Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man/Chapter 4




HAVING hitherto considered those formations in which both the fossil shells and the mammalia are of living species, we may now turn our attention to those of older date, in which the shells being all recent, some of the accompanying mammalia are extinct, or belong to species not known to have lived within the times of history or tradition.

Discoveries of MM. Tournal and Christol in 1828, in the South of France.

In the Principles of Geology, when treating of the fossil remains found in alluvium, and the mud of caverns, I gave an account in 1832 of the investigations made by MM. Tournal and Christol in the South of France.[1]

M. Tournal stated in his memoir, that in the cavern of Bize, in the department of the Aude, he had found human bones and teeth, together with fragments of rude pottery, in the same mud and breccia cemented by stalagmite in which land-shells of living species were embedded, and the bones of mammalia, some of extinct, others of recent species. The human bones were declared by his fellow-labourer, M. Marcel de Serres, to be in the same chemical condition as those of the accompanying quadrupeds.[2]

Speaking of these fossils of the Bize cavern five years later, M. Tournal observed, that they could not be referred, as some suggested, to a 'diluvial catastrophe,' for they evidently had not been washed in suddenly by a transient flood, but must have been introduced gradually, together with the enveloping mud and pebbles, at successive periods.[3]

M. Christol, who was engaged at the same time in similar researches in another part of Languedoc, published an account of them a year later, in which he described some human bones, as occurring in the cavern of Pondres, near Nismes, in the same mud with the bones of an extinct hyæna and rhinoceros.[4] The cavern was in this instance filled up to the roof with mud and gravel, in which fragments of two kinds of pottery were detected, the lowest and rudest near the bottom of the cave, below the level of the extinct mammalia.

It has never been questioned that the hyæna and rhinoceros found by M. Christol were of extinct species; but whether the animals enumerated by M. Tournal might not all of them be referred to quadrupeds which are known to have been living in Europe in the historical period seems doubtful. They were said to consist of a stag, an antelope, and a goat, all named by M. Marcel de Serres as new; but the majority of paleontologists do not agree with this opinion. Still it is true, as M. Lartet remarks, that the fauna of the cavern of Bize must be of very high antiquity, as shown by the presence, not only of the Lithuanian aurochs (Bison europæus), but also of the reindeer, which has not been an inhabitant of the South of France in historical times, and which, in that country, is almost everywhere associated, whether in ancient alluvium or in the mud of caverns, with the mammoth.

In my work before cited [5], I stated that M. Desnoyers, an observer equally well versed in geology and archæology, had disputed the conclusion arrived at by MM. Tournal and Christol, that the fossil rhinoceros, hyæna, bear, and other lost species, had once been inhabitants of France contemporaneously with man. 'The flint hatchets and arrow-heads' he said, 'and the pointed bones and coarse pottery of many French and English caves, agree precisely in character with those found in the tumuli, and under the dolmens (rude altars of unhewn stone) of the primitive inhabitants of Gaul, Britain, and Germany. The human bones, therefore, in the caves which are associated with such fabricated objects, must belong not to antediluvian periods, but to a people in the same stage of civilization as those who constructed the tumuli and altars.'

'In the Gaulish monuments,' he added, 'we find, together with the objects of industry above mentioned, the bones of wild and domestic animals of species now inhabiting Europe, particularly of deer, sheep, wild boars, dogs, horses, and oxen. This fact has been ascertained in Quercy, and other provinces; and it is supposed by antiquaries that the animals in question were placed beneath the Celtic altars in memory of sacrifices offered to the Gaulish divinity Hesus, and in the tombs to commemorate funeral repasts, and also from a superstition prevalent among savage nations, which induces them to lay up provisions for the manes of the dead in a future life. But in none of these ancient monuments have any bones been found of the elephant, rhinoceros, hyæna, tiger, and other quadrupeds, such as are found in caves, which might certainly have been expected, had these species continued to flourish at the time that this part of Gaul was inhabited by man.'[6]

After giving no small weight to the arguments of M. Desnoyers, and the writings of Dr. Buckland on the same subject, and visiting myself several caves in Germany, I came to the opinion that the human bones mixed with those of extinct animals, in osseous breccias and cavern mud, in different parts of Europe, were probably not coeval. The caverns having been at one period the dens of wild beasts, and having served at other times as places of human habitation, worship, sepulture, concealment, or defence, one might easily conceive that the bones of man and those of animals, which were strewed over the floors of subterranean cavities, or which had fallen into tortuous rents connecting them with the surface, might, when swept away by floods, be mingled in one promiscuous heap in the same ossiferous mud or breccia.[7]

That such intermixtures have really taken place in some caverns, and that geologists have occasionally been deceived, and have assigned to one and the same period fossils which had really been introduced at successive times, will readily be conceded. But of late years we have obtained convincing proofs, as we shall see in the sequel, that the mammoth, and many other extinct mammalian species very common in caves, occur also in undisturbed alluvium, embedded in such a manner with works of art, as to leave no room for doubt that man and the mammoth coexisted. Such discoveries have led me, and other geologists, to reconsider the evidence previously derived from caves brought forward in proof of the high antiquity of man. With a view of re-examining this evidence, I have lately explored several caverns in Belgium and other countries, and re-read the principal memoirs and treatises treating of the fossil remains preserved in them, the results of which inquiries I shall now proceed to lay before the reader.

Researches, in 1833–1834, of Dr. Schmerling in the Caverns near Liége.

The late Dr. Schmerling of Liege, a skillful anatomist and paleontologist, after devoting several years to the exploring of the numerous ossiferous caverns which border the valleys of the Meuse and its tributaries, published two volumes, descriptive of the contents of more than forty caverns. One of these volumes consisted of an atlas of plates, illustrative of the fossil bones.[8]

Many of the caverns had never before been entered by scientific observers, and their floors were encrusted with unbroken stalagmite. At a very early stage of his investigations, Dr. Schmerling found the bones of man so rolled and scattered, as to preclude all idea of their having been intentionally buried on the spot. He also remarked that they were of the same colour, and in the same condition as to the amount of animal matter contained in them, as those of the accompanying animals, some of which, like the cave-bear, hyæna, elephant, and rhinoceros, were extinct; others, like the wild cat, beaver, wild boar, roe-deer, wolf, and hedgehog, still extant. The fossils were lighter than fresh bones, except such as had their pores filled with carbonate of lime, in which case they were often much heavier. The human remains of most frequent occurrence were teeth detached from the jaw, and the carpal, metacarpal, tarsal, metatarsal, and phalangial bones separated from the rest of the skeleton. The corresponding bones of the cave-bear, the most abundant of the accompanying mammalia, were also found in the Liége caverns more commonly than any others, and in the same scattered condition. Occasionally, some of the long bones of mammalia were observed to have been first broken across, and then reunited or cemented again by stalagmite, as they lay on the floor of the cave.

No gnawed bones nor any coprolites were found by Schmerling. He therefore inferred that the caverns of the province of Liége had not been the dens of wild beasts, but that their organic and inorganic contents had been swept into them by streams communicating with the surface of the country. The bones, he suggested, may often have been rolled in the beds of such streams before they reached their underground destination. To the same agency the introduction of many land-shells dispersed through the cave-mud was ascribed, such as Helix nemoralis, H. lapicida, H. pomatia, and others of living species. Mingled with such shells, in some rare instances, the bones of fresh-water fish, and of a snake (Coluber), as well as of several birds, were detected.

The occurrence here and there of bones in a very perfect state, or of several bones belonging to the same skeleton in natural juxtaposition, and having all their most delicate apophyses uninjured, while many accompanying bones in the same breccia were rolled, broken, or decayed, was accounted for by supposing that portions of carcasses were sometimes floated in during floods while still clothed with their flesh. No example was discovered of an entire skeleton, not even of one of the smaller mammalia, the bones of which are usually the least injured.

The incompleteness of each skeleton was especially ascertained in regard to the human subjects, Dr. Schmerling being careful, whenever a fragment of such presented itself, to explore the cavern himself, and see whether any other bones of the same skeleton could be found. In the Engis cavern, distant about eight miles to the south-west of Liége, on the left bank of the Meuse, the remains of at least three human individuals were disinterred. The skull of one of these, that of a young person, was embedded by the side of a mammoth's tooth. It was entire, but so fragile, that nearly all of it fell to pieces during its extraction. Another skull, that of an adult individual (see fig. 2, p. 81), and the only one preserved by Dr. Schmerling in a sufficient state of integrity to enable the anatomist to speculate on the race to which it belonged, was buried five feet deep in a breccia, in which the tooth of a rhinoceros, several bones of a horse, and some of the reindeer, together with some ruminants, occurred. This skull, now in the museum of the University of Liége, is figured in Chap. V., where further observations will be offered on its anatomical character, after a fuller account of the contents of the Liége caverns has been laid before the reader.

On the right bank of the Meuse, on the opposite side of the river to Engis, is the cavern of Engihoul. Both were observed to abound greatly in the bones of extinct animals mingled with those of man; but with this difference, that whereas in the Engis cave there were several human crania and very few other bones, in Engihoul there occurred numerous bones of the extremities belonging to at least three human individuals, and only two small fragments of a cranium. The like capricious distribution held good in other caverns, especially with reference to the cave-bear, the most frequent of the extinct mammalia. Thus, for example in the cave of Chokier, skulls of the bear were few, and other parts of the skeleton abundant, whereas in several other caverns these proportions were exactly reversed, while at Goffontaine skulls of the bear and other parts of the skeleton were found in their natural numerical proportions. Speaking generally, it may be said that human bones, where any were met with, occurred at all depths in the cave-mud and gravel, sometimes above and sometimes below those of the bear, elephant, rhinoceros, hyæna, &c.

Some rude flint implements of the kind commonly called flint knives or flakes, of a triangular form in the cross section (as in fig. 14, p. 118), were found by Schmerling dispersed generally through the cave-mud, but he was too much engrossed with his osteological inquiries to collect them diligently. He preserved some few of them, however, which I have seen in the museum at Liege. He also discovered in the cave of Chokier, two and a half miles south-west from Liége, a polished and jointed needle-shaped bone, with a hole pierced obliquely through it at the base; such a cavity, he observed, as had never given passage to an artery. This instrument was embedded in the same matrix with the remains of a rhinoceros.[9]

Another cut bone and several artificially shaped flints were found in the Engis cave, near the human skulls before alluded to. Schmerling observed, and we shall have to refer to the fact in the sequel (Chap. VIII.), that although in some forty fossiliferous caves explored by him human bones were the exception, yet these flint implements were universal, and he added that 'none of them could have been subsequently introduced, being precisely in the same position as the remains of the accompanying animals.' 'I therefore,' he continues, 'attach great importance to their presence; for even if I had not found the human bones under conditions entirely favourable to their being considered as belonging to the antediluvian epoch, proofs of man's existence would still have been supplied by the cut bones and worked flints.'[10]

Dr. Schmerling, therefore, had no hesitation in concluding from the various facts ascertained by him, that man once lived in the Liége district contemporaneously with the cave-bear, and several other extinct species of quadrupeds. But he was much at a loss when he attempted to invent a theory to explain the former state of the fauna of the region now drained by the Meuse; for he shared the notion, then very prevalent among naturalists, that the mammoth and the hyæna[11] were beasts of a warmer climate than that now proper to Western Europe. In order to account for the presence of such 'tropical species,' he was half-inclined to imagine that they had been transported by a flood from some distant region; then again he raised the question whether they might not have been washed out of an older alluvium, which may have pre-existed in the neighbourhood. This last hypothesis was directly at variance with his own statements, that the remains of the mammoth and hyæna were identical in appearance, colour, and chemical condition with those of the bear and other associated fossil animals, none of which exhibited signs of having been previously enveloped in any dissimilar matrix. Another enigma which led Schmerling astray in some of his geological speculations was the supposed presence of the agouti, a South-American rodent, 'proper to the torrid zone.' My friend M. Lartet, guided by Schmerling's figures of the teeth of this species, suggests, and I have little doubt with good reason, that they appertain to the porcupine, a genus found fossil in post-pliocene deposits of certain caverns in the south of France.

In the year 1833, I passed through Liége, on my way to the Rhine, and conversed with Dr. Schmerling, who showed me his splendid collection, and when I expressed some incredulity respecting the alleged antiquity of the fossil human bones, he pointedly remarked, that if I doubted their having been contemporaneous with the bear or rhinoceros, on the ground of man being a species of more modern date, I ought equally to doubt the coexistence of all the other living species, such as the red deer, roe, wild cat, wild boar, wolf, fox, weasel, beaver, hare, rabbit, hedgehog, mole, dormouse, field-mouse, water-rat, shrew, and others, the bones of which he had found scattered everywhere indiscriminately through the same mud with the extinct quadrupeds. The year after this conversation I cited Schmerling's opinions, and the facts bearing on the antiquity of man, in the 3rd edition of my Principles of Geology (p. 161, 1834), and in succeeding editions, without pretending to call in question their trustworthiness, but at the same time without giving them the weight which I now consider they were entitled to. He had accumulated ample evidence to prove that man had been introduced into the earth at an earlier period than geologists were then willing to believe.

One positive fact, it will be said, attested by so competent a witness, ought to have outweighed any amount of negative testimony, previously accumulated, respecting the non-occurrence elsewhere of human remains in formations of the like antiquity. In reply, I can only plead that a discovery which seems to contradict the general tenor of previous investigations is naturally received with much hesitation. To have undertaken in 1832, with a view of testing its truth, to follow the Belgian philosopher through every stage of his observations and proofs, would have been no easy task even for one well-skilled in geology and osteology. To be let down, as Schmerling was, day after day, by a rope tied to a tree, so as to slide to the foot of the first opening of the Engis cave,[12] where the best-preserved human skulls were found; and, after thus gaining access to the first subterranean gallery, to creep on all fours through a contracted passage leading to larger chambers, there to superintend by torchlight, week after week and year after year, the workmen who were breaking through the stalagmitic crust as hard as marble, in order to remove piece by piece the underlying bone-breccia nearly as hard; to stand for hours with one's feet in the mud, and with water dripping from the roof on one's head, in order to mark the position and guard against the loss of each single bone of a skeleton; and at length, after finding leisure, strength, and courage for all these operations, to look forward, as the fruits of one's labour, to the publication of unwelcome intelligence, opposed to the prepossessions of the scientific as well as of the unscientific public;—when these circumstances are taken into account, we need scarcely wonder, not only that a passing traveller failed to stop and scrutinise the evidence, but that a quarter of a century should have elapsed before even the neighbouring professors of the University of Liége came forth to vindicate the truthfulness of their indefatigable and clear-sighted countryman.

In 1860, when I revisited Liége, twenty-six years after my interview with Schmerling, I found that several of the caverns described by him had in the interval been annihilated. Not a vestige, for example, of the caves of Engis, Chokier, and Goffontaine remained. The calcareous stone, in the heart of which the cavities once existed, had been quarried away, and removed bodily for building and lime-making. Fortunately, a great part of the Engihoul cavern, situated on the right bank of the Meuse, was still in the same state as when Schmerling delved into it in 1831, and drew from it the bones of three human skeletons. I determined, therefore, to examine it, and was so fortunate as to obtain the assistance of a zealous naturalist of Liége, Professor Malaise, who accompanied me to the cavern, where we engaged some workmen to break through the crust of stalagmite, so that we could search for bones in the undisturbed earth beneath. Bones and teeth of the cave-bear were soon found, and several other extinct quadrupeds which Schmerling has enumerated. My companion, continuing the work perseveringly for weeks after my departure, succeeded at length in extracting from the same deposit, at the depth of two feet below the crust of stalagmite, three fragments of a human skull, and two perfect lower jaws with teeth, all associated in such a manner with the bones of bears, large pachyderms, and ruminants, and so precisely resembling these in colour and state of preservation, as to leave no doubt in his mind that man was contemporary with the extinct animals. Professor Malaise has given figures of the human remains in the bulletin of the royal academy of Belgium for 1860.[13]

The rock in which the Liége caverns occur belongs generally to the carboniferous or mountain limestone, in some few cases only to the older Devonian formation. Whenever the work of destruction has not gone too far, magnificent sections, sometimes 200 and 300 feet in height, are exposed to view. They confirm Schmerling's doctrine, that most of the materials, organic and inorganic, now filling the caverns, have been washed into them through narrow vertical or oblique fissures, the upper extremities of which are choked up with soil and gravel, and would scarcely ever be discoverable at the surface, especially in so wooded a country. Among the sections obtained by quarrying, one of the finest which I saw was in the beautiful valley of Fond du Forêt, above Chaudefontaine, not far from the village of Magnée, where one of the rents communicating with the surface has been filled up to the brim with rounded and half-rounded stones, angular pieces of limestone and shale, besides sand and mud, together with bones, chiefly of the cave-bear. Connected with this main duct, which is from one to two feet in width, are several minor ones, each from one to three inches wide, also extending to the upper country or table-land, and choked up with similar materials. They are inclined at angles of 30° and 40°, their walls being generally coated with stalactite, pieces of which have here and there been broken off and mingled with the contents of the rents, thus helping to explain why we so often meet with detached pieces of that substance in the mud and breccia of the Belgian caves. It is not easy to conceive that a solid horizontal floor of hard stalagmite should, after its formation, be broken up by running water; but when the walls of steep and tortuous rents, serving as feeders to the principal fissures and to inferior vaults and galleries are encrusted with stalagmite, some of the incrustation may readily be torn up when heavy fragments of rock are hurried by a flood through passages inclined at angles of 30° or 40°.

The decay and decomposition of the fossil bones seem to have been arrested in most of the caves by a constant supply of water charged with carbonate of lime, which dripped from the roofs while the caves were becoming gradually filled up. By similar agency the mud, sand, and pebbles were usually consolidated.

The following explanation of this phenomenon has been suggested by the eminent chemist Liebig. On the surface of Franconia, where the limestone abounds in caverns, is a fertile soil in which vegetable matter is continually decaying. This mould or humus, being acted on by moisture and air, evolves carbonic acid, which is dissolved by rain. The rain-water, thus impregnated, permeates the porous limestone, dissolves a portion of it, and afterwards, when the excess of carbonic acid evaporates in the caverns, parts with the calcareous matter and forms stalactite. So long as water flows, even occasionally, through a suite of caverns, no layer of pure stalagmite can be produced; hence the formation of such a layer, is generally an event posterior in date to the cessation of the old system of drainage, an event which might be brought about by an earthquake causing new fissures, or by the river wearing its way down to a lower level, and thenceforth running in a new channel.

In all the subterranean cavities, more than forty in number, explored by Schmerling, he only observed one cave, namely that of Chokier, where there were two regular layers of stalagmite, divided by fossiliferous cave-mud. In this instance, we may suppose that the stream, after flowing for a long period at one level, cut its way down to an inferior suite of caverns, and, flowing through them for centuries, choked them up with debris; after which it rose once more to its original higher level: just as in the mountain limestone district of Yorkshire some rivers, habitually absorbed by a 'swallow hole,' are occasionally unable to discharge all their water through it; in which case they rise and rush through a higher subterranean passage, which was at some former period in the regular line of drainage, as is often attested by the fluviatile gravel still contained in it.

There are now in the basin of the Meuse, not far from Liége, several examples of engulfed brooks and rivers: some of them, like that of St. Hadelin, east of Chaudefontaine, which reappears after an underground course of a mile or two; others, like the Vesdre, which is lost near Goffontaine, and after a time re-emerges; some, again, like the torrent near Magnée, which, after entering a cave, never again comes to the day. In the season of floods such streams are turbid at their entrance, but clear as a mountain-spring where they issue again; so that they must be slowly filling up cavities in the interior with mud, sand, pebbles, snail-shells, and the bones of animals which may be carried away during floods.

The manner in which some of the large thigh and shank bones of the rhinoceros and other pachyderms are rounded, while some of the smaller bones of the same creatures, and of the hyæna, bear, and horse, are reduced to pebbles, shows that they were often transported for some distance in the channels of torrents, before they found a resting-place.

When we desire to reason or speculate on the probable antiquity of human bones found fossil in such situations as the caverns near Liége, there are two classes of evidence to which we may appeal for our guidance. First, considerations of the time required to allow of many species of carnivorous and herbivorous animals, which flourished in the cave period, becoming first scarce, and then so entirely extinct as we have seen that they had become before the era of the Danish peat and Swiss lake dwellings: secondly, the great number of centuries necessary for the conversion of the physical geography of the Liége district from its ancient to its present configuration; so many old underground channels, through which brooks and rivers flowed in the cave period, being now laid dry and choked up.

The great alterations which have taken place in the shape of the valley of the Meuse and some of its tributaries are often demonstrated by the abrupt manner in which the mouths of fossiliferous caverns open in the face of perpendicular precipices 200 feet or more in height above the present streams. There appears also, in many cases, to be such a correspondence in the openings of caverns on opposite sides of some of the valleys, both large and small, as to incline one to suspect that they originally belonged to a series of tunnels and galleries which were continuous before the present system of drainage came into play, or before the existing valleys were scooped out. Other signs of subsequent fluctuations are afforded by gravel containing elephant's bones at slight elevations above the Meuse and several of its tributaries. The loess also, in the suburbs and neighbourhood of Liége, occurring at various heights in patches lying at between 20 and 200 feet above the river, cannot be explained without supposing the filling up and re-excavation of the valleys at a period posterior to the washing in of the animal remains into most of the old caverns. It may be objected that, according to the present rate of change, no lapse of ages would suffice to bring about such revolutions in physical geography as we are here contemplating. This may be true. It is more than probable that the rate of change was once far more active than it is now. Some of the nearest volcanoes, namely, those of the Lower Eifel about sixty miles to the eastward, seem to have been in eruption in post-pliocene times, and may perhaps have been connected and coeval with repeated risings or sinkings of the land in the basin of the Meuse. It might be said, with equal truth, that according to the present course of events, no series of ages would suffice to reproduce such an assemblage of cones and craters as those of the Eifel (near Andernach for example); and yet some of them may be of sufficiently modern date to belong to the era when man was contemporary with the mammoth and rhinoceros in the basin of the Meuse.

But, although we may be unable to estimate the minimum of time required for the changes in physical geography above alluded to, we cannot fail to perceive that the duration of the period must have been very protracted, and that other ages of comparative inaction may have followed, separating the post-pliocene from the historical periods, and constituting an interval no less indefinite in its duration.

  1. 1st ed. vol. ii. ch. xiv., 1832; and 9th ed. p. 738, 1853.
  2. Annales des Sciences Naturelles, tom. xv. p. 348: 1828.
  3. Annales de Chimie et de Physique, p. 161: 1833.
  4. Christol, Notice sur les Ossements humains des Cavernes du Gard. Montpellier, 1829.
  5. Principles, 9th ed. p. 739.
  6. Desnoyers, Bulletin de la Société Géologique de France, tom. ii. p. 252; and article on Caverns, Dictionnaire Universelle d'Histoire Naturelle. Paris, 1845.
  7. Principles, 9th ed. p. 740.
  8. Recherches sur les Ossements fossiles découverts dans les Cavernes de a Province de Liége. Liége, 1833—1834.
  9. Schmerling, part ii. p. 177.
  10. Schmerling, part ii. p. 179.
  11. Ibid, part ii. pp. 70, 96.
  12. Schmerling, part i. p. 30.
  13. Tom. x. p. 546.