Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man/Chapter 16




Nature and Origin of the Loess.

INTIMATELY connected with the subjects treated of in the last chapter, is the nature, origin, and age of certain loamy deposits, commonly called loess, which form a marked feature in the superficial deposits of the basins of the Rhine, Danube, and some other large rivers draining the Alps, and which extend down the Rhine into the Low Countries, and were once perhaps continuous with others of like composition in the north of France.

It has been reported of late years that human remains have been detected at several points in the loess of the Meuse around and below Maestricht. I have visited the localities referred to; but, before giving an account of them, it will be desirable to explain what is meant by the loess, a step the more necessary, as a French geologist, for whose knowledge and judgment I have great respect, tells me he has come to the conclusion that 'the loess' is 'a myth,' having no real existence in a geological sense, or as holding a definite place in the chronological series.

No doubt it is true that in every country, and at all geological periods, rivers have been depositing fine loam on their inundated plains in the manner explained above at p. 34, where the Nile mud was spoken of. This mud of the plains of Egypt, according to Professor Bischoff's chemical analysis, agrees closely in composition with the loess of the Rhine.[1] I have also shown (p. 201), when speaking of the fossil man of Natchez, how identical in mineral character, and in the genera of its terrestrial and amphibious shells, is the ancient fluviatile loam of the Mississippi with the loess of the Rhine. But granting that loam presenting the same aspect has originated at different times and in distinct hydrographical basins, it is nevertheless true that, during the glacial period, the Alps were a great centre of dispersion, not only of erratics, as we have seen in the last chapter, and of gravel, which was carried farther than the erratics, but also of very fine mud, which was transported to still greater distances and in greater volume down the principal river-courses between the mountains and the sea.

Mud produced by Glaciers.

They who have visited Switzerland are aware that every torrent which issues from an icy cavern at the extremity of a glacier is densely charged with an impalpable powder, produced by the grinding action to which the subjacent floor of rock and the stones and sand frozen into the ice are exposed in the manner before described. We may therefore readily conceive that a much greater volume of fine sediment was swept along by rivers swollen by melting ice at the time of the retreat of the gigantic glaciers of the olden time. The fact that a large proportion of this mud, instead of being carried to the ocean, where it might have formed a delta on the coast, or have been dispersed far and wide by the tides and currents, has accumulated in inland valleys, will be found to be an additional proof of the former occurrence of those grand oscillations in the level of the Alps and parts of the adjoining continent which were required to explain the alternate advance and retreat of the glaciers, and the superposition of more than one boulder clay and stratified alluvium before mentioned, p. 321.

The position of the loess between Basle and Bonn is such as to imply that the great valley of the Rhine had already acquired its present shape, and in some places, perhaps more than its actual depth and width, previously to the time when it was gradually filled up to a great extent with fine loam. The greater part of this loam has been since removed, so that a fringe only of the deposit is now left on the flanks of the boundary hills, or occasionally some outliers in the middle of the great plain of the Rhine where it expands in width.

These outliers are sometimes on such a scale as to admit of minor hills and valleys, having been shaped out of them by the action of rain and small streamlets, as near Freiburg in the Brisgau and other districts.

Fossil Shells of the Loess.

The loess is generally devoid of fossils, although in many places they are abundant, consisting of land-shells, all of living species, and comprising no small part of the entire molluscous fauna now inhabiting the same region. The three shells most frequently met with are those represented in the annexed figures. The slug, called Succinea, is not strictly aquatic, but lives in damp places, and may be seen in full activity far from rivers, in meadows, where the grass is wet with rain or dew; but shells of the genera Limnea, Planorbis, Paludina, Cyclas, and others, requiring to be constantly in the water, are extremely exceptional in the loess, occurring only at the bottom of the deposit, where it begins to alternate with ancient river-gravel, on which it usually reposes.

This underlying gravel consists, in the valley of the Rhine,

Fig. 44
Fig. 45
Fig. 46

Succinea elongata.

Pupa muscorum.

Helix hispida Lin.; H. plebeium Jeffreys.

for the most part, of pebbles and boulders of Alpine origin, showing that there was a time when the rivers had power to convey coarse materials for hundreds of miles northwards from Switzerland, towards the sea; whereas, at a later period, an entire change was brought about in the physical geography of the same district, so that the same river deposited nothing but fine mud, which accumulated to a thickness of 800 feet or more above the original alluvial plain.

But although most of the fundamental gravel was derived from the Alps, there has been observed in the neighbourhood of the principal mountain chains bordering the great valley, such as the Black Forest, Vosges, and Odenwald, an admixture of detritus characteristic of those several chains. We cannot doubt, therefore, that as some of these mountains, especially the Vosges, had, during the glacial period, their own glaciers, a part of the fine mud of their moraines must have been mingled with loess of Alpine origin; although the principal mass of the latter must have come from Switzerland, and can in fact be traced continuously from Basle to Belgium.

Geographical Distribution of the Loess.

It was stated in the last chapter, p. 302, that at the time of the greatest extension of the Swiss glaciers, the Lake of Constance, and all the other great lakes, were filled with ice, so that gravel and mud could pass freely from the upper Alpine valley of the Rhine, to the lower region between Basle and the sea, the great lake intercepting no part of the moraines, whether fine or coarse. On the other hand, the Aar, with its great tributaries the Limmat and the Reuss, does not join the Rhine till after it issues from the Lake of Constance; and by their channels a large part of the Alpine gravel and mud could always have passed without obstruction into the lower country, even after the ice of the great lake had melted.

It will give the reader some idea of the manner in which the Rhenish loess occurs, if he is told that some of the earlier scientific observers imagined it to have been formed in a vast lake which occupied the valley of the Rhine from Basle to Mayence, sending up arms or branches into what are now the valleys of the Main, Necker, and other large rivers. They placed the barrier of this imaginary lake in the narrow and picturesque gorge of the Rhine between Bingen and Bonn: and when it was objected that the lateral valley of the Lahn, communicating with that gorge, had also been filled with loess, they were compelled to transfer the great dam farther down, and to place it below Bonn. Strictly speaking, it must be placed much farther north, or in the 51st parallel of latitude, where the limits of the loess have been traced out by MM. Omalius D'Halloy, Dumont, and others, running east and west by Cologne, Juliers, Louvain, Oudenarde, and Courtray, in Belgium, to Cassel, near Dunkirk, in France. This boundary line may not indicate the original seaward extent of the formation, as it may have stretched still farther north, and its present abrupt termination may only show how far it was cut back at some former period by the denuding action of the sea.

Even if the imbedded fossil shells of the loess had been lacustrine, instead of being, as we have seen, terrestrial and amphibious, the vast height and width of the required barrier would have been fatal to the theory of a lake: for the loess is met with in great force at an elevation of no less than 1,600 feet above the sea, covering the Kaiserstuhl, a volcanic mountain which stands in the middle of the great valley of the Rhine, near Freiburg in Brisgau. The extent to which the valley has there been the receptacle of fine mud afterwards removed is most remarkable.

The loess of Belgium was called 'Hesbayan mud' in the geological map of the late M. Dumont, who, I am told, recognised it as being in great part composed of Alpine mud. M. d'Archiac, when speaking of the loess, observes that it envelopes Hainault, Brabant, and Limburg like a mantle, everywhere uniform and homogeneous in character, filling up the lower depressions of the Ardennes, and passing thence into the north of France, though not crossing into England. In France, he adds, it is found on high plateaus, 600 feet above some of the rivers, such as the Marne; but as we go southwards and eastwards of the basin of the Seine, it diminishes in quantity, and finally thins out in those directions.[2] It may even be a question whether the 'limon des plateaux,' or upland loam of the Somme valley, before alluded to,[3] may not be a part of the same formation. As to the higher and lower level gravels of that valley, which, like that of the Seine, contain no foreign rocks,[4] we have seen that they are each of them covered by deposits of loess or inundation-mud belonging respectively to the periods of the gravels, whereas the upland loam is of much older date, more widely spread, and occupying positions often independent of the present lines of drainage. To restore in imagination the geographical outline of Picardy, to which rivers charged with so much homogeneous loam, and running at such heights, may once have belonged, is now impossible.

In the valley of the Rhine, as I before observed, the main body of the loess, instead of having been formed at successively lower and lower levels as in the case of the basin of the Somme, was deposited in a wide and deep preexisting basin, or strath, bounded by lofty mountain chains, such as the Black Forest, Vosges, and Odenwald. In some places the loam accumulated to such a depth as first to fill the valley and then to spread over the adjoining table-lands, as in the case of the Lower Eifel, where it encircled some of the modern volcanic cones of loose pumice and ashes. In these instances it does not appear to me that the volcanoes were in eruption during the time of the deposition of the loess, as some geologists have supposed. The interstrtaification of loam and volcanic ejectamenta was probably occasioned by the fluviatile mud having gradually enveloped the cones of loose scoriæ after they were completely formed. I am the more inclined to embrace this view after having seen the junction of granite and loess on the steep slopes of some of the mountains bounding the great plain of the Rhine on its right bank in the Berg-strasse. Thus between Darmstadt and Heidelberg perpendicular sections are seen of loess 200 feet thick, at various heights above the river, some of them at elevations of 800 feet and upwards. In one of these may be seen, resting on the hill side of Melibocus in the Odenwald, the usual yellow loam free from pebbles at its contact with a steep slope of granite, but divided into horizontal layers for a short distance from the line of junction. In these layers, which abut against the granite, a mixture of mica and of unrounded grains of quartz and felspar occur, evidently derived from the disintegration of the crystalline rock, which must have decomposed in the atmosphere before the mud had reached this height. Entire shells of Helix, Pupa, and Succinea, of the usual living species, are embedded in the granitic mixture. We may therefore be sure that the valley bounded by steep hills of granite existed before the tranquil accumulation of this vast body of loess.

During the re-excavation of the basin of the Rhine successive deposits of loess of newer origin were formed at various heights; and it is often difficult to distinguish their relative ages, especially as fossils are often entirely wanting, and the mineral composition of the formation is so uniform.

The loess in Belgium is variable in thickness, usually ranging from ten to thirty feet. It caps some of the highest hills or table-land around Brussels at the height of 300 feet above the sea. In such places it usually rests on gravel, and rarely contains shells, but when they occur, they are of recent species. I found the Succinea oblonga, before mentioned, p. 327, and Helix hispida in the Belgian loess at Neerepen, between Tongres and Hasselt, where M. Bosquet had previously obtained remains of an elephant referred to E. primigenius. This pachyderm and Rhinoceros tichorhinus are cited as characterising the loess in various parts of the valley of the Rhine. Several perfect skeletons of the marmot have been disinterred from the loess of Aix-la-Chapelle. But much remains to be done in determining the species of mammalia of this formation, and the relative altitudes above the valley-plain at which they occur.

If we ascend the basin of the Neckar, we find that it is filled with loess of great thickness, far above its junction with the Rhine. At Canstadt near Stuttgart, loess resembling that of the Rhine contains many fossil bones, especially those of Elephas primigenius, together with some of Rhinoceros tichorhinus, the species having been lately determined by Dr. Falconer. At this place the loess is covered by a thick bed of travertin, used as a building stone, the product of a mineral spring. In the travertin are many fossil plants, all recent except two, an oak and poplar, the leaves of which Professor Heer has not been able to identify with any known species.

Below the loess of Canstadt, in which bones of the mammoth are so abundant, is a bed of gravel, evidently an old river channel, now many feet above the level of the Neckar, the valley having there been excavated to some depth below its ancient channel so as to lie in the underlying red sandstone or keuper. Although the loess, when traced from the valley of the Rhine into that of the Neckar, or into any other of its tributaries, often undergoes some slight alteration in its character, yet there is so much identity of composition as to suggest the idea, that the mud of the main river passed far up the tributary valleys, just as that of the Mississippi, during floods, flows far up the Ohio, carrying its mud with it into the basin of that river. But the uniformity of colour and mineral composition does not extend indefinitely into the higher parts of every basin. In that of the Neckar, for example, near Tübingen, I found the fluviatile loam or brick-earth, enclosing the usual helices and succineæ, together with the bones of the mammoth, very distinct in colour and composition from ordinary Rhenish loess, and such as no one could confound with Alpine mud. It is mottled with red and green, like the New Red Sandstone or keuper, from which it has clearly been derived.

Such examples, however, merely show that where a basin is so limited in size that the detritus is derived chiefly, or exclusively, from one formation, the prevailing rock will impart its colour and composition in a very decided manner to the loam; whereas, in the basin of a great river which has many tributaries, the loam will consist of a mixture of almost every variety of rock, and will therefore exhibit an average result nearly the same in all countries. Thus, the loam which fills to a great depth the wide Valley of the Saone, which is bounded on the west side by an escarpment of inferior oolite, and by the chain of the Jura on the east, is very like the loess found in the continuation of the same great basin after the junction of the Rhone, by which a large supply of Alpine mud has been added and intermixed.

In the higher parts of the basin of the Danube, loess of the same character as that of the Rhine, and which I believe to be equally of Alpine origin, attains a far greater elevation above the sea than any deposits of Rhenish loess. Mr. Stur informs me that it also fills the valleys of the Carpathians, almost to the height of the watershed between Austria and Hungary.

Oscillations of Level required to explain the Accumulation and Denudation of the Loess.

A theory, therefore, which attempts to account for the position of the loess cannot be satisfactory unless it be equally applicable to the basins of the Rhine and Danube. So far as relates to the source of so much homogeneous loam, there are many large tributaries of the Danube which, during the glacial period, may have carried an ample supply of moraine-mud from the Alps to that river; and in regard to grand oscillations in the level of the land, it is obvious that the same movements, both downward and upward, of the great mountain-chain would be attended with analogous effects, whether the great rivers flowed northwards or eastwards. In each case fine loam would be accumulated during subsidence, and removed during the upheaval of the land. Changes, therefore, of level, analogous to those on which we have been led to speculate when endeavouring to solve the various problems presented by the glacial phenomena, are equally available to account for the nature and geological distribution of the loess. But we must suppose that the amount of depression and re-elevation in the central region was considerably in excess of that experienced in the lower countries, or those nearer the sea, and that the rate of subsidence in the latter was never so considerable as to cause submergence, or the admission of the sea into the interior of the continent by the valleys of the principal rivers.

We have already assumed that the Alps were loftier than now, when they were the source of those gigantic glaciers which reached the flanks of the Jura. At that time gravel was borne to the greatest distances from the central mountains through the main valleys, which had a somewhat steeper slope than now, and the quantity of river-ice must at that time have aided in the transportation of pebbles and boulders. To this state of things gradually succeeded another of an opposite character, when the fall of the rivers from the mountains to the sea became less and less, while the Alps were slowly sinking, and the first retreat of the great glaciers was taking place. Suppose the depression to have been at the rate of five feet in a century in the mountains, and only as many inches in the same time nearer the coast, still, in such areas as the eye could survey at once, comprising a small part only of Switzerland or of the basin of the Rhine, the movement might appear to be uniform, and the pre-existing valleys and heights might seem to remain relatively to each other as before.

Such inequality in the rate of rising or sinking, when we contemplate large continental spaces, is quite consistent with what we know of the course of nature in our own times, as well as at remote geological epochs. Thus, in Sweden, as before stated, the rise of land now in progress is nearly uniform, as we proceed from north to south, for moderate distances; but it greatly diminishes southwards if we compare areas hundreds of miles apart; so that, instead of the land subsiding five feet in a hundred years, as at the North Cape, it becomes less than the same number of inches at Stockholm, and farther south the land is stationary, or, if not, seems rather to be descending than ascending.[5]

To cite an example of high geological antiquity, M. Hébert has demonstrated that, during the oolitic and cretaceous periods, similar inequalities in the vertical movements of the earth's crust took place in Switzerland and France. By his own observations and those of M. Lory he has proved that the area of the Alps was rising and emerging from beneath the ocean towards the close of the oolitic epoch, and was above water at the commencement of the cretaceous era; while, on the other hand, the area of the Jura, about one hundred miles to the north, was slowly sinking at the close of the oolitic period, and had become submerged at the commencement of the cretaceous. Yet these oscillations of level were accomplished without any perceptible derangement in the strata, which remained all the while horizontal, so that the lower cretaceous or neocomian beds were deposited conformably on the oolitic.[6]

Taking for granted then that the depression was more rapid in the more elevated region, the great rivers would lose, century after century, some portion of their velocity or carrying power, and would leave behind them on their alluvial plains more and more of the moraine-mud with which they were charged, till at length, in the course of thousands or some tens of thousands of years, a large part of the main valleys would begin to resemble the plains of Egypt, where nothing but mud is deposited during the flood season. The thickness of loam containing shells of land and amphibious mollusca might in this way accumulate to any extent, so that the waters might overflow some of the heights originally bounding the valley, and deposits of 'platform mud,' as it has been termed in France, might be extensively formed. At length, whenever a re-elevation of the Alps at the time of the second extension of the glaciers took place, there would be renewed denudation and removal of such loess; and if, as some geologists believe, there has been more than one oscillation of level in the Alps since the commencement of the glacial period, the changes would be proportionally more complicated, and terraces of gravel covered with loess might be formed at different heights, and at different periods.

Himalayan Mud of the Ganges compared to European Loess.

Some of the revolutions in physical geography above suggested for the continent of Europe during the post-pliocene epoch, may have had their counterparts in India in the recent period. The vast plains of Bengal are overspread with Himalayan mud, which, as we ascend the Ganges, extends inland for 1,200 miles from the sea, continuing very homogeneous on the whole, though becoming more sandy as it nears the hills. They who sail down the river during a season of inundation see nothing but a sheet of water in every direction, except here and there where the tops of trees emerge above its level. To what depth the mud extends is not known, but it resembles the loess in being generally devoid of stratification, and of shells, though containing occasionally land shells in abundance, as well as calcareous concretions, called kunkur, which may be compared to the nodules of carbonate of lime sometimes observed to form layers in the Rhenish loess. I am told by Colonel Strachey and Dr. Hooker, that below Calcutta, when the flood subsides, the Gangetic mud may be seen in river cliffs eighty feet high, in which they were unable to detect organic remains, a remark which I found to hold equally in regard to the recent mud of the Mississippi.

Dr. Wallich, while confirming these observations, informs me that at certain points in Bengal, farther inland, he met with land-shells in the banks of the great river. Borings have been made at Calcutta, beginning not many feet above the sea-level to the depth of 300 and 400 feet; and wherever organic remains were found in the strata pierced through, they were of a fluviatile or terrestrial character, implying, that during a long and gradual subsidence of the country, the sediment thrown down by the Ganges and Burrampooter had accumulated at a sufficient rate to prevent the sea from invading that region.

At the bottom of the borings, after passing through much fine loam, beds of pebbles, sand, and boulders were reached, such as might belong to an ancient river channel; and the bones of a crocodile, and the shell of a freshwater tortoise imbedded in it, were met with, at the depth of four hundred feet from the surface. No pebbles are now brought down within a great distance of this point, so that the country must once have had a totally different character, and may have had its valleys, hills, and rivers, before all was reduced to one common level by the accumulation upon it of fine Himalayan mud. If the latter were removed during a gradual re-elevation of the country, many old hydrographical basins might reappear, and portions of the loam might alone remain in terraces, on the flanks of hills, or on platforms, attesting the vast extent, in ancient times, of the muddy envelope. A similar succession of events has, in all likelihood, occurred in Europe during the deposition and denudation of the loess of the post-pliocene period, which, as we have seen in a former chapter, was long enough to allow of the gradual development of almost any amount of such physical changes.

Human Remains in Loess near Maestricht.

The banks of the Meuse at Maestricht, like those of the Rhine at Bonn and Cologne, are slightly elevated above the level of the alluvial plain. On the right bank of the Meuse, opposite Maestricht, the difference of level is so marked, that a bridge, with many arches, has been constructed to keep up, during the flood season, a communication between the higher parts of the alluvial plain, and the hills or bluffs which bound it. This plain is composed of modern loess, undistinguishable in mineral character from that of higher antiquity, before alluded to, and entirely without signs of successive deposition, and devoid of terrestrial or fluviatile shells. It is extensively worked for brick-earth to the depth of about eight feet. The bluffs before alluded to often consist of a terrace of gravel, from thirty to forty feet in thickness, covered by an older loess, which is continuous as we ascend the valley to Liége. In the suburbs of that city, patches of loess are seen at the height of two hundred feet above the level of the Meuse. The table-land in that region, composed of Carboniferous and Devonian rocks, is about four hundred and fifty feet high, and is not overspread with loess.

A terrace of gravel covered with loess has been mentioned as existing on the right bank of the Meuse at Maestricht. Answering to it another is also seen on the left bank below that city, and a promontory of it projecting into the alluvial plain of the Meuse, and approaching to within a hundred yards of the river, was cut through during the excavation of a canal running from Maestricht to Hocht, between the years 1815 and 1823. This section occurs at the village of Smeermass, and is about sixty feet deep, the lower forty feet consisting of stratified gravel, and the upper of twenty feet of loess. The number of molars, tusks, and bones (probably parts of entire skeletons) of elephants obtained during these diggings, was extraordinary. Not a few of them are still preserved in the museums of Maestricht and Leyden, together with some horns of deer, bones of the ox-tribe and other mammalia, and a human lower jaw, with teeth. According to Professor Crahay, who published an account of it at the time, this jaw, which is now preserved at Leyden, was found at the depth of nineteen feet from the surface, where the loess joins the underlying gravel, in a stratum of sandy loam resting on gravel, and overlaid by some pebbly and sandy beds. The stratum is said to have been intact and undisturbed, but the human jaw was isolated, the nearest tusk of an elephant being six yards removed from it in horizontal distance.

Most of the other mammalian bones were found, like these human remains, in or near the gravel, but some of the tusks and teeth of elephants were met with much nearer the surface. I visited the site of these fossils in 1860, in company with M. van Binkhorst, and we found the description of the ground, published by the late Professor Crahay of Louvain, to be very correct.[7] The projecting portion of the terrace, which was cut through in making the canal, is called the hill of Caberg, which is flat-topped, sixty feet high, and has a steep slope on both sides towards the alluvial plain. M. van Binkhorst (who is the author of some valuable works on the paleontology of the Maestricht chalk) has recently visited Leyden, and ascertained that the human fossil above mentioned is still entire in the museum of the university. Although we had no opportunity of verifying the authenticity of Professor Crahay's statements, we could see no reason for suspecting the human jaw to belong to a different geological period from that of the extinct elephant. If this were granted, it might have no claims to a higher antiquity than the human remains which Dr. Schmerling disentombed from the Belgian caverns; but the fact of their occurring in a post-pliocene alluvial deposit in the open plains, would be the first example of such a phenomenon. The top of the hill of Caberg is not so high above the Meuse as is the terrace of St. Acheul, with its flint implements above the Somme, but at St. Acheul no human bones have yet been detected.

In the museum at Maestricht are preserved a human frontal and a pelvic bone, stained of a dark peaty colour; the frontal very remarkable for its lowness, and the prominence of the superciliary ridges, which resemble those of the Borreby skull, figured at p. 86. These remains may be the same as those alluded to by Professor Crahay in his memoir, where he says, that in a deposit in the suburbs of Hocht of a black colour, were found leaves, nuts, and freshwater shells in a very perfect state, and a human skull of a dark colour. They were of an age long posterior to that of the loess containing the bones of elephants, and in which the human jaw now at Leyden is said to have been embedded.

As to the human skeleton, alleged to have been found in ancient loess at the village of Keer on the right bank of the Meuse, opposite Maestricht, I explored the locality in company with M. Bosquet, and we satisfied ourselves that the proofs advanced in support of its antiquity cannot be depended upon.

  1. Chemical and Physical Geology, vol. i. p. 132.
  2. D'Archiac, Histoire des Progrès, vol. ii. pp. 169, 170.
  3. No. 4, fig. 7, p. 103.
  4. See above, p. 133.
  5. Principles of Geology, chap. xxx. 9th ed. p. 519 et seq.
  6. Bulletin de la Société Géologique de France, 2 series, tom. xvi. p. 596, 1859.
  7. M. van Binkhorst has shown me the original MS. read to the Maestricht Athenæum in 1823. The memoir was published in 1836 in the Bulletin de l'Académie Royale de Belgique, tom. iii. p. 43.