Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man/Chapter 19




THE ages of stone and bronze, so called by archæologists, were spoken of in the earlier chapters of this work. That of bronze has been traced back to times anterior to the Roman occupation of Helvetia, Gaul, and other countries north of the Alps. When weapons of that mixed metal were in use, a somewhat uniform civilisation seems to have prevailed over a wide extent of central and northern Europe, and the long duration of such a state of things in Denmark and Switzerland is shown by the gradual improvement which took place in the useful and ornamental arts. Such progress is attested by the increasing variety of the forms, and the more perfect finish and tasteful decoration of the tools and utensils obtained from the more modern deposits of the bronze age, those from the upper layers of peat, for example, as compared to those found in the lower ones. The great number also of the Swiss lake-dwellings of the bronze age, (those already discovered amounting to about seventy,) and the large population which some of them were capable of containing, afford indication of a considerable lapse of time, as does the thickness of the stratum of mud in which, in some of the lakes, the works of art are entombed. The unequal antiquity, also, of the settlements, is occasionally attested by the different degrees of decay which the wooden stakes or piles have undergone, some of them projecting more above the mud than others, while all the piles of the antecedent age of stone have rotted away quite down to the level of the mud, such part of them only as was originally driven into the bed of the lake having escaped decomposition.[1]

Among the monuments of the stone period, which immediately preceded that of bronze, the polished hatchets called celts are abundant, and were in very general use in Europe before metallic tools were introduced. We learn, from the Danish peat and shell-mounds, and from the older Swiss lake-settlements, that the first inhabitants were hunters, who fed almost entirely on game, but their food in after ages consisted more and more of tamed animals, and, still later, a more complete change to a pastoral state took place, accompanied, as population increased, by the cultivation of some cereals (p. 21).

Both the shells and quadrupeds, belonging to the ages of stone and bronze, consist exclusively of species now living in Europe, the fauna being the same as that which flourished in Gaul at the time when it was conquered by Julius Cæsar, even the Bos primigenius, the only animal of which the wild type is lost, being still represented, according to Cuvier, Bell, and Rütimeyer, by one of the domesticated races of cattle now in Europe. (See p. 25.)

These monuments, therefore, whether of stone or bronze, belong to what I have termed geologically the Recent Period, the definition of which some may think rather too dependent on negative evidence, or on the non-discovery hitherto of extinct mammalia, such as the mammoth, which may one day turn up in a fossil state in some of the oldest peaty deposits, as, indeed, it is already said to have done at some spots, though I have failed, as yet, to obtain authentic evidence of the fact.[2] No doubt some such exceptional cases may be met with in the course of future investigations, for we are still imperfectly acquainted with the entire fauna of the age of stone in Denmark, as we may infer from an opinion expressed by Steenstrup, that some of the instruments exhumed by antiquaries from the Danish peat are made of the bones and horns of the elk and reindeer. Yet no skeleton or uncut bone of either of those species has hitherto been observed in the same peat.

Nevertheless, the examination made by naturalists of the various Danish and Swiss deposits of the recent period has been so searching, that the finding in them of a stray elephant or rhinoceros, should it ever occur, would prove little more than that some few individuals lingered on, when the species was on the verge of extinction, and such rare exceptions would not render the classification above proposed inappropriate.

At the time when many wild quadrupeds and birds were growing scarce, and some of them becoming locally extirpated in Denmark, great changes were taking place in the vegetation. The pine, or Scotch fir, buried in the oldest peat, gave place at length to the oak, and the oak, after flourishing for ages, yielded, in its turn, to the beech, the periods when these three forest trees predominated in succession tallying pretty nearly with the ages of stone, bronze, and iron in Denmark (p. 16). In the same country, also, during the stone period, various fluctuations, as we have seen, occurred in physical geography. Thus, on the ocean side of certain islands, the old refuse-heaps, or 'kitchen-middens,' were destroyed by the waves, the cliffs having wasted away, while, on the side of the Baltic, where the sea was making no encroachment, or where the land was sometimes gaining on the sea, such mounds remained uninjured. It was also shown, that the oyster, which supplied food to the primitive people, attained its full size in parts of the Baltic where it cannot now exist, owing to a want of saltness in the water, and that certain marine univalves and bivalves, such as the common periwinkle, mussel, and cockle, of which the castaway shells are found in the mounds, attained in the olden time their full dimensions, like the oysters, whereas the same species, though they still live on the coast of the inland sea adjoining the mounds, are dwarfed, and never half their natural size, the water being rendered too fresh for them by the influx of so many rivers.

As for several calculations, in which certain archæologists and geologists of merit have indulged, in the hope of arriving at some positive dates, or exact estimates of the minimum of time required for the changes in physical geography, or in the range and numerical preponderance of certain species of animals, or the advance in human civilisation in the Recent Period, or during the ages of stone, bronze, and iron, whether the computation related to the growth of peat, or to the conversion of water into land, since some lake settlements were founded, or the various depths at which, in the delta of the Tinière, vegetable soils have been met with, containing human bones and works of art of the Roman, the bronze, and the stone periods, they can only be considered, as yet, as being tentative, and, if a rough approximation to the truth has been made, it is all that can be expected. (See p. 27 et seq.) They have led to the assignment of 4,000 and 7,000 years before our time as the lowest antiquity which can be ascribed to certain events and monuments; but much collateral evidence will be required to confirm these estimates, and to decide whether the number of centuries has been under or over-rated.

Between the newer or recent division of the stone period and the older division, which has been called the Post-pliocene, there was evidently a vast interval of time—a gap in the history of the past, into which many monuments of intermediate date will one day have to be intercalated. Of this kind are those caves in the south of France, in which M. Lartet has lately found bones of the reindeer, associated with works of art somewhat more advanced in style than those of St. Acheul or of Aurignac (p. 190). In the valley of the Somme, we have seen that peat exists of great thickness, containing in its upper layers Roman and Celtic memorials, the whole of which has been of slow growth, in basins or depressions conforming to the present contour and drainage levels of the country, and long posterior in date to older gravels, containing bones of the mammoth and a large number of flint implements of a very rude and antique type. Some of those gravels were accumulated in the channels of rivers which flowed at higher levels, by a hundred feet, than the present streams, and before the valley had attained its present depth and form. No intermixture has been observed in those ancient river beds of any polished Celtic weapons, or other relics of the more modern times, or of the second or 'Recent' stone period, nor any interstratified peat; and the climate of those Post-pliocene ages, when Man was a denizen of the north-west of France and of southern and central England, appears to have been much more severe in winter than it is now in the same region, though far less cold than in the glacial period which immediately preceded.

We may presume that the time demanded for the gradual dying out or extirpation of a large number of wild beasts which figure in the Post-pliocene strata, and are missing in the Recent fauna, was of protracted duration, for we know how tedious a task it is in our own times, even with the aid of fire-arms, to exterminate a noxious quadruped, a wolf, for example, in any region comprising within it an extensive forest or a mountain chain. In many villages in the north of Bengal, the tiger still occasionally carries off its human victims, and the abandonment of late years by the natives of a part of the Sunderbunds or lower delta of the Granges, which they once peopled, is attributed chiefly to the ravages of the tiger. It is probable that causes more general and powerful than the agency of Man, alterations in climate, variations in the range of many species of animals, vertebrate and invertebrate, and of plants, geographical changes in the height, depth, and extent of land and sea, some or all of these combined, have given rise, in a vast series of years, to the annihilation, not only of many large mammalia, but to the disappearance of the Cyrena fluminalis, once common in the rivers of Europe, and to the different range or relative abundance of other shells which we find in the European drifts.

That the growing power of Man may have lent its aid as the destroying cause of many Post-pliocene species, must, however, be granted; yet, before the introduction of fire-arms, or even the use of improved weapons of stone, it seems more wonderful that the aborigines were able to hold their own against the cave-lion, hyæna, and wild bull, and to cope with such enemies, than that they failed to bring about their speedy extinction.

It is already clear that Man was contemporary in Europe with two species of elephant, E. primigenius and E. antiquus, two, also, of rhinoceros, R. tichorhinus and R. hemitœcus (Falc.), at least one species of hippopotamus, the cave-bear, cave-lion, and cave-hyæna, various bovine, equine, and cervine animals now extinct, and many smaller carnivora, rodentia, and insectivora. While these were slowly passing away, the musk buffalo, reindeer, and other arctic species, which have survived to our times, were retreating northwards, from the valleys of the Thames and Seine, to their present more arctic haunts.

The human skeletons of the Belgian caverns of times coeval with the mammoth and other extinct mammalia, do not betray any signs of a marked departure in their structure, whether of skull or limb, from the modern standard of certain living races of the human family. As to the remarkable Neanderthal skeleton (Ch. V. p. 75), it is at present too isolated and exceptional, and its age too uncertain, to warrant us in relying on its abnormal and ape-like characters, as bearing on the question whether the farther back we trace Man into the past, the more we shall find him approach in bodily conformation to those species of the anthropoid quadrumana which are most akin to him in structure.

In the descriptions already given of the geographical changes which the British Isles have undergone since the commencement of the glacial period (as illustrated by several maps, pp. 276–279), it has been shown that there must have been a free communication by land between the Continent and these islands, and between the several islands themselves, within the Post-pliocene epoch, in order to account for the Germanic fauna and flora having migrated into every part of the area, as well as for the Scandinavian plants and animals to have retreated into the higher mountains. During some part of the Post-pliocene ages, the large pachyderms and accompanying beasts of prey, now extinct, wandered from the Continent to England; but whether the junction of France and any part of the British Isles was as late as the period of the gravels of St. Acheul, or the era of those engulfed rivers which, in the basin of the Meuse, near Liége, swept into many a rent and cavern the bones of Man and of the mammoth and cave-bear, is still doubtful. There have been vast geographical revolutions since the times alluded to, and oscillations of land, during which the English Channel, which can be shown by the Pagham erratics, and the old Brighton beach (p. 280), to be of very ancient origin, may have been more than once laid dry and again submerged since it originated. During some one of these phases, Man may have crossed over, whether by land or in canoes, or even on the ice of a frozen sea (as Mr. Prestwich has hinted), for the winters of the period of the higher level gravels of the valley of the Somme were intensely cold.

The primitive people, who coexisted with the elephant and rhinoceros in the valley of the Ouse at Bedford, and who made use of flint tools of the Amiens type, certainly inhabited part of England which had already emerged from the waters of the glacial sea, and the fabricators of the flint tools of Hoxne, in Suffolk, were also, as we have seen, post-glacial. We may likewise presume, that the people of post-pliocene date, who have left their memorials in the valley of the Thames, were of corresponding antiquity, posterior to the boulder clay, but anterior to the time when the rivers of that region had settled into their present channels.

The vast distance of time which separated the origin of the higher and lower level gravels of the valley of the Somme, both of them rich in flint implements of similar shape (although those of oval form predominate in the newer gravels), leads to the conclusion that the state of the arts in those early times remained stationary for almost indefinite periods. There may, however, have been different degrees of civilisation, and in the art of fabricating flint tools, of which we cannot easily detect the signs in the first age of stone, and some contemporary tribes may have been considerably in advance of others. Those hunters, for example, who feasted on the rhinoceros and buried their dead with funeral rites at Aurignac, may have been less barbarous than the savages of St. Acheul, as some of their weapons and utensils have been thought to imply. To a European who looks down from a great eminence on the products of the humble arts of the aborigines of all times and countries, the knives and arrows of the Red Indian of North America, the hatchets of the native Australian, the tools found in the ancient Swiss lake-dwellings, or those of the Danish kitchen-middens and of St. Acheul, seem nearly all alike in rudeness, and very uniform in general character. The slowness of the progress of the arts of savage life is manifested by the fact, that the earlier instruments of bronze were modelled on the exact plan of the stone tools of the preceding age, although such shapes would never have been chosen, had metals been known from the first. The reluctance or incapacity of savage tribes to adopt new inventions, has been shown in the East, by their continuing to this day to use the same stone implements as their ancestors, after that mighty empires, where the use of metals in the arts was well known, had flourished for three thousand years in their neighbourhood.

We see in our own times, that the rate of progress in the arts and sciences proceeds in a geometrical ratio as knowledge increases, and so, when we carry back our retrospect into the past, we must be prepared to find the signs of retardation augmenting in a like geometrical ratio; so that the progress of a thousand years at a remote period, may correspond to that of a century in modern times, and in ages still more remote Man would more and more resemble the brutes in that attribute which causes one generation exactly to imitate in all its ways the generation which preceded it.

The extent to which even a considerably advanced state of civilisation may become fixed and stereotyped for ages, is the wonder of Europeans who travel in the East. One of my friends declared to me, that whenever the natives expressed to him a wish 'that he might live a thousand years,' the idea struck him as by no means extravagant, seeing that if he were doomed to sojourn for ever among them, he could only hope to exchange in ten centuries as many ideas, and to witness as much progress, as he could do at home in half a century.

It has sometimes happened that one nation has been conquered by another less civilised though more warlike, or that, during social and political revolutions, people have retrograded in knowledge. In such cases, the traditions of earlier ages, or of some higher and more educated caste which has been destroyed, may give rise to the notion of degeneracy from a primeval state of superior intelligence, or of science supernaturally communicated. But had the original stock of mankind been really endowed with such superior intellectual powers, and with inspired knowledge, and had possessed the same improvable nature as their posterity, the point of advancement which they would have reached ere this would have been immeasurably higher. We cannot ascertain at present the limits, whether of the beginning or the end, of the first stone period, when Man coexisted with the extinct mammalia, but that it was of great duration we cannot doubt. During those ages there would have been time for progress of which we can scarcely form a conception, and very different would have been the character of the works of art which we should now be endeavouring to interpret,—those relics which we are now disinterring from the old gravel-pits of St. Acheul, or from the Liége caves. In them, or in the upraised bed of the Mediterranean, on the south coast of Sardinia, instead of the rudest pottery or flint tools, so irregular in form as to cause the unpractised eye to doubt whether they afford unmistakable evidence of design, we should now be finding sculptured forms, surpassing in beauty the master-pieces of Phidias or Praxiteles; lines of buried railways or electric telegraphs, from which the best engineers of our day might gain invaluable hints; astronomical instruments and microscopes of more advanced construction than any known in Europe, and other indications of perfection in the arts and sciences, such as the nineteenth century has not yet witnessed. Still farther would the triumphs of inventive genius be found to have been carried, when the later deposits, now assigned to the ages of bronze and iron, were formed. Vainly should we be straining our imaginations to guess the possible uses and meaning of such relics—machines, perhaps, for navigating the air or exploring the depths of the ocean, or for calculating arithmetical problems, beyond the wants or even the conception of living mathematicians.

The opinion entertained generally by the classical writers of Greece and Rome, that Man in the first stage of his existence was but just removed from the brutes, is faithfully expressed by Horace in his celebrated lines, which begin—

Quum prorepserunt primis animalia terris.—Sat., lib. i. 3, 99.

The picture of transmutation given in these verses, however severe and contemptuous the strictures lavishly bestowed on it by Christian commentators, accords singularly with the train of thought which the modern doctrine of progressive development has encouraged.

'When animals,' he says, 'first crept forth from the newly formed earth, a dumb and filthy herd, they fought for acorns and lurking-places with their nails and fists, then with clubs, and at last with arms, which, taught by experience, they had forged. They then invented names for things, and words to express their thoughts, after which they began to desist from war, to fortify cities, and enact laws.' They who in later times have embraced a similar theory, have been led to it by no deference to the opinions of their pagan predecessors, but rather in spite of very strong prepossessions in favour of an opposite hypothesis, namely, that of the superiority of their original progenitors, of whom they believe themselves to be the corrupt and degenerate descendants.

So far as they are guided by palæontology, they arrive at this result by an independent course of reasoning; but they have been conducted partly to the same goal as the ancients, by ethnological considerations common to both, or by reflecting in what darkness the infancy of every nation is enveloped, and that true history and chronology are the creation, as it were, of yesterday. Thus the first Olympiad is generally regarded as the earliest date on which we can rely, in the past annals of mankind, only 772 years before the Christian era.

When we turn from historical records to ancient monuments and inscriptions, none of them seem to claim a higher antiquity than about fifteen centuries, B.C. Those now extant of Rome, Etruria, Greece, Judæa, and Assyria, carry us back no farther into the history of past ages than the temples, obelisks, cities, tombs, and pyramids of Egypt, and the exact date of these last, after they have been studied with so much patience and sagacity for centuries, remains uncertain and obscure. Nevertheless, by showing the advanced point which the civilisation of mankind had reached in the valley of the Nile, in times which were regarded by the Greeks, more than two thousand years ago, as lost in the night of ages, we may form some estimate of the minimum of time which a people such as the Egyptians must have required to emerge slowly from primeval barbarism, and reach, long before the first Olympiad, so high a degree of power and civilisation.

Sir George Cornewall Lewis, in his recent 'Historical Survey of the Astronomy of the Ancients,'[3] says, that 'taking into consideration all the evidence respecting the buildings and great works of Egypt extant in the time of Herodotus, we may come to the conclusion that there is no sufficient ground for placing them at a date anterior to the building of the temple of Solomon, or 1012, B.C.' The same author has reminded us that Homer, in the Iliad, speaks of 'Egyptian Thebes, with its hundred gates, through each of which two hundred chariots went forth to battle,' and that we may form an idea of the size which the great poet intended to ascribe to Thebes in Egypt, from the fact that Thebes in Bœotia was supposed to have only seven gates. Homer is believed to have flourished about eight centuries before the Christian era. At so early a period, therefore, the magnificence of Thebes had attracted the attention of the Greeks. But in the opinion of Egyptologists, there were great cities of still older date than Thebes; as, for example, Memphis, which, from the names of the kings on the oldest monuments now extant there as compared with those in Thebes, is inferred to go back to remoter times. As to the speculations of Aristotle, in his 'Meteorics' (1, 14), that Memphis was probably the less ancient of the two, because the ground on which it stood was nearer the Mediterranean, and would therefore, at a later period, be first redeemed from a watery and marshy state, this argument, if it were available, would give an extremely high antiquity to both cities, seeing the small progress which the delta and alluvial deposits of the Nile have made in the last two or three thousand years. It is only in bays like that of Menzaleh, that any great amount of new land has been gained, the general advance of the delta being checked by a strong current of the Mediterranean, which, running from the west, sweeps eastward the sediment brought down by the great river, and prevents the land from encroaching farther on the sea. The slow subsidence also of the land is another cause which checks the advance of the delta, and the raising and desiccation of the inland country.

Aristotle remarks, that as Homer does not mention Memphis, the city either had no existence in the time of the poet, or was less considerable than Thebes.

This observation is no doubt just, so far as regards the comparative splendour of the two cities, the one the metropolis of Upper and the other of Lower Egypt in former times. But it has no bearing whatever on the question of the existence of Memphis, for Thebes is only alluded to incidentally as the grandest city known to Homer. Achilles is made to exclaim, 'Not though you were to offer me the wealth of Egyptian Thebes, with its hundred gates,' &c. &c., 'would I stir;'[4] and the allusion to Thebes in the Odyssey is equally a passing one.[5] If a work like Strabo's 'Geography,' compiled in the days of Homer, had come down to us, and Thebes had been fully described without any mention being made of Memphis, we might then have inferred the non-existence of the latter city at that period.

Great cities, says Sir G. C. Lewis, and temples, and pyramids may be erected during a small number of centuries, when despotic monarchs can command the services of large armies in peace, and some Oriental monarchs are known in historical times to have been possessed with a mania for constructing huge edifices to please their own fancies. But making every allowance for such occasional displays of caprice and magnificence, we cannot contemplate the average size and number of the pyramids now extant (upwards of forty large and small), to say nothing of the monuments and inscriptions, without supposing them to have been the work of a long succession of generations. Long before the time of Homer, when Thebes had already attained such wealth and consequence, an indigenous civilisation must have been slowly matured, with its peculiar forms of worship, splendid religious ceremonial, the practice of embalming the dead, a peculiar style of sculpture and architecture, hieroglyphics, and the custom of embanking the great river to prevent the sites of towns and cities from being overflowed by the annual inundation.

In the temples are found pictorial representations of battles and sieges, processions in which trophies are carried and prisoners led captive; and if it be true, as Sir G. C. Lewis contends, that throughout the historical period the Egyptians were a peaceful and never a conquering people,[6] the wars to which these monuments would then refer must be so ancient as to confer on the Egyptians far higher claims to antiquity than those advanced by Bunsen and Lepsius.

Nevertheless, geologically speaking, and in reference to the date of the first age of stone, these records of the valley of the Nile may be called extremely modern. Wherever excavations have been made into the Nile mud underlying the foundations of Egyptian cities, as, for example, sixty feet below the peristyle of the obelisk of Heliopolis, and generally in the alluvial plains of the Nile, the bones met with belong to living species of quadrupeds, such as the camel, dromedary, dog, ox, and pig, without, as yet, the association in any single instance of the teeth or bone of a lost species.

In like manner in all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, whether in Algeria, Spain, the south of France, Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, or the islands of the Mediterranean generally, wherever the bones of extinct mammalia, such as the elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus, have been found, it is not in the modern deltas of rivers or in the alluvial plains, now overflowed when the waters are high, that such fossil remains present themselves, but in situations corresponding to the ancient gravels of the valley of the Somme, in which the bones of the mammoth and the oldest type of flint implements occur.

If the Egyptian monarch, therefore, who sent Hanno to circumnavigate Africa, or some earlier king than he, had commanded his admiral to sail past the Pillars of Hercules, and then northwards as far as he could penetrate, leaving, before he set out on his return, some monument to commemorate to after ages the Ultima Thule of his expedition at the most northern point reached by him, and if we had now discovered an obelisk of granite left by him at that era on the platform of St. Acheul, near Amiens, its foundations might well have occupied the precise position which the Gallo-Roman tombs now hold, as shown in fig. 21 a (p. 138). If they had dug deep enough to exhume some teeth of the elephant, they might easily have seen that they differed from the teeth of their African species, and were distinct, like many other accompanying bones, from the animals then inhabiting the valley of the Somme, or that of the Nile. The flint implements would then have lain buried in the old gravel as now, and the only geological distinction between those times and ours would be a diminished thickness of peat bordering the Somme, the upper layers of which would not contain, as now, Roman antiquities, and some beds below, in which Celtic hatchets now occur, would have been wanting; but, with this slight exception, the valley would have worn the same aspect as at the era when the Romans subdued Gaul.

  1. Troyon, Habitations lacustres. Lausanne, 1860.
  2. A molar of E. primigenius, in a very fresh state, in the museum at Torquay, believed to have been washed up by the waves of the sea out of the submerged mass of vegetable matter at the extremity of the valley in which Tor Abbey stands, is the best case I have seen.
  3. London, 1862, p. 440.
  4. Iliad, ix. 381.
  5. Odyssey, iv. 127.
  6. Lewis, Historical Survey. &c., p. 351.