a mixture of volcanic tuff and plaster of Paris.

Granting, however, that the high prices given for 'human fossils' at Le Puy may have led to the perpetration of some frauds, it is still an interesting question to consider whether the admission of the genuineness of a single fossil, such as that now in the museum at Le Puy, would lead us to assign a higher antiquity to the existence of man in France than is deducible from many other facts explained in the last seven chapters. In reference to this point, I may observe, that although I was not able to fix with precision the exact bed in the volcanic mountain from which the rock containing the human bones was taken, M. Felix Robert has, nevertheless, after studying 'the volcanic alluviums' of Denise, ascertained that, on the side of Cheyrac and the village of Malouteyre, blocks of tuff frequently occur exactly like the one in the museum. That tuff he considers a product of the latest eruption of the volcano. In it have been found the remains of Hyæna spelæa and Hippopotamus major. The eruptions of steam and gaseous matter which burst forth from the crater of Denise broke through laminated tertiary clays, small pieces of which, some of them scarcely altered, others half converted into scoriæ, were cast out in abundance, while other portions must have been in a state of argillaceous mud. Showers of such materials would be styled by the Neapolitans 'aqueous lava' or 'lava d'aqua,' and we may well suppose that some human individuals, if any existed, would, together with wild animals, be occasionally overwhelmed in these tuffs. From near the place on the mountain whence the block with human bones now in the museum is said to have come, a stream of lava, well marked by its tabular structure, flowed down the flanks of the hill, within a few feet of the alluvial plain of the Borne, a small tributary of the Loire, on the opposite bank of which stands the town of Le Puy. Its continuous extension to so low a level clearly shows that the valley had already been deepened to within a few feet of its present depth at the time of the flowing of the lava.

We know that the alluvium of the same district, having a similar relation to the present geographical outline of the valleys, is of post-pliocene date, for it contains around Le Puy the bones of Elephas primigenius and Rhinoceros tichorhinus; and this affords us a palæontological test of the age of the human skeleton of Denise, if the latter be assumed to be coeval with the lava stream above referred to.

It is important to dwell on this point, because some geologists have felt disinclined to believe in the genuineness of the 'fossil man of Denise,' on the ground that, if conceded, it would imply that the human race was contemporary with an older fauna, or that of the Elephas meridionalis. Such a fauna is found fossil in another layer of tuff covering the slope of Denise, opposite to that where the museum specimen was exhumed. The quadrupeds obtained from that more ancient tuff comprise Elephas meridionalis, Hippopotamus major, Rhinoceros megarhinus, Antilope torticornis, Hyæna brevirostris, and twelve others of the genera horse, ox, stag, goat, tiger, &c., all supposed to be of extinct species. This tuff, found between Malouteyre and Polignac, M. Robert regards as the product of a much older eruption, and referable to the neighbouring Montague de St. Anne, a volcano in a much more wasted and denuded state than Denise, and classed by M. Bertrand de Doue as of intermediate age between the ancient and modern cones of Velay.

The fauna to which Elephas meridionalis and its associates belong, can be shown to be of anterior date, in the north of France, to the flint implements of St. Acheul, by the following train of reasoning. The Valley of the Seine is not only geographically contiguous to the Valley of the Somme, but its ancient alluvium contains the same mammoth and other fossil species. The Eure, one of the tributaries of the Seine, in its way to join that river, flows in a valley which follows a line of fault in the chalk; and this valley is seen to be comparatively modern, because it intersects at St. Prest, four miles below Chartres, an older valley belonging to an anterior system of drainage, and which has been filled by a more ancient fluviatile alluvium, consisting of sand and gravel, ninety feet thick. I have examined the site of this older drift, and the fossils have been determined by Dr. Falconer. They comprise Elephas meridionalis, a species of rhinoceros (not R. tichorhinus), and other mammalia differing from those of the implement-bearing gravels of the Seine and Somme. The latter, belonging to the period of the mammoth, might very well have been contemporary with the modern volcanic eruptions of Central France; and we may presume, even without the aid of the Denise fossil, that man may have witnessed these. But the tuffs and gravels in which the Elephas meridionalis are embedded were synchronous with an older epoch of volcanic action, to which the cone of St. Anne, near Le Puy, and many other mountains of M. Bertrand de Doue's middle period belong, having cones and craters, which have undergone much waste by aqueous erosion. We have as yet no proof that man witnessed the origin of these hills of lava and scoriæ of the middle phase of volcanic action.

Some surprise was expressed in 1856, by several of the assembled naturalists at Le Puy, that the skull of the 'fossil man of Denise,' although contemporary with the mammoth, and coeval with the last eruptions of the Le Puy volcanoes, should be of the ordinary Caucasian or European type; but the observations of Professor Huxley on the Engis skull, cited in the fifth chapter, showing the near approach of that ancient cranium to the European standard, will help to remove this source of perplexity.

Human Fossil of Natchez on the Mississippi.

I have already alluded to Dr. Dowler's attempt to calculate, in years, the antiquity of the human skeleton said to have been buried under four cypress forests in the delta of the Mississippi, near New Orleans (see page 43). In that case no remains of extinct animals were found associated with those of man: but in another part of the basin of the Mississippi, a human bone, accompanied by bones of the mastodon and megalonyx, is supposed to have been washed out of a more ancient alluvial deposit.

After visiting the spot in 1846, I described the geological position of the bones, and discussed their probable age, with

Fig. 26

Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 26.png

1 Modern alluvium of the Mississippi. 3 f Eocene.

2 Loam or loess. 4 Cretaceous.

a stronger bias, I must confess, as to the antecedent improbability of the contemporaneous entombment of man and the mastodon than any geologist would now be justified in entertaining.

In the latitude of Vicksburg 32º 50' N., the broad, flat, alluvial plain of the Mississippi, a b, fig. 26, is bounded on its eastern side by a table-land, d e, about two hundred feet higher than the river, and extending twelve miles eastward with a gentle upward slope. This elevated platform ends abruptly at d, in a line of perpendicular cliffs or bluffs, the base of which is continually undermined by the great river.

The table-land, d e, consists at Vicksburg, through which the annexed section, fig. 26, passes, of loam, overlying the tertiary strata, ff. Between the loam and the tertiary formation there is usually a deposit of stratified sand and gravel, containing large fragments of silicified corals and the wreck of older palæozoic rocks. The age of this intervening drift, which is one hundred and forty feet thick at Natchez, has not yet been determined; but it may possibly belong to the glacial period. Natchez is about eighty miles in a straight line south of Vicksburg, on the same left bank of the Mississippi. Here there is a bluff, the upper sixty feet of which consists of a continuous portion of the same calcareous loam as at Vicksburg, equally resembling the Rhenish loess in mineral character and in being sometimes barren of fossils, sometimes so full of them that bleached land-shells stand out conspicuously in relief in the vertical and weathered face of cliffs which form the banks of streams, everywhere intersecting the loam.

So numerous are the shells that I was able to collect at Natchez, in a few hours, in 1846, no less than twenty species of the genera Helix, Helicina, Pupa, Cydostoma, Achatina, and Succinea, all identical with shells now living in the same country; and in one place I observed (as happens also occasionally in the valley of the Rhine) a passage of the loam with land-shells into an underlying marly deposit of subaqueous origin, in which shells of the genera Limnea, Planorbis, Paludina, Physa, and Cyclas, were embedded, also consisting of recent American species. Such deposits, more distinctly stratified than the loam containing land-shells, are produced, as before stated, p. 129, in all great alluvial plains, where the river shifts its position, and where marshes, ponds, and lakes are formed in its old deserted channels. In this part of America, however, it may have happened that some of these lakes were caused by partial subsidences, such as were witnessed, during the earthquakes of 1811–12, around New Madrid, in the valley of the Mississippi.

Owing to the destructible nature of the yellow loam, d e, fig. 26, every streamlet flowing over the platform has cut for itself, in its way to the Mississippi, a deep gully or ravine; and this erosion has of late years, especially since 1812, proceeded with accelerated speed, ascribable in some degree to the partial clearing of the native forest, but partly also to the effects of the earthquake of 1811–12. By that convulsion the region around Natchez was rudely shaken and much fissured. One of the narrow valleys near Natchez, due to this fissuring, is now called the Mammoth Ravine. Though no less than seven miles long, and in some parts sixty feet deep, I was assured by a resident proprietor, Colonel Wiley, that it had no existence before 1812. With its numerous ramifications, it is said to have been entirely formed since the earthquake at New Madrid. Before that event, Colonel Wiley had ploughed some of the land exactly over a spot now traversed by part of this water-course.

I satisfied myself that the ravine had been considerably enlarged and lengthened a short time before my visit, and it was then freshly undermined and undergoing constant waste. From a clayey deposit immediately below the yellow loam, bones of the Mastodon ohioticus, a species of megalonyx, bones of the genera Equus, Bos, and others, some of extinct and others presumed to be of living species, had been detached, and had fallen to the base of the cliffs. Mingled with the rest, the pelvic bone of a man, os innominatum, was obtained by Dr. Dickeson of Natchez, in whose collection I saw it. It appeared to be quite in the same state of preservation, and was of the same black colour as the other fossils, and was believed to have come like them from a depth of about thirty feet from the surface. In my 'Second Visit to America,' in 1846,[3] I suggested, as a possible explanation of this association of a human bone with remains of a mastodon and megalonyx, that the former may possibly have been derived from the vegetable soil at the top of the cliff, whereas the remains of extinct mammalia were dislodged from a lower position, and both may have fallen into the same heap or talus at the bottom of the ravine. The pelvic bone might, I conceived, have acquired its black colour by having lain for years or centuries in a dark superficial peaty soil, common in that region. I was informed that there were many human bones, in old Indian graves in the same district, stained of as black a die. On suggesting this hypothesis to Colonel Wiley, of Natchez, I found that the same idea had already occurred to his mind. No doubt, had the pelvic bone belonged to any recent mammifer other than man, such a theory would never have been resorted to; but so long as we have only one isolated case, and are without the testimony of a geologist who was present to behold the bone when still engaged in the matrix, and to extract it with his own hands, it is allowable to suspend our judgment as to the high antiquity of the fossil.

If, however, I am asked whether I consider the Natchez loam, with land-shells and the bones of mastodon and megalonyx, to be more ancient than the alluvium of the Somme containing flint implements and the remains of the mammoth and hyæna, I must declare that I do not. Both in Europe and America the land and freshwater shells accompanying the extinct pachyderms are of living species, and I could detect no shell in the Natchez loam so foreign to the basin of the Mississippi as is the Cyrena fluminalis to the rivers of modern Europe. If, therefore, the relative ages of the Picardy and Natchez alluvium were to be decided on conchological data alone, the fluvio-marine beds of Abbeville might rank as a shade older than the loess of Natchez. My reluctance in 1846 to regard the fossil human bone as of post-pliocene date arose in part from the reflection that the ancient loess of Natchez is anterior in time to the whole modern delta of the Mississippi. The table-land, d e, fig. 26, p. 200, was, I believe, once a part of the original alluvial plain or delta of the great river before it was upraised. It has now risen more than two hundred feet above its pristine level. After the upheaval, or during it, the Mississippi cut through the old fluviatile formation of which its bluffs are now formed, just as the Rhine has in many parts of its valley excavated a passage through its ancient loess. If I was right in calculating that the present delta of the Mississippi has required, as a minimum of time, more than one hundred thousand years for its growth,[4] it would follow, if the claims of the Natchez man to have coexisted with the mastodon are admitted, that North America was peopled more than a thousand centuries ago by the human race. But even were that true, we could not presume, reasoning from ascertained geological data, that the Natchez bone was anterior in data to the antique flint hatchets of St. Acheul. When we ascend the Mississippi from Natchez to Vicksburg, and then enter the Ohio, we are accompanied everywhere by a continuous fringe of terraces of sand and gravel at a certain height above the alluvial plain, first of the great river, and then of its tributary. We also find that the older alluvium contains the remains of mastodon everywhere, and in some places, as at Evansville, those of the megalonyx. As in the valley of the Somme in Europe, those old post-pliocene gravels often occur at more than one level, and the ancient mounds of the Ohio, with their works of art, described at p. 39, are newer than the old terraces of the mastodon period, just as the Gallo-Roman tombs of St. Acheul or the Celtic weapons of the Abbeville peat are more modern than the tools of the mammoth-bearing alluvium.

In the first place, I may remind the reader that the vertical movement of two hundred and fifty feet, required to elevate the loess of Natchez to its present height, is exceeded by the upheaval which the marine stratum of Cagliari, containing pottery, has been ascertained by Count de la Marmora to have experienced, p. 177. Such changes of level, therefore, have actually occurred in Europe in the human epoch, and may therefore have happened in America. In the second place, I may observe that, if, since the Natchez mastodon was embedded in clay, the delta of the Mississippi has been formed, so, since the mammoth and rhinoceros of Abbeville and Amiens were enveloped in fluviatile mud and gravel, together with flint tools, a great thickness of peat has accumulated in the Valley of the Somme; and antecedently to the first growth of peat, there had been time for the extinction of a great many mammalia, requiring, perhaps, as shown at p. 144, a lapse of ages many times greater than that demanded for the formation of thirty feet of peat, for since the earliest growth of the latter there has been no change in the species of mammalia in Europe.

Should future researches, therefore, confirm the opinion that the Natchez man coexisted with the mastodon, it would not enhance the value of the geological evidence in favour of man's antiquity, but merely render the delta of the Mississippi available as a chronometer, by which the lapse of post-pliocene time could be measured somewhat less vaguely than by any means of measuring which have as yet been discovered or rendered available in Europe.

  1. Bulletin de la Société Géologique de France, 1844, 1845, 1847.
  2. Traité de Paléontologie, tom. i. p. 152, 1853.
  3. Vol. ii. p. 197.
  4. See Principles of Geology.